Leader insights: Joe Cumello on the importance of culture, communication, and connections
As someone who first dreamed of becoming a storyteller, Joe Cumello, Senior Vice President and General Manager of Blue Planet has used his love for communication to help guide him throughout his leadership journey.
“I always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to write short stories and novels,” said Joe. “My mother told me when I was young that we might not have had the money for everything we needed in life, but that she and my dad would always help me get access to books. And I read thousands of them. Once I started my career, I kept going – specifically focused on using my writing and communications skills to advance.”
Joe (pictured left) received his Bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Maryland with hopes of being a writer, but his initial experience working in marketing at technology startups shifted his focus.
“I spent most of my early career working entirely in startups because I knew I could get a wealth of experience,” said Joe. “More importantly, I learned that technology companies desperately needed a translation layer. They needed a function that could take complex engineering concepts and create a narrative around why it was important to customers. And that’s how I found my niche in marketing.”
Most of Joe’s early career was spent moving from one startup to the next as they exited, by being purchased, going public, or going out of business. It wasn’t until he started working at Internet Photonics, a small telecommunications equipment company, that he found Ciena. Ciena acquired Internet Photonics in 2004. Following the acquisition, Joe worked as the Director of Global Marketing Programs and later as the Senior Director of Global Field and Industry Marketing.
“At that point in my career, I was focused on getting leadership experience while also learning how to operate in a larger technology company,” said Joe. “I was learning what it meant to build consensus, drive initiatives, and create a culture within teams. It was an amazing time of growth for our industry and me personally – and I appreciate all of the mentors I had throughout those years.”
Joe used the knowledge he gained from his mentors and time at Ciena to further his leadership experience. From 2010 to 2015, he left Ciena to work at a couple of smaller technology companies, eventually ending up at Cyan. While Joe was working as the Chief Marketing Officer at Cyan, Inc. in 2015, it was acquired by Ciena, and he was brought on as Vice President of Portfolio Marketing. He joked, “It’s now my personal goal to be acquired by Ciena three times. Two down, one to go.”
“It was while I was on the leadership team at Cyan that I became involved in running the business outside of just Marketing,” said Joe. “I got exposure to critical operations decisions, mergers and acquisitions activity, investor relations, and much more. It definitely gave me a view into the next stage of my career.”
Ciena used the technology from the acquisition of Cyan to form the Blue Planet software division. Joe’s previous experience with the software kept him close to its evolution at Ciena. Two years after the acquisition in 2017, Joe was promoted to Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. During this time in Joe’s career, there was one moment that proved to be significant.
“Jason Phipps, now a peer of mine on Ciena’s executive leadership team, taught me quite a bit about rapid decision-making and the importance of building a deep understanding of the customer’s business problem. Technology companies often fall into the trap of selling and marketing from the bottom up, i.e., ‘here’s technology – it’s cool, you should buy it’ vs the right motion, which is ‘I know you have a vision for your business, and we have an important role to play in that’. We spent a lot of time working together to re-orient our sales and marketing organizations around that narrative.”
Now, Joe serves as the Senior Vice President and General Manager of the Blue Planet division.
“I learned the customer challenges and software deeply at Cyan and stayed very close to the Blue Planet software throughout its growth and evolution at Ciena,” said Joe. “It felt like a natural progression for me to have the opportunity to support the Blue Planet organization and create great automation and digital transformation outcomes for our customers.”
At this new point in his career, Joe reflects on his journey, and one thing has remained constant – his communication skills.
“How you communicate a vision, strategy, or an objective and execute upon that leans heavily on the base foundation that I built in my career, which is reading, learning, writing, evaluating, and then communicating,” said Joe. “There’s a lot more to leadership than just that, but that core skill has always been something I’ve relied on.”
In his leadership role, Joe feels motivated by working with others and achieving success together.
“Running the Blue Planet business is my first priority at Ciena, but a close second is building a culture that thrives on developing and mentoring our people. This played such an important role in my career, and I realize that paying it forward correctly means truly leaning into the careers of everyone around me.”
Joe’s love of personal development focuses on the power of communication skills and emotional intelligence. He has written articles for Fast Company and made speeches around the world on these topics. And he spends time each week meeting one-on-one with employees across the organization to understand their challenges, aspirations, and personal goals.
Joe’s desire to connect with others is authentic to who he is, as he finds the most fulfillment in being with his family. “I love to spend time with my wife and daughters – whether it’s traveling together, taking walks, or just talking at the dinner table each night – that family connection time is incredibly important and fulfilling for me,” said Joe.
Although Joe’s dream of being a writer did not come true, his passion for communication and connecting with others has remained a driving force throughout his career. His willingness to take on new challenges, learn from mentors, and develop new skills has led him to where he is today.