The Executive Whisperer

This Cisco exec explains how to identify and nurture senior talent

Plenty of kids want to grow up to be a doctor—a veterinarian or a pediatrician. But when she was a kid in Boston, Cassandra Frangos wanted to be a different kind of healer.

“My mum recently found a picture I made in grade school when I was asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” says Frangos, still based in Boston. “I said, ‘I want to be a psychologist—and help people.’”

She wasn’t just playing head games. In college, Frangos studied both business and psychology, and today, after several years in management consulting and human resources, she helps fine-tune the cream of the crop at Cisco, as the head of its Global Executive Talent Management. Her team focuses on the highest executives of the IT giant—in part, by acting a bit like therapists. “As a talent leader, that is the essence of what I do,” she says, “understanding the psychology of leaders, the system around them, and helping them reach their potential and beyond.”

Diversity Woman spoke with Frangos about how to “train” people who have already reached the top, how to connect with workers in different spheres, and how good business savvy can come from following your heart.

DW: What is your role as head of Global Executive Talent Management?
CF:
We help accelerate the readiness of our executive portfolio—the current and next generation—to transform Cisco and help it become the number one IT company. My team focuses on coaching and developing executives, and sometimes doing assessments of them. It’s about developing those in the C-suites and finding some 
of the undiscovered strengths that can help them in their strategic roles.

DW: Is the goal of the program to bring out strengths, to work over weaknesses—or both?
CF:
A lot of it is helping them discover their strengths. Sometimes they have an awareness of those strengths, and other times it’s about increasing their self-awareness. Sometimes we’ll find ourselves saying, “Hey, everyone thinks you’re too opinionated, or that you only have one point of view,” and they say, “Oh … really?” So sometimes it’s stating the obvious, or sending a subtle message and giving them an insight that they never had.

DW: How does your psychology training pay off in this role?
CF:
It’s about being a good listener. You pick up so much more when you just listen to people. Listening is one of those underutilized executive skills. When they work with me, I can be a sounding board, a trusted advisor. I end up knowing so much about them both personally and professionally, and the psychology helps me in building trust quickly.

DW: Growing up, did you feel like a future executive yourself? Were you the class-president type?
CF:
No, I was the working-two-jobs-in-high-school type. I helped run my dad’s 600-seat restaurant and worked in a bank while in school.

DW: What kind of models were your parents for your business career?
CF:
My mum and dad were great role models. My dad came from a Greek family and grew his business from $500 to a very successful business. He had people working for him for 20 years, which was unheard of in the restaurant business. I quickly learned the importance of people leadership and loyalty and always treating others as you want to be treated. Respect for one another is a Cisco value.

DW: What led you into business consulting?
CF:
In school I did a double major in psychology and business and loved the mix of the two disciplines. I thought that would be a great combination for consulting. I wanted to learn a lot of industries fast.

DW: What sorts of lessons did you learn about those different industries early on?
CF:
I worked with a biotech firm, and worked with scientists who were brilliant but didn’t think about management, leadership, or organizational development, so I had to introduce them to a whole new discipline. The CEO was also new and came from big pharma, so he wanted to put in place talent and organizational development practices that we created from scratch. Along the way, I learned how to speak in their language—like, “Hey, let’s run an experiment on your leadership at the moment,” or “Hey, let’s try a new formula for that strategy.” Most of these people are PhDs in science, so I just wanted to honor their profession and speak to them in their own language.

DW: What disappointment or failure have you learned the most from in your career?
CF:
I wanted to keep my dad’s business running for him after he got sick, and I wanted to see him retire. While I could keep it going for him, deep down I wanted to pursue other goals. I was disappointed that I couldn’t sustain it. But this has helped me in my current career, because I realize the importance of being true to your goals and career desires, and I use that learning in coaching executives every day. Focus on your strengths, be realistic, and understand what you truly want from your career.

DW: What are some of the benefits of training these top-drawer executives?
CF:
It helps them see the whole system, and that it’s not all about “them.” They need to think about how a leadership team can come together to guide the entire organization. At Cisco, while we are structured by function, the ability of our leaders to plan and strategize across functions helps ensure integration across product and services lines to deliver better business outcomes for our customers. When our leaders are having to work across their functions, they are having to think about the organization differently.
Diverse thinking across the leadership team usually results in a more well-thought-out plan and an ability to motivate our teams to execute flawlessly.

DW: How do you get them to break out of their usual ways of thinking and interacting?
CF:
We have executive development experiences, where we get them out of their comfort zone and work on tangible business problems—like taking a sales leader and having him or her work on a problem in engineering. People walk out and say, “I now know what it feels like to be in your shoes.” Or maybe they open up and talk about their own leadership challenges. These are not emerging leaders—these are high-level people who have already “made it”—but sometimes they feel like they always have to have the answer or be a role model. Here they can be vulnerable and learn from it.

DW: As an HR expert, what do you look for when you’re interviewing a potential employee?
CF:
I look for raw potential, passion, self-awareness, insight, and humility.

DW: But don’t most people come into an interview thinking that to be a strong candidate, you need to sell yourself and exude confidence? Where does humility fit in?
CF:
I talk a lot about authentic leadership—someone just has to be authentic. A lot of us at my office have psychology backgrounds, and we can pick it up in a minute if someone is posturing.

DW: What books have you read recently that inspired you, either professionally or personally?
CF:
A good one is Quick and Nimble: Lessons from Leading CEOs on How to Create a Culture of Innovation by Adam Bryant. I also love Geeks & Geezers by Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas—a classic about different generations and how the “geek” can learn from the “geezer.”

DW: At Cisco, are the gaps between segments of the workforce mostly about that generation gap, different backgrounds, or something else?
CF:
I wouldn’t call it an absolute that generation is the gap, but there is some of that—how does the young engineer learn from the seasoned engineer? But in other ways, it’s that cross-functional element—that engineers are talking to the sale leaders and the salespeople are putting themselves in the shoes of the engineers, and how they can learn from each other. DW

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