CEO Talent Champion:Gary Smith, Ciena Corporation

Explore this interview on evolving the employee experience for hybrid work.

This video and the following Q&A do not depict the entire interview.

The recent shift to hybrid work offers executive leaders a unique opportunity to evolve the employee experience. Ciena Corporation CEO Gary Smith highlights his organization’s approach to inclusion, as well as its new offerings of unlimited personal time off and companywide days of rest.

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Q&A With Gary Smith

Before taking the helm as CEO in 2001, Gary Smith was Ciena Corporation’s chief operating officer and head of sales. Prior to Ciena, he headed sales and marketing at Intelsat, as well as held global senior executive roles in several pioneering European communications companies, including Cray Communications Group and Tricom Communications PLC. He previously served as the lead outside director and chair of the Governance and Nominations Committee of Commvault, and also as the first independent appointed director for Avaya Corporation.

I will tell you that the most important thing in this business is people, people, people. Businesses are all about people. And I remember when I was a newly minted CEO, sage folks would tell me that. At one level I got it, of course. But I didn’t really get it.


I get it now. If you get the people thing right, all the rest of it follows. You know, it’s very simple: it’s getting the right team members with diversity of views and creating an environment where they feel that they can really contribute everything they have. 


And that’s really the role of the CEO, in my view, to create that: the right team with the right players; get the strategy right; and create that environment.


It occurred to us about a decade ago that we spent all this time and trouble as a technology company creating these product roadmaps, yet we didn’t have a roadmap for our people. You know: How are we going to create that environment? Who are the right kind of folks that we need? How are we going to get vibrancy for them in the business so that they can grow and develop? 

And so, today, we have a people roadmap — our people promise — and these are the elements that we’re focused on.

The whole move to hybrid working has probably been a considerable challenge. However, for us, we were somewhat fortunate in that, even going into the pandemic environment, our thinking was around more of a hybrid workforce anyway. In fact, we already had about 20% of our people work from home full-time. So, we were a little better equipped to make that quick transition.


As we’re now opening back up again, our people are making their own workstyle choices that are agreed on with their managers, and it’s encouraging to see people in a hybrid model. 

Most people will probably end up working two to three days a week in-person for collaboration; and I also think for social reasons. We’re all social animals to varying individual degrees. I think that social contact is super important at a personal level and also for real collaboration. You know, Zoom is great, but it’s not the same as human contact.

We’re very much a relationship-based company, even for a technology company. You have to build those contacts and relationships, which is really around a set of behaviors. The whole underpinning for the hybrid workplace, from our perspective, is really about trust and flexibility. I’ll say it differently: Treat people as you would wish to be treated; treat people like adults, and you know the rules. 


Additionally, we have unlimited PTO. We were one of the first companies to offer that level of flexibility, and we did it globally. This also helps as an underpinning of trust, and our results have been great. If you trust people, you get the same in return.

First of all, we’ve had times where we’ve just given everybody a day off or a few days off — around the company, same day. So, there’s no internal communication happening on that day. They don’t feel like they have to get to the phone or their email. We’ve done this as mid-year break as well as around the holidays and the end of the year.


Also, I’ve personally talked a lot more in the last two years around what I do to avoid burnout, and the executive leadership team has talked about that — a much more personal connection around what we do in our spare time and our hobbies, really making sure that folks understand it’s a holistic picture that you need to get to. You’re going to be a better contributor if you’ve got balance in your life.

You can’t control everything that goes on in society in all the countries that we operate in around the world. But I do feel strongly we should create an environment where we can control the behaviors in a very inclusive company. It’s about the right behaviors for inclusion so people can bring their whole self to work. We feel very strongly about that.


And you have to remember that in a large company — we have around 8,000 people — you need diversity of views. Not everybody’s going to be on the same page on any of these issues. So, it’s taking the politics out of it and really focusing on the humanitarian piece of it.

I remember a very experienced HR person counseling me early in my career — and it sounds a little harsh — but she said, ‘you know, you hire people for what they know, but you fire them for who they are.’ It took me a while to really figure that out. I thought it was pretty brutal, but I think it does kind of sum it up. You can normally figure out whether someone can do the job, right? I mean, they’re qualified for the job. What makes them successful is not just that. It's, what are they bringing to the party?


People are dynamic. They have ebbs and flows. You add one new team member and it can create, as we all know, a very different dynamic. And so, you constantly have to be making sure you have the blend right. You have vibrancy. You have new players coming up and new players coming in. And you’re also developing the players that you have. So, it’s always in motion.

It’s about creating the right kind of tools and environments, where you’re picking up on people’s potential. It’s not just what they’re doing for the business right now, but — and I think this is the most difficult thing — how do you identify potential? 


We’ve spent a lot of time making sure we have the right platforms and the right managers [who] are there to spot that. And also moving people around. I’m a huge fan of broadening out people’s experiences, because when you do that, they generally feel like they’re developing. 


I think about it as an organization that’s vibrant. You know, you have movement going on. You have people getting into new experiences, and they bring new ideas and diversity to that role that you might not have had before.

And yes, you have other things you need to do with your time. Of course, you have to set the strategy. You have to communicate out to the shareholders and the Street. You have all those things to do. But the most important thing, and the priority you should have, is people.

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