"When you have passion and compassion, magical things can happen," says Fran Katsoudas, Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer at Cisco, in a video interview celebrating grabbing the number one spot in the 2021 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list honors the most heroic companies supporting their people and communities in the U.S. during this historically challenging year.
For the award, people analytics firm Great Place to Work® surveyed over half a million employees across several companies on issues including how trustworthy, caring, and how fair their company is in times of crises; employees' physical, emotional, and financial health; and their company's broader community impact.
Since the start of the pandemic and the challenging social environment many have faced in the U.S., I have been warning business leaders on how lack of support and empathy will impact employees' engagement and fuel their desire to look for employment elsewhere. An analysis of the data used by Fortune revealed strong links between positive employee opinions and how employees witnessed their senior leaders and direct managers during the crisis. Seventy-one percent of winning workplaces scored better than in pre-pandemic times, increasing employees' experiences of workplace trust an average of three percentage points. Cisco has been moving up on the list from number six in 2019 to number four in 2020 and number one in 2021.
I have been following how Cisco responded to the pandemic and the social challenges in the U.S. for over a year and last week, I connected with Katsoudas to discuss the company's journey to an inclusive future for all, starting with Cisco's own people. The spark that initiated the change happened around 2015 when the company leadership followed an employee who, after a great interview process and a honeymoon period the first few months, started questioning staying with the company. The employee was given a new manager and things started improving. Then a life-changing experience with a family member fallen ill tested the commitment, but their new leader was there to support them all the way. Sharing the experience of the employee they called Alex, others came up to Katsoudas to share their experiences, making it clear to her that listening to employees was going to be a number one priority. The second step was to make some key changes to their core people processes and technology and not shy away from sharing uncomfortable truths, a process that was difficult but gained employee's trust. "Very few leaders will do things the same way, but if they understand the outcome that we're driving to, they're going to figure out how to do it in a very authentic way. And that's when I think it's most powerful," says Katsoudas.
Moving people to remote working was possibly the easiest part of responding to Covid-19. Cisco already had a fair number of remote workers and of course, the company had the technology to support employees. Making sure people had the information they needed for themselves and their families was the top priority for the team at the start of it all. Keeping everybody safe and well went hand in hand with that. They had medical and mental health practitioners join their company meetings so they could answer any questions on people's minds. Listening and being willing to share personal experiences was one of the bright spots of the past year. Leaders being ready to own up to having a bad day or a bad week or sharing the need for a no-meeting Friday to have a break. Katsoudas believes that these conversations, this openness will be critical elements of the future of work. Yet, more needs to be done to understand how people work and how they come together both to work and support one another. Technology can help us figure out which kind of workflows are best for a role. It can help us stay connected and help us understand people's needs. "But technology can never take the place of a leader," warns Katsoudas. This is because technology will provide us with data and insights, but the leader will provide the guidance, make the decisions and drive change.
As many companies prepare to embrace hybrid work, Cisco is committed to focusing on the outcome rather than the process. This simple shift will allow leaders to focus on the people rather than the work itself. Katsoudas has no doubt that focusing on the people is not just the right thing to do. It is the only thing to do. And focusing on the people means seeing them holistically, something we have been able to do while working from home and something Cisco wants to continue to empower.
Over the past year, Cisco's CEO Chuck Robbins has been very vocal about his commitment to empowering an inclusive world by fighting institutional racism and social inequality. Katsoudas reiterates that Cisco remains committed to doing its part for social justice. They will continue to have conversations knowing that they will be imperfect in how they have these conversations but will have them frequently. They will bring in thought leaders so that they can all learn. "We need people to be open and remain curious," she adds.
Whether it is denouncing hate towards the Asian community in the US or defending the right to vote, Cisco will continue to demonstrate its commitment to social justice. "We will not be perfect, but we will be constant in that," concludes Katsoudas.