Human intelligence

Cisco EVP Francine Katsoudas puts people at the heart of technology.

If you’ve spent 28 years of service at one of the biggest technology companies on Earth, you will have experienced the world changing numerous times and in significant ways. Francine Katsoudas has done just that. When Katsoudas joined Cisco in 1996, few people owned cellphones, and only the early adopters were getting wired to the internet. Soon after, the nascent dotcom sector boomed, bubbled and – in 2000 – went bust. Seven years later, the global financial crisis struck. And some 18 years after joining Cisco, Katsoudas found herself chief people officer of Cisco and wrestling with the global covid pandemic. Yet Cisco is a company that seems to emerge stronger from each ordeal than it was at the outset, in no small part thanks to leaders like Katsoudas.

Most leaders – most companies – would take an even money outcome following an emergency: be no worse off at the end of a crisis than at the beginning. Yet Cisco, on several key metrics, has thrived through crises. It had a relatively modest multimillion dollar market cap before the dotcom bubble, survived the crash while other techs collapsed, and wound up with a multi-billion dollar valuation afterwards. In 2009, just after the financial crash, it joined the S&P 500 and was added to the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Despite the pandemic – or perhaps because of the way it responded to it – it was crowned in 2020 the best company to work in the world for the second successive year by Fortune magazine and Great Place to Work. It was an extraordinary turnaround.

“We had lost our way as we related to our people,” Katsoudas told delegates at Duke Corporate Education’s Collective Action: Advancing Gender Equity with Impact conference in South Africa last year. “We had lost some of that authenticity. The communications we had with our employees were formal: they didn’t feel as real as they should have.” Cisco was sliding down the Fortune league. It had at one point ranked third but, by 2014, it had slumped to 82nd. “I went on Glassdoor – and I had to go over 20 pages to find a positive comment,” Katsoudas recalls.

Katsoudas and her team examined the experience of 30 employees over the course of a year to better understand their work and careers at Cisco. They unearthed a general feeling of malaise. And they responded. Through listening, leading with empathy, and focusing on the needs of people, they charted a new course for the company and its culture. Katsoudas and her team launched targeted drives on pay parity, expanded resources to support employee mental health, and worked intentionally to build a “conscious” collective culture. Cisco again bounced back. Katsoudas and colleagues turned the company from an employee-engagement laggard to an outright global leader.

The power of communication

Thriving through crisis is a leadership fantasy. At Cisco, with Katsoudas, it’s a reality. What’s the secret? “I was a mid-level manager during the dotcom bubble,” recalls Katsoudas, now Cisco’s executive vice president and chief people, policy & purpose officer. “For the very first time I was having to make some tough decisions around my team and how we navigated forward. What I will always remember – and something that I hope we always do in any type of crisis – is the power of incredibly strong communication. You need that.”

That clarity of message fostered an invaluable unity: a common purpose that everyone around Katsoudas could get behind. “There was clarity around the technology bets that we were going to make as a company,” she tells Dialogue. “In an environment where everything was being challenged – even the future of the company itself – for the leadership team to say: ‘We’re going to bet big,’ that was significant.”

Leaders today must grapple with geopolitical instability, economic turbulence, and environmental emergency. Yet the Cisco story shows crises can be overcome. A clear direction is necessary, says Katsoudas, but insufficient. Companies must allow their people to think creatively and take risks. “You must still create the space for good ideas and experiments,” she says, “even in a crisis – where you feel tremendous pressure to have everything sorted.” Authenticity and an open mind are critical, she says: “We try hard to leave room for our teams at every level to give us their thoughts, their guidance, their perspectives, their feedback – even if sometimes it’s not the easiest thing to hear.”

Such free and frank dialogue is the currency of all great companies, giving people the psychological safety to say what should change, how to improve things, and the liberty to challenge constructively. Some leaders struggle with it. Yet Katsoudas has the stripes. From an early age she was encouraged to express her ideas, while her family would test them via a wonderful brand of tough love that she cherishes to this day. Katsoudas says her heroine is her grandmother, a Latina activist and advocate for farmworkers, who worked with the mayor of San Francisco at a time when women were rarely found in such roles. “She was incredibly outspoken,” recalls Katsoudas. “And she always had this belief that you needed to care enough about the issues to have perspective on them. And you better believe she was going to test it. I just greatly respect her strength – and her clarity.”

The human factor

It is striking how much a senior executive at a cutting-edge tech company emphasizes the human advantage within business, as in life. Much has been said about the irrepressible march of artificial intelligence, the risk of robots replacing people, the specter of a dystopic digital future. What has been less discussed is the prospective role of human intelligence: how we might extract the unique qualities of people to do better as leaders, as companies, as societies. Katsoudas is decidedly positive about the relationship: the more computers do the legwork – the hard labor – the more intensified the human advantage becomes.

“The interesting thing is that a lot of AI use cases are increasing the power of human intelligence,” she says. She cites recruitment and training as an example of AI’s power to bolster human skills and uplevel roles. AI is rapidly removing a lot of the drudgery of the work, the time-consuming, low-value interchange that is necessary to finding, hiring, and maintaining people. These motions consume a great deal of resources for little return. Technology will, she believes, free leaders to do what they do best: bringing the best out their people.

“AI takes out some of the basic scheduling, even some of the communication, and it is fascinating how effective it can be,” says Katsoudas. “Leaders can then focus on what an employee’s career goals are, and partner with AI to help them get there. As opposed to a focus on AI taking away roles, AI can actually bolster career development.”

The challenge, she says, is that the AI element of a business process is given greater weight than the critical human factor. “We don’t talk a lot about the latter,” she says, “but it is emerging in a very powerful way. And what it does is it amplifies the strengths of our people and their career paths.”

Are tech majors becoming wary of over-digitizing themselves? “At the heart of technology companies, your people are your differentiation,” she says. “And some of the technology that we’re using today, and that will be coming tomorrow, will allow us to lean into that even more. If you think of AI as your colleague, not your competitor – that it’s going to help you make the most of your time – you’re going to feel very differently about it.”

Servant leadership

Technology liberates leaders, and has helped foster a paradigm shift, she says, whereby leading is less about being a standard-bearer that all must follow, and more about responding to people’s individuality and personal circumstances. “Think about all of the great tools that are out there to understand someone’s strengths, the way they prefer to work, their instinctive drives,” she says. “They allow us to see individuals and help us as leaders to understand that it is no longer a world of one-size-fits-all. I joke that once upon a time as a leader, you came in and said, ‘I’m the leader, this is how I like to do things.’ Now at Cisco, we talk about servant leadership. I’m in service of my team. And if I’m in service of my team, I must know every member of the team, I must understand their strengths. And that allows me to play them to their strengths – and yield much better outcomes in the work that we are doing together as a result.”

Katsoudas is at once warm and formidable. Throughout her life, she has been a passionate advocate for social change: female advancement, Latino progress, and the ending of homelessness are close to her heart. She rejects the idea that commercial gain and social benefit are trade-offs, that profit and purpose necessarily conflict. Conversely, she argues that they can and should be complementary. All companies, she says, want to develop strategic relationships with their customers, and such bonds are rarely built on transactions alone: “It’s interesting to think of companies as if they are individuals,” says Katsoudas. “What are their values? What are their strengths? Customer relationships are usually formed on those higher outcomes that a company has.”

By focusing on values, corporations can deliver better results, not just for themselves and their customers, but for their communities too, she adds. These can create a commercial foundation for the future: purpose generating profit. “I’ll give you a great example from South Africa,” she says. “One of the biggest worries and issues there is the unemployment rate – especially for young people, which is in the 40% range. We know that is a huge, potentially dangerous, problem. We also know that we, as a company, offer technical training to the communities – which creates future employees and future customers for Cisco. It’s beneficial to the community and to us. We work with the South African government to create centers where we can train students that have an interest in technology who one day will become Cisco partners and resellers. And in doing so, we’re creating hundreds of jobs at the same time.”

In 2020, Cisco announced its company purpose, ‘to power an inclusive future for all’. One of its hallmark impact initiatives – the Cisco Networking Academy – educates approximately 3.5 million students a year. “That’s how you power an inclusive future,” she told the South Africa conference. “It makes our people incredibly proud and, from a business perspective, it’s wise. We’re training talented people with digital skills, and when they land roles at technical companies, whose products do they think about? It’s okay to say that we are good for the world and good for business. When you do both, you create something that is sustainable. In the past, I think we were shy about talking about both elements.”

Can corporations do better at driving social change than governments? “I think we can be more agile sometimes,” she says. “But I think we are best when we work together. One of the programs we have at Cisco is called Country Digital Acceleration. We work with governments to address some of the biggest opportunities in digitizing government services, transportation and agriculture. And we find that we can very quickly test prototypes that address an issue a government is looking to solve. And when we do that, it enables the government to move with greater speed. That private-public partnership can be incredibly impactful.”

Katsoudas once told reporters that she had been a feminist “from the age of five”, but she has grown to see that the world is shaped by more than gender. “I felt, from a very young age, a level of discrimination,” she says. “I would see the expectations for boys versus girls, and that made me mad. But I realized that we must look at it more broadly. When I became chief people officer at Cisco, I had this tough realization that when I was on stage, talking about inclusion, that only a subset of people felt like I was advocating for them.
“When I spoke about gender inclusion, I wondered if our African American employees thought: ‘Is she talking about us? She’s probably not. She’s probably talking about women that look like her.’ And what that drove for us as a company is this concept of full-spectrum diversity, full-spectrum inclusion. Whether you’re a white man, whether you’re a woman, whether you’re someone starting your career, ending your career, in whatever demographic you fall, you belong. What I’ve learned, and continue to learn, is that we must be broader in our definition of inclusion.”

Ultimately, Katsoudas believes in people. She is the Silicon Valley champion that exudes the human touch. Her grandmother aside, she’s reluctant to single out star individuals in the industry, arguing that everyone has the power within them to do something brilliant for their company, customer, or community. “Throughout my career, I’ve been surrounded by these amazing strengths in so many people that have been powerful,” she says. “So, there’s this reaction I have to the concept of the hero. I think we must be careful with that. Rather than think too much about heroes, I like to think about people’s strengths: to see them shine in their ‘hero moments’ – and learn from them.”

Ben Walker is Dialogue editor-at-large.