Cisco:  Creating A Truly Great Place To Work     

I hold a number of business degrees with common options of Accounting, Marketing, and Computer Science but my overall focus was on something we called Manpower Management. This was the blending of Psychology and Business Practice with the goal of optimizing employee performance by creating environments that best matched skills to jobs. I initially went to work for a company called ROLM which had a Great Place To Work department, unique in the industry, focused on just making the firm wonderful to work for. Since then I’ve kept my eye out for firms that understand that treating employees with respect and as assets, rather than as unfortunate liabilities or some kind of necessary evil, is good for the bottom line. This fits into my overall theme that doing good can provide a competitive edge.

Last week I was briefed by Francine Katsoudas EVP and Chief People Officer at Cisco on what may be the closest thing to an integrated Great Place To Work effort I’ve seen since ROLM. One significant difference is rather than being a separate organization this effort is a major part of HR and thus not only fully supported but well integrated into the company. I’ve had my eye on Cisco because, unlike most firms that give lip service to their diversity efforts and start from the bottom and build up hitting a glass ceiling, Cisco fully resourced their effort and started from the top (the only way I know of to actually drive diversity because you have to change culture first) and work down.

Let’s talk about why Cisco, in tech, may be the Best Place To Work at the moment.

Top Down

To create a culture which puts employees as one of the firm’s biggest assets, and honestly, I still don’t understand why so many CEOs don’t get this, you have to start at the top. If the CEO is more focused on their own image and compensation, while placing employees in a pool of easily replaceable and inferior assets, their tenure typically doesn’t end well. People just don’t like working for leaders that think very little of their employees.

In contrast Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s CEO, places the care and development of his employees as a strategic imperative as he should (check out his video on being authentic to employees and ask why every CEO shouldn’t be held to this standard of making their firms a Great Place To Work). Rather than keeping employees in the dark Cisco works to integrate them into decisions that affect them but while still maintaining an effective chain of command. He recognized that employees want to help shape and develop the company and that they will and do feel responsible for the culture in a company and want an official role in framing the future. This creates belief in the company vision, so it becomes more than just a silly executive tag line and actually speaks to the heart of the company.

In short, smart leaders know that, to lead, they need to rely on and listen to their people. In my experience, we have way too few Smart Leaders, but Chuck appears to be one of the smartest.


One of the issues with diversity and tech is that there is a severe shortage of qualified candidates from minorities coming out of the school system. This isn’t helped by the fact that tech companies are known for their misogynistic and racist behavior which resulted from a whole host of really bad government and corporate policies and laws that tried to use blunt instruments like quotas to fix what was largely a mass perception problem initially adversely impacting the quality of minority education and stereo types.

This is why Diversity must start at the top and programs to fix compensation unfairness must focus on all employees not just one targeted group after another. For instance, if, in a salary equality effort, you just focus on underpaid women you’ll tend to alienate the men, some of which also may be underpaid (I certainly was). Cisco focuses their efforts on every employee, the impact will be greater on underpaid minority groups, but even those underpaid in the majority benefit making more of an us program than they more typical, them vs. us problem.

This is important because compensation sucks at improving performance but can have a massive impact on destroying it if someone, regardless of their gender or race, feels they are being under compensated. Both Hertzberg and Maslow have published on this compensation impact and likely would support Cisco’s approach to the problem.

Dealing With Abuse

There are a number of tech firms infamous for employee abuse as highlighted in the books Brotopia and Lab Rats. Cisco isn’t one of them and part of that is Cisco isn’t a zero-tolerance company. This seems strange given the fondness for Zero Tolerance. But Zero Tolerance policies tend to make companies stupid. For instance, while working at IBM I observed one of the most popular and successful call center managers get fired because he made an unfortunate remark to a subordinate. This was a tight team that joked inappropriately all the time, but they also had the highest performance scores of any of the teams and the lowest employee churn rate. They were more like family than a team and the employee not only didn’t take offense, but responded in kind but, being a woman, two other women not on the team reported the event. The manager was demoted (zero tolerance) and the team was destroyed where consoling would have provided a better outcome for the company. Sadly, the employee felt responsible and left the firm on her own shortly thereafter. In my experience any policy like Zero Tolerance that takes compassion, relevance, and experience out of the decision matrix is self-destructive.

Employees at Cisco do follow an “if you see something say something” policy but recourse isn’t automatic. After a review by management action is taken based on an investigation that gives both parties a chance to be heard and then a remedy is crafted based on an honest review that doesn’t unfairly treat either of them (very much like Due Process). In many cases, just being heard is a huge change from wherever the employee or manager worked previously and Cisco employees apparently trust the system so much that more of them are coming forward. (Often in Zero Tolerance company; employees that come forward are blacklisted because other managers feel they are gaming the system or just represent too much of a risk and don’t want to have them in their groups).

And, to change a culture, you need everyone to participate otherwise it simply doesn’t get done.

Teams Not Departments

To say I’m not a fan of annual reviews would be an understatement. The issue is that they come too seldom and often the managers have their employees fill out the review first creating problem of bias and conflict right at the start. They are supposed to make departments and companies more effective but instead often create so much animosity between the employees and management, as well as co-workers for those environments where employees report on peers, that even the term “corporate team” becomes an oxymoron.

Cisco instead does weekly check-ins where the employee reports in on what they love and loathe and were managers can become less like annual critics and more like weekly coaches. You see the goal for a review shouldn’t be to reduce raises and properly set up for the next downsizing event, it is to improve the effectiveness of the team and increase productivity so the firm can afford raises and prevent downsizing events.

These check-ins also highlight employees that are both struggling so they can get the help and resources they need, or change jobs timely, and those that are performing extraordinarily well so they can become examples and protected company assets. It amazes me how many companies know their underperformers well but do nothing to fix them and have no clue who heroes in the company are until they leave, and the firm is adversely impacted by their departure.

Cisco’s process appears to do a far better job of both ensuring employee success and critical employee retention than most and could go a long way to making sure the company, at scale, learns from both mistakes and successes making the company not only more successful but a far better place to work.

In the end, the focus of the effort, is to build more high performing teams which should be, but too often isn’t, a primary focus for HR. What is amazing is the Cisco process only takes a few minutes a week but has a massive impact on the firm’s ability to assure employee productivity and retention without putting manager against employee as advisories.

Wrapping Up: Great Place To Work

I have doubts I’ll ever again see a “Great Place To Work” department but, if HR itself becomes that department, the result should be even better and if the effort is fully backed by the office of the CEO, it would become stronger still. That is what Cisco has and this is all wrapped with Social Responsibility efforts that integrate the employees for both greater impact and far higher employee pride than you are likely to ever see in a company of Cisco’s size again.

In the end you need what Cisco calls a Conscious Culture, one that is supported by both the rank and file employees and driven by executive management, placing the firm’s behavior, both internally and externally, as a critical competitive metric and assuring that doing well and doing good aren’t at odds but foundational to the company’s long term strategic goals.

Simply said Cisco doesn’t believe the employees are a problem to be solved but a critical part of solving every problem. Regardless of sex, religion, race, or any other defining trait Cisco values its employees as critical to the firm’s success and I just wish more firms followed their example because the result would be a world that was far better to live in. You can do well by doing good…