John Corbett: a quest for perfection
When he gets the chance to unwind, John Corbett says there’s nothing like the feeling of freedom when he hits the road on his prized KTM 950 Adventure motorbike.
The head of Workplace Resources for Cisco in the Asia-Pacific and Japan, Corbett has a huge territory and an even bigger remit – optimising the value derived from Cisco’s facilities throughout the region, while continuing to capture employee hearts and minds. Simply, he wants the Cisco team to love where they work.
With the role entailing sporadic travel, it’s no wonder that he still loves to ‘get away from it all’, relishing the opportunity to take to the open road.
“My first ambition was to be a motorcycle mechanic,” he recalls, laughing. “Like any youngster looking for an adrenaline rush, I very quickly developed a fondness for motorcycles, which I still have.
“I’m a bit of a perfectionist and I would constantly take apart my bike and put it back together. I would polish every wheel spoke. My first motorcycle actually came in a suitcase. I built it and I even won prizes for it. It was such a beautiful machine. I never had new things as a kid, so I was very proud of it.”
While the passion for bikes never waned, it was suggested Corbett may like to follow the family tradition of working in real estate instead of spending his days tinkering with nuts and bolts. These days Corbett admits his love of motorcycling makes his wife a bit nervous.
“When you have kids, your priorities do change, but I still ride. I’ve had some moments… in 2004 I spent two weeks in hospital and my wife reminds me of that.” Corbett says he needed a medivac from state forests near Lithgow after that crash and since then has even had a “little spill” in his wife’s presence.
But the bike is a metaphor for the way Corbett goes about his working life. “When I bought it, I stripped it down and spent three months cleaning it. One weekend alone was devoted to cleaning underneath it. “It says a lot about my headspace. I have to know what makes things tick.”
Corbett grew up in the South African coastal city of Durban, where his family was heavily involved in property. After completing his military service and, harbouring a goal to travel, he was persuaded to start out in real estate as an agent.
“My family was involved in real estate, so it was a natural point of entry. I started off in residential property and I have to say I didn’t terribly enjoy it, to be honest. It did mean though that I saved up enough money to go overseas.”
Corbett initially harboured a desire to live in the US and consulted a lawyer who told him he needed to get more formal qualifications. “So I stayed in South Africa and looked into some courses. The only thing that seemed to work for me was property economics, so I trained as a valuer and worked in that area for a number of years.”
The world began to open up for Corbett. “I moved into the corporate finance space for a bank because I had an understanding of real estate and finance and the principles that tie the two together – how we finance on and off the balance sheet for property developments. Eventually I was introduced to a corporate real estate advocacy firm, which I think was in 1999 or 2000. That gave me the opportunity to move to Australia with GVA Grimley, a firm that no longer operates here.”
But, in that role, Corbett got to work with a number of clients – one of which happened to be Cisco. “I worked on a big metro strategy for their Sydney operations and they really liked our approach. I think my financial acumen resonated with them and the fact that I was a property valuer trained in impartiality – I didn’t have an agenda and I wasn’t driving fees. They asked me to join them in 2005.”
It was a period of substantial growth for Cisco and Corbett found himself managing and strategising the use of hundreds of thousands of square metres across the region.
“I’m passionate about the employee and people’s perceptions of what they hold dear – only with that understanding can we deliver the best experience for them.
“I’ve always looked for projects that push boundaries, that innovate. I’m driven to prove new approaches can work. It’s not about following a process – that’s just a guide along the path – but I firmly believe innovation comes from the heart. That really drives my passion.”
Corbett says workplaces still suffer from the ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. “I think a lot of workplace design is done in the interests of the company and not the individual. There’s a risk in putting individuals first and that’s one of the things I love about Cisco because they’ve invested in me and allowed me to take risks. Cisco gave me the slack to push the boundaries and I could have hanged myself with it, but I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved.
“The more difficult a task or a project is to do, the more rewarding the outcome. Any period I have where things may look a bit rough, I always focus on how rewarding it will be when the project is finished. Having said that, I’m very much a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy.”
The key to getting the right workplace strategy, Corbett believes, is inextricably bound with an organisation’s value proposition. “Companies need to rethink the messages they want to deliver,” he says. “And many of them need help to get the conversation going on the value they need to derive from their facilities.”
Worldwide, Corbett says Cisco has a massive property portfolio. The Asia-Pacific region is a growth area and Corbett is in charge of strategising a huge number of facilities.
“One of my biggest projects was setting up our Bangalore campus, but I get involved in everything from a one-person office somewhere in China to a facility for several thousand people. All told we have around 140 sites across the wider Asia Pacific region and, where I was formally responsible for the real estate delivery vertical within workplace resources, I now oversee everything from real estate to capital projects to facility management, these days for all but India and Greater China – in conjunction with our portfolio and workplace teams.
“From around 2014, Cisco was growing significantly and putting more emphasis on being cross-functional. Every time we acquired a company, all the activity was underpinned by a real estate lease. It was certainly very diverse from a site perspective and very tactical.
“I’d probably describe my role now as being almost like an account manager. I’m the interface between workplace resources and the core business. I need to work with the business to understand, estimate and ensure the necessary resources and capabilities are there – and that the services are seamless across the world.
“We’re now playing in the innovation space in a bid to outsmart our competitors when it comes to employee retention. I’m finding myself working with technologists to try to understand our capabilities and get the right outcomes. There’s a bit of a frenzy mentality in the technology space; it hasn’t been well-harnessed. A lot of companies are throwing tech at the wall and seeing what’s sticking. Given that Cisco is a technology company, we have a bit of an advantage there, but we still need to ensure we know the capabilities and limitations of introducing any kind of technology to our workplaces and that it is tied into the strategies we’re trying to deliver.
“Ultimately a strategy is only successful if the outputs are meaningful and measurable. The buzzword is ‘employee experience’, but we need to determine what that really means and whether agile working is the way to foster that.
“A lot of organisations look to agile working and pretend they’ve got the best interests of their employee at heart, but it’s more about reducing their physical footprint and their costs. I really don’t see a lot of enablement for employees in it.
“Having said that, there’s nothing wrong with trying to optimise the workplace. I’m not sure a lot of companies have gone about this as productively as they could.”
This article also appears in the August/September issue of Facility Management magazine.