What Cisco Is Doing to Develop Better Leaders and Better Teams

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Jan 30, 2018

Editor’s Note: It’s an annual tradition for TLNT to count down the most popular posts of the previous 12 months. We’re reposting each of the top 30 articles through January 2nd. This is No. 3 of the 800 articles posted in 2018. You can find the complete list here.


The “Future of Work” is definitely a popular buzz word at the moment. What does it really mean? Across industries, we know that work is changing faster than people and organizations. The transition to digital is changing everything, from how work gets done, to how new ideas are created from anywhere in the organization, to the skills needed for the future. We are all driving to be more agile, we are moving faster  — thanks to automation and analytics — and we are focused on the talent and skills that enable our business strategy.

At Cisco we’ve been researching, analyzing, prodding and experimenting to reinvent the ways we drive performance, empower and create a differentiated experience for our people and how we lead. Hierarchies, pyramid org charts and traditional job roles will soon be relics of the past. Companies which lead in the future will be those those that have figured out the secret sauce around team performance, building purpose and driving to talent processes that support fluidity, and at the same time have the courage to support and exploit open and borderless networks. At Cisco, our journey started by listening to our people.

Today’s employees want to be more fluid and agile. They are freelancers in a liquid workforce — even within a large company. They want to innovate freely, move to different projects easily and continue to learn and build their skills. We now see employees asking if it is possible to combine roles or take on a second job within the company. Regardless of work type (traditional, consultant, freelance, etc.), what is constant is that people, with the right skills and capabilities are coming together on teams. Teams will be at the heart of an individual’s success and experience. At the center of that team and the experience — team leaders.

Team leaders are at the center

In this new era of work, leaders also must be fluid and agile, focusing both on enriching the experience of employees while lifting the performance of the business. Leading people to be their best, creating an environment where every person has a voice and is empowered to come up with the next big idea, will enable the next wave of innovation. Companies will need to create the environment where all employees from all functions are encouraged to innovate. At Cisco, our Innovate Everywhere Challenge has generated 2,300 ideas with nearly 65% of our employees participating in 90 countries.

So, how does a company with over 73,000 employees drive better leadership at scale?

It starts with acknowledging that there is not a one size fits all approach to leadership. We’ve started with getting clear on the outcomes that leaders need to achieve, including ensuring their team understands the collective purpose, that there is an environment of safety and trust and everyone understands what is expected and has the chance to use their strengths every day. Leaders may get to the desired destination in different ways, and we want that diversity in approach, but they all need to understand their role.

In September, over a 24-hour period, we brought our 8,400 leaders together for our first-ever Leader Day, an interactive session focused on how we continue to build the best teams, develop our team members and communicate with transparency and authenticity. All leaders around the globe heard from our executive leadership team and then spent the day in small groups addressing hot topics focused on building and diagnosing team challenges, building business acumen and how to have impactful discussions. We used a follow-the-sun approach, to gather our leaders across physical and virtual locations around the world beginning in Singapore and Beijing, to India, to the UK, to Raleigh and ending in San Jose, and many cities in between. We had 83% of our leaders together, finishing their day with clear expectations and those simple, basic things they can do to better lead their teams. The value of learning with and from each other was extremely valuable, and our leaders gave the day an 82% net promoter score.

What we’re doing

We have boiled down some specific actions that attribute to creating the best teams. Here are some examples:

Assess every team members’ strengths — Get to know your team members and their strengths. Too many times we focus on “areas of development” instead of an individual’s strengths. A Gallup study showed that 90% of companies that helped employees identify and develop strengths achieved a 10 to 19% increase in sales and a 14 to 29% increase in profit. Best teams are created when leaders take the time to get to know their team members, and put them in roles and on projects where they use their strengths.

Weekly check-ins — Regular check-ins are the most powerful ritual of any best team. We’ve seen a 13 to 16% increase in engagement and 2.7X increase in retention when team leaders have frequent conversations. We have found that a simple, informal check-in creates the foundation for meaningful discussions.  As leaders, it is our role to approach each employee with curiosity around their strengths and goals while and creating the trusting environment that leads to discussions of meaning and purpose. This is the most natural way to teach leaders to build inclusion into their day-to-day interactions and frame of mind.

Pulse your team — When our employees check in, we ask them to rate their value and impact for the week. Why? Because a leader can tell a lot from how an employee is feeling about their work and contribution. We ask our employees to rate their impact for the week from 1 to 5. If a leader sees a change in an employee’s check-in, that opens up a new and meaningful conversation. For instance, a leader can ask the question, “I noticed that you rated your impact a 3 last week, how can I help?”

Work with common purpose, towards common outcomes — Leaders have dual responsibilities: enrich your employees’ experience and lift business performance. Leaders who frequently talk about strategy and connect the work of their teams to that strategy and outcomes see an increase in performance because people do their best work when they have a common purpose and understand what is expected of them. A leader cannot do one or the other, they have to be both a people and business leader.

Creating best teams take time, effort and can be hard at times, but is the No. 1 job of a leader. This new digital world is driving an incredible time for us to work and think differently, and to create an agile work environment where employees are using their strengths and have the ability to have many careers within their company. The “Future of Work” is actually happening now, and the best thing we can do is invest in our employees, teams and leaders.