The Superpowers of Cisco: How the World’s Best Workplace Takes Care of its Employees
This article was originally published in Forbes.
When you are ranked No. 1 on Fortune’s list of the World’s Best Workplaces two years in a row, you know you are doing something right as a company. When you land the top spot in 2020 during a global pandemic and massive economic turmoil, you have achieved something extraordinary.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Francine Katsoudas, chief people officer at Cisco, a global leader in IT, networking and cybersecurity solutions. We talked about Cisco’s journey to the “Best Workplace 2020” ranking and how they plan to move forward into 2021 and beyond.
Rasmus Hougaard: Congratulations on Cisco being named the World’s Best Workplace again in 2020. As Chief People Officer, how does that make you feel?
Francine Katsoudas: I feel a tremendous amount of pride. It's wonderful to see Cisco’s journey. I look back on where we were, five, six, seven years ago, and I see our people feeling so much more engaged. I see their pride and that's amazing.
Hougaard: It is great to get the positive recognition of the culture and people-centered priorities which Cisco has embraced for many years. Now, where do you go from here?
Katsoudas: First, we use the recognition to really challenge ourselves. We can say, ‘How would a world's best company handle this issue?’ And we push ourselves to rethink the opportunities that we have and to use that recognition to do more. Part of how we challenge ourselves is to do a good job listening and being open to what our people are telling us.
When it comes to listening well, Cisco isn’t just relying on good intentions. According to Francine, “We use sentiment analysis during meetings to understand what the chat comments or questions are telling us, and then afterward we ask for feedback and insights as well.” And, with data-powered, real-time insights into the mood state of its teams and leaders, Cisco can act with immediacy to roll out solutions at scale. In the spring of 2020 when much of the world was feeling overwhelmed and anxious about the unknown, Katsoudas and her team saw that their people were having a hard time stepping away from work. To combat this, they created the idea of a “day-for-me” — a planned company-wide day off for employees to step away and put themselves first.
Katsoudas: What's happened since is that our employees now start to trigger us when they think we need another “day-for-me”. I think we've had three to four over the last six months, and I'll be listening for when employees start to say it's time for another.
Secondly, we know that there are employees who don't experience Cisco as the world's best workplace. And we know that if an employee can have a positive experience with their leader and their team, that can reshape the way they look at the company. And so, we focus on our leaders. If our leaders are in service of their people, focusing on the strengths of their people, playing to their strengths, that will make an enormous difference.
Hougaard: 2020 was a year that tested all of us. Many companies stepped forward in new ways to confront the challenges and help their employees. What initiative did Cisco undertake in 2020 that you are most proud of?
Katsoudas: The one thing that really stands out has been our response to the social justice issues and the creation of our Social Justice Beliefs and Actions. The beliefs inspire us to work towards a higher goal of what we can be as a company. One of our beliefs is ‘Technology for Good.’ We know that technology can be used in a very positive way to empower people and communities. The beliefs are then coupled with very tangible actions that I think will be hard for us to achieve, and I think that's good.
Last Fall, Cisco released its Social Justice Beliefs and Actions framework which includes 13 bold commitments, including a 25% increase in the representation of African-American/Black employees at all levels of the company by 2023, the launch of a $50 million venture fund to invest in startups with diverse founders and leadership teams, and the commitment of $50 million over give years to increase the diversity in its partner ecosystem.
Hougaard: Three years ago, Potential Project and Cisco began working together to build Cisco Mind Sets. Can you talk a bit about why you initiated this program?
Katsoudas: When we started, there was this realization that we needed to help our people build resilience. People were struggling with how to manage the day-to-day from a work perspective and then to be their best selves in everything else that they did.
We knew that if we were not careful, we were going to find our lives run by transactions and activities. So, there was this need to really center and focus. And I look at all of those elements now, and I think, ‘my goodness, I can't think of a time when we've needed that type of foundation more.’
The Cisco Mind Set programs have helped thousands of Cisco employees to understand how their minds are wired and how to train their minds so that desired behaviors and outcomes have the space to emerge. Thousands have seen improvements in work/life balance and the ability to be present and focus. For Cisco, there has been a 32% decrease in employee absenteeism.
Hougaard: The Cisco Mind Set program has focused on building resilience within the Cisco workforce. As you look at the year ahead and the continuing challenges, what other mindsets do you think will be important?
Katsoudas: From a mindset perspective, I would say that resiliency is still paramount. And I think it's important for our people to also have empathy. We are now talking about empathy as a superpower, and we are going to do everything that we can to cultivate empathic leaders and ensure that our systems are built towards empathy.
I think it is also so important for us to continue to focus on mental health. We've been on a campaign for the last two and a half years to really break down the stigma associated with mental health. I'm so impressed by the leaders that have stepped up to tell their story. When we talk about an issue and then our people tell us their own stories, we feel like we have done something right because there's a trust element, and they're letting us in.
Hougaard: Cisco has always been a very people-centered company. Why is this so important for you and the organization?
Katsoudas: Cisco and other companies can be differentiated in how they treat their people, how they see their people, and how they help their people to have really good experiences. We know that if we take care of our people, they're going to take care of the business.
Sometimes people will try to tease out business and people, and clearly, I think they are one and the same. Your business is your people, right? You want to have an environment that brings out the best.
What we know is that when someone plays to their strengths, they are going to be so much more creative in the day-to-day. They're going to be more productive, and they're going to feel a lot more positive about their life in general.
The power is when your business strategy and your purpose and all of your people practices come together. And that's really hard to do because the world continues to change, but I think those are the things that are most meaningful.
Hougaard: I am sure there a strong desire to remain the world’s best workplace. What will you be focusing on in 2021 to achieve this?
Katsoudas: We're going to continue to focus on teams because we believe that's how we win. And every team needs an amazing leader, and that will absolutely be our focus. We will take all of the analytics and learnings of the past four years and really push into the understanding of teams even more.
We're going to continue to focus on our people and their lives. Sometimes we like to say we care about our people, even on the weekend. We know that what they do at Cisco is a part of who they are, and so our ability to think about them holistically is incredibly important and will guide how we care about and support them.
Hougaard: What advice would you give to your counterparts in other companies who want to develop a great workplace?
Katsoudas: There are basic things that led us on our journey, and one of them was simply understanding what differentiates us as a company. We ask ourselves, ‘what does Cisco look like on a great day?’ Understanding what your best looks like as a company is incredibly helpful because it allows you then to lean into ‘how do we do more of that?’