Cisco's Tips for Showing Leaders How to Connect with Employees

 A woman in a white blouse listens attentively to an employee during a Proximity Initiative session, a program that helps leaders connect with employees and learn about their experiences.
Building Meaningful Connections: Two coworkers engage in a conversation, exemplifying the importance of connecting with employees in the workplace.

DEIB Developing Leaders Leadership & Management

Before jumping into a listening session or a 1:1 meeting, here’s how to ensure leaders are ready to engage, and connect with employees.

How can companies take steps to help leaders make connections across the organization and increase the diversity of their networks?

It’s an important issue, and one that won’t be solved without an organization’s intervention, because of the diversity missing from most senior leadership teams. To solve the problem, many companies are turning to sponsorship or development opportunities to fix the talent pipeline.

But Cisco, No. 1 on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For® List in 2023, went a step further in creating its “Proximity Initiative.” Before becoming a sponsor for someone looking to advance in their career, Cisco wants its leaders to build relationships that will inform future advocacy.

“In order to sponsor someone, you have to have a deep relationship with them,” Alex Allen, senior director, diversity, equity and inclusion at Cisco shared with attendees at the 2022 For All™ Summit. “We believe that starts with getting proximate with each other.”

Hear from more inspiring leaders at our next For All™ Summit, May 7-9, 2024, in New Orleans

Prepping leaders to connect with employees

The Proximity Initiative is a simple idea: Senior-level executives from vice presidents on up meet one-on-one with an employee with a different demographic identity than their own, including racial identity, gender, and sexual orientation. It’s just a conversation, Allen explained. “Let me be clear: no coaching, no mentorship. This is not about sponsorship.”

Leaders opt into the program and receive 60 minutes of prep before their conversations to ensure their meetings are productive.

“We give them the framework on how to have this conversation,” Allen says. It’s crucial that leaders are able to open up first, which signals to the other participant in the conversation that they are in a safe space and can start to build trust.

“[Leaders] have to be confident,” Allen says. “They have to be motivated to be vulnerable about their own identity.”

To ensure the conversation succeeds, Cisco provides opening statements and questions for leaders to prompt conversation. Leaders also receive examples of statements that can be used in the middle of the conversation to help deepen the insights.

Leaders are also coached on how to show gratitude for the information shared by participants.

“We don't write the script for them because we want it to be in their words and be more authentic,” Allen says. “But we do give them the tools to be able to have the conversation and coach them.”

While the resources are available on the company’s SharePoint, Cisco requires leaders to participate in their coaching session live, rather than watch a video or take an assessment on their own time.

“As we’re coaching leaders, we’re assessing them on if they can really make this work, because we want to protect members of our Inclusive Communities (employee resource groups), who are participating in Proximity,” says Allen. “It is also important that we are careful about making sure the dialogue is mutually beneficial for both parties.”


How are two participants selected to have a conversation? After participants opt in, pairings come down to only a few factors.

“Initially, we matched by geography and hierarchy,” Allen shared. “We wanted participants to be in the same time zone and organizational hierarchy. However, leaders requested to also meet with participants outside of their organizations, so we made that change thanks to their feedback.” Leaders don’t know anything about the identity of the person they will be having the conversation with ahead of time, which allows participants to maintain ownership of their narrative and helps to mitigate bias.

It’s important that leaders set expectations for the meeting, so that it doesn’t feel like a job interview, but an opportunity to connect.

“When I came into my first conversation, it occurred to me right away that I was speaking with someone that worked for someone, that worked for someone, that worked for someone, that worked for me,” shares Kelly Jones, chief people officer at Cisco, who also spoke at the For All™ Summit.

“It was the first time we’d ever had a conversation. So, it was my responsibility to create the climate and make sure he knew this is not an interview — you don't need to tell me how hard you work.”

Overcoming fear

It’s natural for leaders to have some trepidation about conversations around topics like race or gender, Allen says.

“There is a fear from leaders that they would say the wrong thing,” he says. That’s why the organization provides coaching ahead of the meeting.

“When we developed the coaching, we wanted to reinforce this idea of creating the environment of respect and transparency,” Allen explains. “What we have found is that when leaders are vulnerable about their own identity, transparent about the intentions of the meeting, and generally authentic, we find that it’s met with gratitude each time.”


There’s a lot of work to do before you can have the conversations that truly bridge the gap between identities in the workplace. No matter what size your company is, or how big your HR team, the first step is to ask some fundamental questions about company values.

“Where’s your leadership team at, as far as their own journey?” Allen asks. “You can’t really do a proximity type of initiative without some company fundamentals around values, purpose, and culture.”

Once leaders start to build proximity, then the relationship might deepen into mentorship and possibly evolve into sponsorship.

“We don’t really structure what the follow-up conversation will look like,” Allen says, even though the first conversation is explicitly not a session for coaching or mentorship for either participant.

“I’m OK if the follow-up conversation maybe turns a little bit into mentorship, maybe turns a little bit into coaching, and then they start following that path that could lead to sponsorship.” Allen suggest leaders should try to build relationships with more people than just the one or two they want to mentor.

“We’re confident that our leaders will be proximate with many people, and they will develop a sponsorship relationship with a few over time — these relationships must be built with trust.”

Connect with experts

Join us May 7 to 9 for our company culture conference in New Orleans and hear from top executives at the Best Workplaces™.

Ted Kitterman