When it comes to business, Gary Smith believes there’s a tendency to over-complicate. Success and longevity of a company comes down to one thing: people.
Some are surprised to hear that claim from the president and CEO of a technology company that leverages its technology leadership and investment capacity to offer the most compelling portfolio in the market, and the most credible and robust roadmap for forward development.
“People ask, isn’t it really about the technology? And I say, “well, guess what? Who makes the technology, who keeps you at the front end of it? And the answer is it’s the people.”
Gary’s elevation to CEO coincided with the global telecommunications industry downturn in 2001. By sticking to the company’s “people-first, best-of-breed technology” core values, he helped transform Ciena from a niche business into a diversified global industry leader.
Back then, he says, “our competitors were all massive, no one thought we could compete. But we pursued a very different, very focused, long-term strategy to become the best in the world at what we do.”
Of his staff, he expects what you’d think: Tenacity. Honesty. Drive. And one more thing: Humanity.
“I always look for collaborative people, people who are willing to listen to opinions that are different from their own,” he says. “Part of my job is to provide a platform, so people are comfortable speaking up if they have a different point of view.”
Gary, who comes from a sales background, holds himself to the same standards. “I’m surrounded by people way smarter than me; we’ve got more PhDs around than you can shake a stick at,” he says. “The value I bring is not always on the technology side, but more often on relationships.”
The son of factory workers, Gary was raised in the industrial city of Birmingham, England, where rugby and photography were his passions. He put off college and ventured to London on his own at age 16, where he worked as a photographer and a bartender before taking a job selling telephone systems that kicked off his career in connectivity. Later, he earned an MBA from Ashridge Management College in the U.K.
Before taking the helm as CEO, Gary was Ciena’s chief operating officer and head of sales. Previously he headed sales at INTELSAT and Cray Communications, Inc., and also served on the board of directors of CommVault and Avaya. In 2011, Gary was appointed by Barack Obama to the President’s National Security Telecommunication Advisory Committee and remains a member today. Additionally, he participates in Wake Forest University’s Advisory Council for the Center of Innovation, Creativity, and Entrepreneurship, and takes part in initiatives of the Center for Corporate Innovation.
Gary, whose work takes him around the world, lists New Zealand, Hong Kong, and Italy among his favorite destinations.
At home, he enjoys downtime with family, friends, and his dogs. A fitness fanatic, Gary has competed in the worldwide games created by CrossFit. And, in recent years, he’s dusted off his camera and secured a gold medal in fine-art photography in the prestigious Prix de la Photographie competition in Paris.
Going forward, he says he’s determined to keep Ciena laser-focused on its long-term goals by keeping ambitions high and steering far from complacency. As the longest-tenured CEO in the telecom industry, Gary has made it clear that complacency is not a word he associates with.
“We have great perseverance, and we very much have a ‘challenge and disrupt’ mentality,” he says. “That’s what will allow us to grow the business the right way for all stakeholders.”
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