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Cisco and the Critical Rebirth of HR

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I have been fascinated with HR since it was called Manpower Management and focused on employee enrichment and advancement. I wanted to do that with my life. I thought then and still do now that one of the most rewarding jobs would be to help people find and stay on the career path that would make them the most productive and most content with their lives. Sadly, by the time I was ready to run an HR organization, the rules had changed. HR was more about protecting bad executive behavior and compliance than helping employees find their best life path.  

This background is why it is refreshing for me to talk to Francine Katsoudas, the Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer at Cisco. She believes managing employees requires empathy and care, not just compliance and covering up for lousy executive behavior.  In addition to the support she receives from Cisco’s CEO Chuck Robbins, Katsoudas is why Cisco is ranked #1 in best places to work for the last two years.  

Cisco recently changed the name of its HR department to People and Communities. Once I understood why they did it, I thought it was brilliant and should set an example for managing a firm’s most valuable asset and its people.  

Evolving Cisco’s HR Culture

Human Resource is a label placed on the organization that was initially created to prevent unionization.  It came after a period of massive employee revolt — we call them strikes — and events like the Borax Strike that made some wars look relatively mild in comparison. During the Borax strike, managers were, and I’m not kidding, buried up to their necks in ant hills, patrolling helicopters were shot out of the sky, and ex-military forces were brought in to protect water supplies. Few living today have any concept of how bad strikes often were and how damaging they were to both the employees’ and firms’ brands.  

When we shifted from Manpower Management to HR, we seemed to collectively forget the entire purpose of these departments was to make work good enough so that the employees didn’t feel the need to organize. This result is because unions, when they become too powerful, are a second set of influential company leaders with agendas that are strategically anti-company. They can destroy both the critical collaborative relationships that should exist between managers and employees and replace it with managed distrust and conflict.  

Katsoudas and her team recognized that by shifting the name to People And Communities, she focused the HR effort on people over compliance and communities over managed conflict. Some communities can form around race, sex, tenure, advancement, and skill in a company. Once identified and promoted, these communities can provide a foundation of support for their members. They can also provide the HR organization with insights into which groups are over and underperforming and allow for data collection to help identify and mitigate problems and identify and spread best practices.

This community support structure is particularly critical during the pandemic when many feel isolated, depressed, and alone.  Community members can share how they overcame similar difficulties and provide focused help to any employee struggling with their job, situation, or just feeling isolated and alone. Back at IBM, I was given a series of invaluable mentors to advancement and growth. Having a community I could have also called on would have likely helped me avoid mistakes and find a better career path quicker than I did.    

Identifying people that are either advancing more rapidly so you can learn from them or advancing very slowly so you can research and maybe mitigate that problem before they feel unloved and make a wrong decision makes for a better company.  

Finally, this change focused on employee wellbeing and life/work balance. After all, the ugly truth during this Pandemic is that while productivity is up, it is often up because people have sacrificed their families and friends to overwork.  And that isn’t sustainable.  

The Heroes of HR

One of the most heroic things I’ve seen in HR is changing the unit’s name to make it better reflect what it should do over what it, by policy, must do. The reason why Cisco is one of the best places to work is its HR department, which untypically focuses on things like empathy and understanding the needs of employees over just compliance. Cisco’s  efforts go beyond keeping the firm out of trouble to emphasize the work/life balance and taking care of the communities in and around the company.

Katsoudas’ effort to make HR into the People and Communities organization has not only turned Cisco into the best place to work, it also sets an example that others can use to make the world a better place.  As we approach the holiday season, making the world a better place is consistent with the holiday message of goodwill towards man. Particularly during this pandemic, we need other firms to follow Cisco’s example and remind people that employees and managers are in this together. Here is hoping you have a wonderful holiday season and that your employer treats you as well as Cisco treats its people.   

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