Article: The best leaders will be leaders who are closest to their teams: Cisco’s Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer


The best leaders will be leaders who are closest to their teams: Cisco’s Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer

Francine Katsoudas, EVP and Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer, Cisco, in an exclusive interaction with us, shares fascinating insights on the continuing uncertainty, the seismic shifts in the world of work, role of leaders to create a better and more equitable workplace, and what Cisco is doing to succeed in this new world of work.
The best leaders will be leaders who are closest to their teams: Cisco’s Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer

The enormity of what is happening in countries like India – from the rising cases and deaths to the lack of critical, life-saving resources – continues to highlight the pandemic's devastation and reminds us that its grip continues to impact colleagues and communities all around us.


READ the June 2021 issue of our magazine: COVID-19 Rages On: Are You Ready?

Francine Katsoudas is Executive Vice President and Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer of Cisco. In this role, Fran oversees critical functions that instill Cisco’s conscious culture, contribute to the company’s overall performance, and advance Cisco’s purpose to Power an Inclusive Future for All.

As Head of the People, Policy & Purpose Organization, Fran leads an ecosystem comprised of People & Communities, Corporate Affairs, Workplace Resources, and Government Affairs & Country Digital Acceleration. This strategic alignment of functions and expertise ensures holistic care for the well-being of Cisco’s people, establishes Cisco as a trusted and valued partner to governments and global leaders, and extends Cisco’s reach to positively impact communities everywhere in alignment with the company purpose.

A 25-year veteran of Cisco, Fran has extensive experience leading organizational transformations, driving large-scale growth, cultivating successful leaders and teams, and constructing an employee-first culture. Prior to her current role, she served as HR business partner to the Engineering leadership team and held positions in the Service Provider, HR Operations, Customer Service, Acquisition Integration, and Services groups. Prior to Cisco, Fran worked in both the financial and professional services industries with a focus on customer service and operations. Fran currently serves on the Board of Directors for Americares, Global Citizen, and ADP.

Passionate about social justice, Fran is an activist and advocate for a variety of causes close to her heart, particularly women’s leadership, homeless youth, and the Latino community. A graduate of the University of California Berkeley, Fran lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two children.

Here are the excerpts of the interview.

How do you see the seismic shifts in the world of work induced by COVID-19?

The world of work has certainly changed! Over the past year, we've learned about the resilience and adaptability of our people, and we've learned that people can be productive and engaged from a variety of locations and work setups. Work is not a "where you go" but a "what you do". We know that the future of work is going to be hybrid, and so we have to work closely with our leaders and our teams to find the right accommodations and work styles that will bear fruit in this new world of work. It will require new types of leaders who put empathy, proximity, and flexibility at the forefront but also provides a great opportunity for us to change the way we approach work. As location becomes less of a barrier to engagement, companies can go where the talent is and expand their scope when it comes to finding the best talent for particular roles and teams. Leveraging our networks and technology, we can also help create an inclusive future where everyone can participate.

The hybrid work model seems to be the dominant mode of work today. How can we create a truly hybrid model that yields improved productivity, lowered costs, a strong cultural fabric, and a wholesome employee experience for the workforce?

While Cisco has unofficially supported hybrid work for a long time, we know the future workplace following the pandemic will definitively be hybrid. This is going to require new mindsets and responsibilities for both leaders and teams to make sure that this future workplace is inclusive, connected, and productive. For us to succeed in this new world of work, there are some guiding insights and approaches that will serve us well.

We will have to rely on our leaders more than ever, and we will continue to keep people at the heart of every decision we make. Now, more than ever, the role of leaders is getting harder as employees are facing increased stress and uncertainty caused by the pandemic.

We will have to rely on our leaders more than ever, and we will continue to keep people at the heart of every decision we make. Now, more than ever, the role of leaders is getting harder as employees are facing increased stress and uncertainty caused by the pandemic. In the hybrid world, leaders are going to have to be more empathetic and flexible but also get to know the individuals on their teams in a more intimate way to understand how to best play to their strengths to maximize productivity. For one team member coming into the office once a quarter may work best; for another, it could be coming in three days a week. Leaders will have to balance employee preference, the work that needs to get done, and the available technology to power the team dynamic in deciding the best accommodations for their teams. This will also require companies to reevaluate their real estate, envisioning offices as centers of collaboration to help amplify the power of coming together in-person, when necessary, to work on projects or connect as teams. The best leaders will be leaders who are closest to their teams – understanding what works best for individuals, deciding when and how their team will come together, and incorporating team rituals to ensure a strong sense of culture. It will also require us to increase our investment in training and new skills development and establish practices and patterns that break down silos to create a more agile workforce, one that is trained and able to function across teams and adapt to the changing needs of the business.


How are HR priorities shifting as a result of the crisis? How do you see it evolve in the next 2-3 years?

With the "new normal" looking nothing like the normal we knew, employees are looking for trust and safety as they return to work. Throughout the pandemic, our people came to us for support and guidance more than maybe ever before. HR has a central role to play in building a culture that puts employees and their well-being at the forefront. Mental health will continue to be a top priority, and employers need to continue providing the resources to help employees cope with the anxiety that comes from continued economic uncertainty, healthcare needs, and adapting to a changed work-life balance. We will also need to continue making data-driven decisions and provide flexibility so our employees can do their best work feeling safe and supported. 

At Cisco, we often talk about creating a conscious culture, one in which we live up to our principles even in moments when we're not by each other's side. Initiatives like our global check-in meetings, increased employee touchpoints with leadership, and regular communication to foster open and transparent dialogue will continue to be critical. We know this type of culture is one that talent is going to seek out and that they're also drawn to companies that have taken on a broader societal mission. At Cisco, our purpose is to Power an Inclusive Future for All. This applies both internally with our future of work plans and externally, contributing to a more just, diverse, and sustainable world. We recently created a new organization – People, Policy & Purpose, of which HR is a part – that brings together the expertise and functions to help embed this purpose within Cisco but also ensure that our works positively impact people and communities everywhere. Over the next few years, I see HR increasingly directing these efforts at companies around the world. 

How should HR leaders plan out current and future upskilling initiatives? How do you see the larger landscape?

As the rate of change in all industries continues to accelerate, it is time we change the dialogue and re-think our approach to skills. The skills that we need in our workforce to innovate and be successful are evolving rapidly. The game is changing. The pandemic has expedited some of the people shifts that we knew were coming. We need to reframe the skills discussion against the backdrop of "career journeys" and leverage technology to get a snapshot of the skills we have, work with leaders to understand the skills we need, and map to new opportunities that will allow individuals to own their career paths. As industries continue to innovate and integrate technologies like AI and collaboration, the options available for workers to build their skills will multiply. What is important to us is that our workers have the right skills, not where or how they acquire them. Thus, we will continue to expand the sources where we engage our future workforce.

What's your take on how leaders can help create a better and more equitable workplace where everyone is able to unleash their full human potential?  

What we need to realize is that there is no one-size-fits-all. For some, the past year of remote work has been incredible. For others, not so much. We have to listen to our people and know how to best play to their strengths, and what we know is that this is going to look different for each team and each person. For a long time, this was dictated from the top down – the manager says this is where and how you will work, and that was that. Employees now have more of a say and must be a part of finding the setup that will best unleash their potential. By creating an environment of belonging and appreciation that listens to the needs of employees and embraces our differences, we seek to build stronger collective teams.

We have to listen to our people and know how to best play to their strengths, and what we know is that this is going to look different for each team and each person. For a long time, this was dictated from the top down. Employees now have more of a say.

But as we do this, we know there are concerns about making sure the playing field is even, that the remote or hybrid employee who isn't in the office isn't losing out on opportunity or risk not having their voice heard. For the future of work to be successful, it must be an inclusive future of work. At Cisco, we're building out our collaboration technology with this in mind, adding features that will help ensure that every voice is heard and that the best idea wins out no matter where the idea is coming from. We have the opportunity to structure this new hybrid world of work with inclusion at the forefront, which can contribute to the elevation of all voices throughout an organization.

New variants of COVID-19 are wreaking havoc in several countries, especially in India. What's your advice on how leaders can sail through this continuing uncertainty?  

When the pandemic first took hold of the world, we could never have imagined what was to come. More than a year in, we continue to see staggering statistics and lockdowns remaining, with a heartbreaking crisis unfolding in India. The enormity of what is happening there – from the rising cases and deaths to the lack of critical, life-saving resources – continues to highlight the pandemic's devastation and reminds us that its grip continues to impact colleagues and communities all around us. One of the simplest and most important things is our ability to come together and support those facing crisis. 

So, how should leaders respond? Listen to your people. This, above all else, will give insight into what employees need and how to best support them. Then provide resources, to the best of your ability, to support your people, their families, and their communities. We know that companies don't just serve as employers today but serve as a support network for their people. Providing both resources and clear, regular communication of support from senior leadership and team leaders is crucial for ensuring your people are cared for. 

In India, we've offered support in a variety of ways. In addition to financial support to communities and our employees directly, we've expanded medical and mental health support, procured oxygenators, partnered with hotels for quarantine efforts, and set up a dedicated India pandemic support site as a central hub of communication and resources. We will continue to put our employees, their safety, and well-being first and urge our people to speak to their managers, peers, colleagues, and teams to seek the support needed. 

How should organizations level up their employee support systems given that work-life balance, flexibility, and mental health are front-of-mind for employees?  

It has to start by breaking down the stigma around topics of well-being and mental health. We began this journey at Cisco a few years ago when our CEO Chuck Robbins sent out a company-wide email about mental health, and we made it an open dialogue, allowing employees to share their own stories. We know the greatest insights into what employees need come directly from them. But to do that, it is important to create a culture of trust and transparency in which employees can authentically share their experiences. Over the past few years, we've prioritized hearing stories from our employees around topics ranging from mental health to racial injustice. These insights have subsequently allowed us to enact employee-first policies to improve their experience and well-being not just at work but with their families and in their home lives – something increasingly important as the line between work life and home life continues to blur. 

At Cisco, we've made mental health and well-being a regular part of the conversation, including having a mental health practitioner on our all-company check-ins, and what we heard from employees has guided our response during the pandemic. We quickly expanded our resources and offerings by increasing counseling sessions through our Employee Assistance Program (EAP), increasing paid volunteer hours from 5 to 10 days, offering back-up childcare for working parents, and introducing a new Students@Home initiative to support Cisco parents and caregivers. We implemented the "A Day for Me" initiative where the entire company takes a day off to unplug and recharge anytime we sense our teams need it, knowing that burnout has been an elevated risk over the past year. We've been intentional about the diversity of mental health practitioners so we can connect our people to someone who has had similar experiences to them. We've also experimented – with good success – on offering connection through various platforms, including texting options for support. Just like with workstyles, there's no one-size-fits-all, so the more we can diversify our opportunities for support, the more we can reach our people where they are.

We applied these same principles to supporting employees around the world in their particular circumstances, including in India. Over the past month, we've held numerous check-ins with our leaders and teams in India, created outlets for them to share their stories and their needs, and allowed what we learned to guide our specific and tailored support and relief efforts for our employees in India and their communities.

While the pandemic may have exacerbated these issues, we know we have to remain diligent in supporting our employees. That starts with leaders modeling flexibility and work-life balance, understanding how their individual team members are doing, and responding with compassion and understanding.

How are you preparing as a global leader to deal with the next phase of challenges? What are your top priorities?

Getting our people through this pandemic comes first. From there, we'll take what we've learned about our people during the pandemic and allow that to direct where we go next. These people insights will drive how we look at the hybrid future of work and how we foster team rituals, develop leaders and teams, and embed what we've learned in the technology we have. We are also looking at making critical decisions around the skills that we need, the environment that makes us our best, how we organize, and how we work together. We will continue to listen and engage to identify opportunities and then prioritize and execute actions. We know that good business decisions – like reimagining how we work – can also help us do good in the world. To meet the needs of our customers, we must be flexible, accommodating, and empowering. The same is true for meeting the needs of our people. 

Where do you see the world of work in 2023? How will technologies such as AI augment human intelligence? 

One of our beliefs at Cisco is that digital must humanize the enterprise. A key benefit of AI is its ability to unlock in-depth insights and intelligence from your organization and your business. When patterns emerge from the data you can gather from the people, processes, and solutions that reside on your network, you can better identify emerging customer and employee needs and innovate faster than your competitors. We plan to be smarter about the way we leverage digital to enhance the work experience for our people while also helping maximize productivity. 

In the coming few years, we expect that ~500 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. During this time, the power and sophistication of technologies like AI/machine learning, blockchain, and the Internet of Things will also increase dramatically – even exponentially – and the impact on the workforce will be profound. And when the effects of different technology innovations compound upon one another, the resulting organization will look completely different than it does today, and the industries that they operate in will be entirely reshaped. Against this reality, I want to reiterate our central belief in digitally humanizing the enterprise. 

One example of leveraging technology in this way already is through our People Insights feature in Webex. People Insights utilizes Cisco solutions to gather and share such data insights to employees about how they spend their time and whom they engage with most often, for example. Leveraging these insights properly can increase and promote personal well-being for individual employees, as well as build stronger connections and a more inclusive work experience for all. We're excited to provide this intelligence to leaders and team members so they can better identify when time is well spent…and when it's not. We know we can harness this power to make the best data-driven decisions and teach our employees to leverage insights so they can do their best work while feeling safe and supported.

Could you share one message for HR and talent leaders to act upon and come out stronger on the other side?

This past year and everything we′ve experienced reminds us that human kindness, caring for others, and doing what is right can get us through even the darkest moments. The pandemic has shown that together we can navigate the unknown, step up in ways we never thought possible, and lean on each other when it matters the most. We need to continue working together as one team and focus on hope and possibility for each other, for our employees, and for hurting communities around the world. If we can embed proximity, empathy, and flexibility in our collective approach and culture, we have a remarkable opportunity to work together to fuel an inclusive recovery for all.

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Topics: C-Suite, Employee Relations, #BigInterview, #HRTech

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