Article CXO Corner: Creating a Conscious Culture
Q&A with Francine Katsoudas, EVP & Chief People Officer at Cisco
By Insight Editor / 17 Jun 2020 / Topics: Workforce Featured
By Insight Editor / 17 Jun 2020 / Topics: Workforce Featured
Initially I defined my role as driving business impact by connecting people, culture and the organization to our broader strategy as a company. After working to link the people and business strategy, we focused more and more on the experiences of our teams, specifically in the places where the experiences differed and needed to change. Today, we work hard to build an environment of safety and trust where all voices are heard, and all people matter. This opens us up to play to our strengths, become part of amazing teams, work for great leaders and choose the career path that is best for each of us.
The best part of my job is seeing people step into their strengths, and as a result, having incredible impact and success. I also realized that we get as much as we give when we’re working in — and with — our communities. It’s rewarding that we can do great work and have a tremendous impact on the world.
COVID-19 put a spotlight on wellness, safety and trust. In fact, many companies feel that employee engagement has improved over the past few months. I think employees feel this focus. Sadly, the recent events surrounding George Floyd’s murder have deepened our resolve to build fairness, equality and inclusion within every team and to address the impact we can have in the broader community. My sense is that we’ll continue to look at the role of a chief people officer as one that works across the company to create the environment, characteristics and experiences that build our culture and success. At Cisco, we refer to this as conscious culture.
Our people want to see us, hear from us and connect to us. Be present, communicate more often, listen more deeply and create more dialogue. We saw our connection deepen across Cisco at our weekly check-ins as we saw each other’s homes, met some pets, children and grandchildren, and embraced life as it happened during these conversations.
At Cisco, we realize our culture is truly one of the biggest differentiators we have, and that puts an incredible amount of responsibility and accountability on every single person who works here to be a steward of culture. We believe this so deeply that we asked our employees to help us create our company principles. We know that when every person feels like they can have a tremendous impact, they make our products, technology, culture and business better.
The question is really what haven’t we done differently? There are so many examples but let me share one that really stands out. Before COVID-19 we hosted monthly company meetings. We spent a lot of time planning for them and they were quite structured. One day we realized that our people needed more — they needed to hear from us as leaders and they needed a trusted medical source. So, we pulled together an informal meeting with our leaders and a medical expert. With 30 minutes notice, 15,000 employees showed up. We realized our people needed this, so we made it a weekly habit. Now we have our executive leadership team, medical and mental health experts, and guest speakers come together weekly for a company-wide check-in with an agenda that’s driven primarily by the questions on our employees’ minds.
The key is transparency. When my team understands why we’re changing, I find they create innovative ways to make that change happen. I’m transparent about what we’re trying to achieve, how hard it will be and how much I trust my team to figure it out. I think sometimes our teams need to hear that we know that change isn’t going to be perfect. I believe for any change effort, building momentum and early wins can fuel the next phase of the project. Sometimes the way to help someone through changes is to simply listen — there’s something powerful that comes from every conversation that leads to a better path forward.
Let me start by saying that we can’t expect to return to the same work environment that we left. As we begin to step foot into our offices, we must realize it will be different. And that means that our leaders must learn how to become exceptional at remote leadership. It requires different skills and more presence when we aren’t present with one another. Leaders have to understand how each member of their team is doing, what they need, and what their strengths are so they stay engaged by doing work that energizes them. Some of the basics of remote leadership are to check in more often, have time set aside to connect without talking about a project or deliverable, and empower your team to find creative ways to connect.
In terms of innovation, we invited some amazing thought leaders to our weekly check-ins and we found some creative ways our employees naturally started to connect with each other. We realized quite quickly that there is power in taking a step back and pausing, so we recently gave our employees a day off for themselves to acknowledge how hard everyone is working, and how important a mental break is. This was an idea that came directly from our teams. A way we sustain our culture is by giving employees the space they need to create culture on their own teams that connects with our company principles.
The first thing I do is to be really clear about the outcome we want to achieve and the principles that will inform our actions. Often, we want to move fast, but it’s important to slow down to involve our people in the process. We make better decisions that way. I always look at the data and insights as well as the stories so I can weigh the risks and tradeoffs before we make a decision. In the time of a global pandemic and social inequality conversations, I center on my value of putting our people first.
When we let the health, safety and wellbeing of our people — employees, partners, and customers alike — drive our decisions, it becomes easy to make a call to turn our biggest in-person event into a virtual event. We could pivot swiftly because we already had the infrastructure and technology in place for a secure and collaborative experience.
The question for us wasn’t “should we take a stand” it was “how can we have the biggest impact?”
We have always worked to foster an environment of dignity, respect, fairness and equality for all. This is a belief not just for our company, but for society. Our hope is that we can listen, understand and define actions that will make progress toward a brighter, more inclusive world. We know that change doesn’t happen overnight, but we are working toward an environment of dignity and respect for all.
For us, this started long ago when we developed online courses such as Courageous Conversations: Equality and Justice and invited guest speakers such as Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative to our company meeting. We were already having these conversations within Cisco.
We stepped further into the topic of safety and trust for all as the tragedy unfolded with George Floyd and we further challenged racism, bigotry and injustice to ensure we have a society and a company where everyone feels safe. One of the most amazing things about Cisco is that, together, we can recognize the role we can play to support the communities of Cisco and beyond. I believe our conscious culture enables us to do more.
We recently redefined our company purpose — to power an inclusive future for all — because we know that the impact we can make on the world is bigger than our company.