Putting people first: Cisco CEO on leading through a year of unprecedented hardship

February 26, 2021, 12:00 AM UTC

The past year has altered the way business leaders are viewed in this country. 

After a year of stark political turmoil, a global pandemic that has killed more than 500,000 Americans, and a surge in activism against racial injustice after the police killing of George Floyd, Americans at large have more trust in business leaders than they do in leaders of any other institution, including the government, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. 

“The events of this past year reinforced business’s responsibility to lead on societal issues, such as upskilling workers and racial justice,” said Edelman CEO Richard Edelman in a press release. 

Thus, the onus has fallen on company leaders to lead the way and guide their employees into a future full of uncertainty.

This newfound responsibility is not lost on Chuck Robbins, CEO of Cisco Systems. Now, more than ever, Robbins said, it is the leaders who lead with empathy and compassion for their employees who will continue to see the most success.

“I think that it is so important right now for leaders to be human leaders,” Robbins said during a Fortune event Thursday. “Over the last few years, balancing work and life have completely blended, and even more so in the last 15 months. Issues people are facing in their personal lives—you just can’t keep them out of work [anymore].”

Robbins and Cisco executive vice president Fran Katsoudas have gone to great lengths to incorporate compassion into their leadership philosophy. Katsoudas said this is the product of the company’s commitment to putting people first. 

In 2018, Robbins made national headlines when he sent a companywide email with the subject “Making Mental Health a Priority,” encouraging employees to “talk openly and extend compassion,” in the wake of the suicides of Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade. 

Robbins said his inbox was flooded with responses from over 100 employees, many of whom shared deeply personal experiences of their own struggles with mental health. 

Afterward, Robbins and Katsoudas turned their conversations into action at Cisco. They began having company meetings in which mental health was discussed with the same level of importance as business. The company began offering mental health services to employees and their children if requested.

And when the toll of the pandemic on the mental health of their employees was becoming increasingly apparent in the past year, Robbins and Katsoudas ensured there was a mental health practitioner at every company meeting “in case anyone had questions” or simply needed someone to talk to. 

“Our focus was really on breaking down the stigma,” Katsoudas said. “I think there’s such beauty in having your business conversation and your mental health conversation in the same meeting. These things truly are integrated and part of the [daily] experience.”

And after George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police, spurring a nationwide movement against racial injustice, Robbins took a similar approach. He and Katsoudas sat down with leaders of the Black community to assess how Cisco could best help and address the needs of its employees. 

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, who attended the meeting, said that at a time when the American people are looking up to business leaders more than ever, having a leader who possesses “humility, empathy, ambition, and audaciousness” is essential. 

“It was a painfully honest, candid [conversation],” Walker said. “It was probably the most authentic engagement I experienced during that very difficult time.”

In the months since, Cisco has placed additional emphasis on efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. Katsoudas said in the past year the company has seen the largest number of Black employees promoted to senior leadership levels. 

And while both admit there is still a lot of work to be done at Cisco and in companies across the country, Robbins said having a brutally honest conversation about the task at hand is the first step in getting through any situation.

“I think the biggest issue is the fear of the discussion,” Robbins said. “A lot of leaders are afraid to have the discussion because they don’t know what to say, or they’re afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing. It’s important to acknowledge that you don’t necessarily know what to say, that it [may be] a tough conversation, but that [you] want to be supportive.”

And while leading a conversation is just the first step in achieving change, Robbins and Katsoudas said it’s crucial to a leadership philosophy centered on putting people first.

“People-centered businesses do better,” Walker said. “We have to recalibrate corporate America to put workers first…Let us put them at the center of our policy, put them at the center of our thoughts and our prayers, and mean it.

“Let’s hope that leaders like Chuck Robbins can demonstrate that there will be action, accountability, and long-term commitment to the future of workers,” Walker said.

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