by Jackie Krentzman
CEO Chuck Robbins’s quest to remake Cisco’s culture into a more diverse and inclusive workplace is paying big dividends—including to the bottom line
Last fall, the organization Great Place to Work, which evaluates companies on a broad range of criteria, released its list of the World’s Best Workplaces 2019.®
Cisco was named the No. 1 company in the world.
The criteria for this honor include many different variables, such as generating and promoting an excellent workplace culture and making a commitment to diversity (see box, “Why Cisco Is a Great Place to Work”).
Cisco’s rarified and prestigious distinction as a stellar place to work validated the company’s intentional blueprint to design a workplace that prioritizes innovation, collaboration, and connection. It also validated CEO and Chairman Chuck Robbins’s mission for the $52 billion leading IT, network, and cybersecurity solutions provider headquartered in San Jose, California. When he became CEO in 2015, he was determined to craft a culture so innovative and exciting that it would lead a diverse and talented group of people to want to work, stay, and grow together.
Robbins had the belief that building a company that values and empowers every single one of its employees is not merely the right thing to do—it also enhances the bottom line. “My ultimate goal was for Cisco to be the best place to work in the world,” he says. “It was such an incredibly humbling moment and the proudest moment in my career thus far to find out we achieved this for 2019.”
The foundation for remaking the organization into a people-centered workplace was building what Robbins calls a “Conscious Culture.”
“One of the most important decisions started with our people and teams, and the leadership that Fran [Francine Katsoudas, executive vice president and chief people officer] and her team have driven, with our focus on Conscious Culture and the way in which every employee experiences Cisco every day,” says Robbins. “The diversity of our teams, transparency, and culture of giving back are some of the many contributing factors that helped Cisco become the World’s Best Workplace 2019.”
Says Katsoudas, “It all starts with our people. When they are supported, connected, and engaged, we
are successful together. In a Conscious Culture, everyone owns the environment and experience. This ownership, together with transparency and trust, creates the foundation for everyone to do their best work and support one another. We think about culture as reflecting a way of life that brings our community together.”
For many companies, culture evolves slowly, often passively, as a function of who serves on the leadership team and whom they hire, and then cascades down the line. Given that managers tend to hire those with similar backgrounds and perspectives, it is not surprising that women of color are only 4.7 percent of executive or senior-level officials and managers in S&P 500 companies, according to the Center for American Progress. African Americans make up fewer than 2 percent of professionals and fewer than 1 percent of executive roles, and Latinx workers fewer than 4 percent of those roles, according to Fast Company.
Cisco is different. When Robbins, 54, took the reins of this 36-year-old company, he began implementing an across-the-board company culture built upon “People Deal” principles. These principles prioritize collaboration and inclusion, which in turn foster innovation that exceeds industry standards. The People Deal is built upon three pillars.
Connect Everything: Cisco’s core products are networking and collaboration tools, so it follows that the company culture promotes and supports connections—among people, teams, business lines, and beyond, even into the local community, by encouraging employees to volunteer. The company provides employees with information, sufficient staffing, and opportunities to connect with each other and deliver.
Innovate Everywhere: The company encourages innovative thought and action throughout all levels of the organization. It invites employees to stretch themselves and challenge accepted best practices.
Benefit Everyone: Cisco is committed to helping the company’s 74,000-plus employees in more than 100 countries to reach their full potential by offering professional training and development opportunities. It makes a point to publicly recognize and reward individual contributions. In turn, Cisco asks employees to support and respect their colleagues and embrace the company’s global values.
The Industry Takes Notice
Cisco’s leadership in creating an inclusive and productive workplace culture, while emphasizing corporate social responsibility, has been recognized by industry watchers and those inside the tech sector. Fortune hailed Cisco as deserving of the top spot on the World’s Best Workplaces list. “Nobody does any of this [creating a positive workplace culture] better than Cisco . . . and any company wishing to boost its employee retention rate should consider taking a page out of Cisco’s playbook.”
According to the technology industry research and media company International Data Corporation (IDG), the global provider of market intelligence, advisory services, and events for the information technology, telecommunications, and consumer technology markets, Cisco’s laser focus on company culture not only sets it apart from its competitors in technology, but also serves as a model at a time when the tech industry is being assailed for its lack of diversity and its inhospitable workplace climate.
“This redefinition of the employee experience for both technology companies and organizations is necessary and a key competitive differentiator,” reads the IDG report. “As the technology market matures, expands globally, and becomes pervasive . . . uncovering opportunities for innovation will depend on a diverse set of experiences and opinions. . . . As a leading technology supplier, Cisco has a huge and important role to play in shaping how the overall technology industry harnesses its human capital and ultimately redefines how to measure workplace culture and corporate success.
“This move to a Conscious Culture by Cisco could not come at a more important time. Our industry is tarnished right now with stories of employee discrimination, harassment, and exclusionary practices. It would be fair to say that the tech sector presently stands alone for rampant narratives of poor culture. Cisco’s efforts on full-spectrum diversity not only utterly reject the current stereotypes of a poor tech company culture but demands respect of individuals, opportunity for all, and integrity in representing the company. It connects its expectations of employees to growth in its business, providing a bridge for how employees can meet corporate expectations that will promote company success and personal opportunities.”
The Cisco Way
So how did Cisco shape a desirable workplace culture and succeed so mightily?
As always, change starts at the top. Note that of the 13 members of Cisco’s Executive Leadership Team, six are female. That percentage (46 percent) is unprecedented in Corporate America and is even more startling in the tech sector.*
Robbins details the components of building an inclusive, community-minded, winning company culture.
On teams: “My direct leadership team is 50 percent male and 50 percent female. Of the over 77,000 employees we have at Cisco, over 60 percent work for one of the female leaders in the organization. To this end, it was important to take a different approach to our interviewing process. If you start with a 50-50 slate of diverse candidates, you need to make sure the interviewing panel is also 50-50. From there, you have to let the best candidate win. Full-spectrum diversity and inclusion are something that we are continuing to work on throughout the company.”
On flexibility and transparency: “When you’re moving as fast as we are—and as fast as technology moves today—you have to have frequent, transparent, and authentic communications. People need to know what’s happening in the business and within our teams so we can be fast and nimble. No one has time to waste on assumptions. Cisco holds a monthly all-employee meeting named the Cisco Beat, where nothing is off-limits and employees get business updates, discuss important matters, and enjoy the chance to hear open, candid conversations about what is top of mind.”
On the culture of giving back: “Whether it’s our Networking Academy programs (providing IT job training to more than 10 million students globally), the TacOps disaster response team that provides resources across the globe in times of emergency, or our recent commitment to homelessness in Silicon Valley, our teams are committed to giving back to their communities all around the world. It all starts with our employees, and they truly care. Healthy communities drive healthy businesses and vice versa.”
These priorities may sound straightforward, even basic, but they are almost revolutionary in today’s take-no-prisoners business climate. Cisco stands out because at the same time it prioritizes workplace culture and social responsibility, it has also posted impressive earnings and kept its shareholders satisfied.
Cisco has consistently been among the leading companies in Silicon Valley in forming close ties with the local community and applying its resources to advance the public good.
“With things that are happening in our society and communities, businesses are being asked to stand up, and I firmly believe that we have an obligation and a responsibility to get involved,” says Robbins. “The Business Roundtable [Robbins sits on the board of the lobbying organization of leaders of many of America’s largest corporations, and also chairs the immigration committee] recently put out a statement on the purpose of a corporation that, simply put, states that while we service our shareholders, we also service our customers, employees, suppliers, and communities. This has been core to what we have believed for a long time: healthy communities are what help businesses and people thrive.”
Two timely initiatives
On mental health: After the suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in the summer of 2018, Robbins started to wonder how many Cisco employees were struggling with similar issues. “I wanted those who were feeling alone to realize they weren’t alone,” he says. “I wanted them to know we were here to help, so I sent a note to our global employee base. That is how we began to address mental health within Cisco. The amount of feedback and responses I received from that email was overwhelming. We’ve done a lot since then not only to reduce the stigma, but also to enhance our mental health employee benefits.”
On homelessness: After learning that Santa Clara County has the third-highest rate of chronic homelessness in the country, Robbins knew that he wanted Cisco to step in. In 2018, Cisco committed $50 million over five years to the nonprofit Destination: Home to help address homelessness in Santa Clara Country. “It’s important to understand the problem, to understand the solutions that truly work, and also to have compassion and not judgment. I had the opportunity to visit some of the camps, and if you take the time to get this close to the problem—or any problem—I promise you that your perceptions will change. There’s still so much more to be done—we are only scratching the surface.”
Jen Loving, the CEO of Destination: Home, lauds Cisco and Robbins for their role in addressing the severe housing crisis in California.
“It [the $50 million donation] is the largest commitment from a tech company to solve homelessness I have ever heard of,” says Loving. “What Cisco is doing is extraordinary. I think that, simply, Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s Chairman and CEO, gets it. He believes tech companies have a responsibility to be good community partners and neighbors. He understands that no one can build this housing on their own—it is way too expensive—and so we need the involvement of private companies to make this happen. Cisco stepped up.”
As Cisco’s successful initiatives, both within the company and without, flourish and demonstrate that a people-driven focus can have a significant, positive impact on the bottom line and beyond, Robbins is bullish on his company’s ability to continue to have an equally significant, positive impact on its employees, the community, and the technology sector.
“I have more conviction today about our future than ever before—not only do we get to do great things in business, but we will continue to change people’s lives for the better,” he says. “I’ve always believed we have an incredible culture, and it’s been phenomenal over the last few years to truly be able to unleash our employees’ desire to do great things in their communities around the world.” DW
Why Cisco Is a Great Place to Work
The methodology for choosing the World’s Best Workplaces identifies the top organizations that create great workplaces around the world. To be eligible for the list, a company must be named to five or more national “best workplace” lists within the current 58 countries being evaluated and have 5,000 employees or more worldwide, and at least 40 percent of the company’s workforce (or 5,000 employees) must be based outside the home country. Companies receive additional credit for their efforts to successfully create an excellent workplace culture in their worldwide locations.
In the survey conducted by Great Place to Work, 93 percent of Cisco employees said it is a great place to work, and 9 out of 10 employees reported that they look forward to coming to work. In addition, 98 percent said Cisco is a physically safe place to work, 97 percent responded that they are treated fairly regardless of their sexual orientation, 96 percent said they are treated fairly regardless of their race, and 95 percent reported that they were proud to tell others they work for Cisco. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, 87 percent called Cisco a psychologically safe place to work.
Cisco at a Glance
• Currently, the Cisco employee base is the most diverse it has been since 1998.
• Cisco has one of the most diverse executive leadership teams in the industry—46 percent women and 62 percent overall diversity in gender and/or ethnicity. (As of October 2019)
• In FY19, Cisco had record representation of women across the company—26 percent. This was due in part to a record hiring rate for women of 31 percent.
• Cisco has created a movement with the Multiplier Effect Pledge, which encourages leaders to commit to sponsoring one extraordinary diverse individual to the next level in the employee’s career and challenging peers to do the same.
• Pay parity is an ongoing commitment for Cisco. The company continually reviews its compensation system to ensure that people are paid fairly and equitably. The company has built an innovative and inclusive framework that uses powerful analytics to regularly test the compensation system and its overall health, and then fixes any gaps.
• Cisco’s robust Inclusion & Collaboration (I&C) Community has 29,000 employee members in 243 chapters across the globe. Through the I&C Community, employees have countless opportunities to connect with others and celebrate their diverse interests and cultures.
* These figures represent the leadership team prior to the departure of David Goeckeler.
Six Principles of Cisco’s Conscious Culture
Give Your Best
Show that desire to be at your best, connect with others to share quickly with whoever needs it; open your mind to ideas from everywhere and anywhere—and use them to build on the possibilities to pour a little drop of love into our customers’ worlds.
Give Your Ego the Day Off
It’s the best solution our customers need, not the best-protected Cisco turf, so support that solution, whatever the background of the person or team who came up with it. Have the debate and have a backbone. Make your point, then commit to what’s been agreed and deliver it with agility and pace.
Give Something of Yourself
A simple smile or “hi” every day is worth its weight in gold, so don’t hide it away. Show care and consideration to your colleagues, our customers, our communities, our partners, and the world we all share. Be worthy of trust. Be an inspiration. Be delightful to everyone. Even if you don’t like them.
Whatever comes your way, understand it and be personally accountable for its success. Assume the answer is “yes” and that you don’t need to wait in line for permission. Check the data but don’t let that slow down taking responsibility. And … deliver.
Take Difference to Heart
We become bigger as individuals and more powerful as a collective when we respect and value what makes us so special—our unique, personal differences. Inclusion will always beat exclusion.
Take a Bold Step
Whatever your position, show leadership and courage when it comes to innovating and disrupting. If it doesn’t feel safe, be secure in the knowledge that shooting for the stars will always be a part of who we are. Together we can figure out how to get there, so let’s dream big.