How Cisco Engages Leaders To Understand Employees’ Lived Experience

 Cisco employees participate in a march for Juneteenth in Atlanta
Cisco employees participate in a march for Juneteenth in Atlanta

Changing company culture DEIB Diversity & Inclusion Employee Experience

Connecting leaders with employees from underrepresented groups has made measurable progress in diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging.

Tackling gaps in the employee experience for underrepresented employees is tricky — even for great companies.

How can leaders learn about the knowledge gaps they have as they aspire to cultivate inclusive workplaces? For Cisco, No. 1 on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® List two years running, the answer has been to bring leaders into close contact with the lived experience of employees and the challenges, barriers, and successes they face at work and in their everyday lives.

For Alex Allen, global inclusion and collaboration leader for Cisco, the case was made during a company town hall event with CEO Chuck Robbins in conversation with Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. As Stevenson put it:

“We have to commit ourselves to getting proximate to the poor, to the excluded, to the marginalized. When you are proximate, details emerge, insights emerge, understandings emerge, that you will not achieve from a distance.”

Robbins framed the issue from his viewpoint as a business leader: “Get close to a problem and you will be compelled to try and solve it.”

Those statements stuck with Allen. A few weeks later during a leadership team meeting, someone asked how individual leaders could drive change around diversity, equity, inclusion & belonging (DEIB).

“In that room … the leadership team committed to having one-on-one conversations with people that are different from them — to understand their lived experience, to seek to understand and learn,” says Allen.

Cisco’s Proximity Initiative was born.

The power of proximity

The power of proximity, a topic Allen will discuss during the For All™ Summit in Orlando, Florida, has four components:

1. It cuts across every level of the organization.

“It takes leaders who sit in positions of power and privilege, and it brings them closer to the people in their organization from underrepresented groups or communities,” says Allen.

2. It compels action.

When leaders get close to different views, they are forced to examine their own perspective, and how their own experiences inform how they go about their work, Allen says.

3. It can serve a global workforce.

“Being a global company means that we cannot do a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Allen.

“We have to get proximate to our people globally to understand what inclusion sounds like and looks like in a variety of cultures. We have to be sure that we’re creating solutions with our global partners, not just pushing an agenda from the U.S. or from our corporate headquarters.”

4. It allows small changes to compound into big transformations.

Increasing equity in an organization takes years — it cannot be accomplished in a single financial quarter. By focusing on proximity, businesses can create the small, day-to-day change that eventually changes a company culture.

“We believe that small inclusive actions will compound, and they will be the driver of more transformational change,” says Allen.

Getting started

To start your own proximity program, you must have a clear vision of how inclusive culture connects to your company values and business goals.

“When we think about the full spectrum of the employee experience, we must integrate the value of inclusion into that day-to-day,” Allen says. That’s the baseline.

Once employees have a clear understanding of the company’s vision for an inclusive culture, building proximity also requires:

  • Leadership coaching. At Cisco, every leader at the vice-presidential level and above has the opportunity to participate in the Proximity Initiative.

    “We provide them with coaching and training to help them really build the skill around having conversations across difference,” Allen says.

  •  Employee voice. Allen recommends leveraging employee resource groups for proximity work, giving them the opportunity to opt in and participate.
  • Tangible action. Once leaders start having conversations with employees, they must produce results.

    “Those insights need to be driven into tangible actions that the organization can see and hear,” Allen says.

Measuring results

Success at Cisco comes back to employee surveys.

“Ninety-eight percent of our leaders said that they found incredible value from the proximity conversations, and 95% of them said that they are doing something differently as a result of their proximity conversations,” says Allen.

As a starting block for so many other DEIB programs, a successful proximity program should also lead to an explosion of activity from mentoring and sponsorship to changed hiring practices.

On a personal level, Allen says proximity should result in the feeling of belonging that underrepresented employees seek.

“Proximity resonates with me so deeply because it’s been the one thing I’ve been seeking in my entire life,” he says. “Growing up in a middle class, predominantly white culture — but being a Black person — I’ve always been seeking that. Do people or leadership truly understand me as an individual?”

When leaders commit to proximity, the answer to that question changes.

An imperative to change

Business leaders can’t ignore how employees’ expectations are changing.

“We’re fully aware that our people and our teams demand a greater connection to who they are in addition to the work they produce,” he says.

For companies to succeed in the future, being able to welcome all employees will be a critical measure of profitability and innovation.

“When people are valued, heard, celebrated for their unique perspective, experiences and identities that they will bring, we know that we will be unstoppable as a company,” Allen says.

Join Us

Alex Allen will be sharing more about the power of proximity during the For All™ Summit, Oct. 11–13 in Orlando, Florida. Get your tickets to learn from leaders at the best workplaces in the world.

Ted Kitterman