Are leaders born or made?
When you meet someone like Jennifer (Jen) Kirkpatrick, you’ll realize that in rare cases, it can be both.
From a young age, Jen knew she would be a leader.
In fact, when we asked what her high-school self would say to her now, she answered without hesitation.
“She would say: You always wanted to be in charge – damn straight!”
And in charge she is.
As the Vice President of Sales at Cisco Meraki, Jen oversees the company’s global sales organization and leads over 900 employees worldwide.
But in a career spanning over three decades, Jen also received guidance from people who were instrumental to her becoming the leader she is today.
We recently asked her to share her thoughts on leadership and key lessons for others.
Here’s what she told us.
Lesson 1: Trust as much as you lead.
Leading is as much about trusting as it is directing and instructing.
“As a senior executive, I empower my teams to run their business, but I make sure they know I am always a step away when they need me.”
The key, Jen emphasizes, is building a foundation of trust.
And this applies not only to work and productivity, but also your professional and personal growth.
“Trust your team, trust your people, and know that the more you collaborate across the different teams, the more you will be invited to all the parties.”
But never mistake trust for detachment.
“There’s a fine line between being a hands-off manager and being an absent leader.”
“Empowering others is a fine art. It’s about ensuring that my teams know they own their business but also being available to jump in and help at any time.”
And this foundation of trust becomes even more crucial as the number of people you manage grows.
“The bigger your teams, the more important it is to have a solid leadership team that has each other’s backs.”
Lesson 2: It’s not just about mentoring.
There’s an allure to being a leader that revolves around mentoring. But Jen warns that this can be misleading.
“I think people want to get into leadership to help mentor and grow others. And while that is part of the job, the job of a leader is more than mentoring.”
Jen says it’s the less glamorous, more thankless parts of the job that make up the meat of being a leader.
She rattles off a whole list:
“Leading by example, strategy and execution, cross-functional collaboration, admitting when I need help, building solid teams around me, thinking big but digging into the details when required – these are all huge parts of the job.”
Jen has noticed this reality surprises many people, but it’s something she feels people who step into leadership roles need to know.
Mentoring, Jen suggests, is a natural extension of being a leader, not the goal.
Lesson 3: You’re only as good as your team
Ambition and talent can only take you so far. If you want to maximize your potential as a leader, you need to work with the right people.
And this includes not just the people you manage, but also the people you surround yourself with – your teams in life.
Jen will be the first to tell you that she’s incredibly fortunate to have found the right people at Cisco, and, more recently, at Meraki.
“Meraki has a growth mindset and a start-up mentality. We’re focused on the people, the atmosphere, the inclusion and diversity. It’s a unique way of making a huge organization feel small.”
But what truly made her feel like she found her place in the company was when it supported her through some particularly difficult times.
“In 2012 when my husband got sick, Cisco was there for my family. Team members and leaders regularly called and checked on me and my family, making sure we were okay and if we needed anything.”
She recalls another memorable moment, this time with Meraki:
“When my husband was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2022, the Meraki team was unbelievable. Work was an amazing distraction, but my team stepped up and was so available to cover for me when I need to be a caregiver or when my husband needed me more than work that day.”
When you find a company that supports you professionally and personally, you know you’re in a good place to grow as a leader.
Lesson 4: Learn from other leaders – the good and the bad
As talented as Jen is, she credits much of her development as a leader to mentors who helped her understand what true leadership is.
“Early in my career at Cisco, I had a leader that taught me the value of the individual. He taught me to respect the person and remember that one-on-one phone calls and check-ins cannot be replaced.”
“People need to know their leader is genuine and cares.”
“He also taught me that just because something is not my way does not mean it’s wrong – it just means it’s different.”
“I learned that I needed to give my team their own space to fail. To guide them but allow them to learn and grow.”
“As I grew into my director role, I had another manager that taught me the value of getting out of my comfort zone. That reporting the ‘news’ was not enough. If I wanted to keep growing, I needed to report the news, give the why on the news, and then create and execute a plan on what I was going to do about it.”
But the lessons didn’t just come from people she admired and trusted.
“I have had leaders in my 30-year career that taught me who I did not want to become.”
“These were leaders that did not want to do the work, or leaders who micro-managed and hampered creativity.”
“I also saw leaders who understood that knowledge is power. But instead of being as transparent as possible, they kept their teams in the dark.”
Lesson 5: Be a voice for others
As she reflects on her long career, Jen understands the greater implications of her role as a top executive.
And the higher she goes, the farther the ripples of her success are.
“I believe that having a woman as a Vice President at Meraki is inspirational to other women around the world. We still have a lot of work to do in this space. But having a voice and not being afraid to sit at the table have an enormous impact!”
“I recently heard that a good portion of women in the industry still lack confidence and are afraid to use their voice. My hope is that I can help other women find their confidence.”