Protocol | Workplace

What’s the purpose of a chief purpose officer?

Cisco's EVP and chief people, policy & purpose officer shares how the company is creating a more conscious and hybrid work culture.

Francine Katsoudas

In March 2021, Francine Katsoudas' role was expanded to chief people, policy & purpose officer at Cisco.

Photo: Francine Katsoudas

Like many large organizations, the leaders at Cisco spent much of the past year working to ensure their employees had an inclusive and flexible workplace while everyone worked from home during the pandemic. In doing so, they brought a new role into the mix. In March 2021 Francine Katsoudas transitioned from EVP and chief people officer to chief people, policy & purpose Officer.

For many, the role of a purpose officer is new. Purpose officers hold their companies accountable to their mission and the people who work for them. In a conversation with Protocol, Katsoudas shared how she is thinking about the expanded role and the future of hybrid work at Cisco.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

I'd love to start by just asking: What does that new part of your title entail, and what does purpose officer mean?

So the first thing that I would say is, from a Cisco perspective, we have been focused on purpose, I think, since our inception, and it's something that brings our employees together. I think it's something that we're incredibly proud of. The purpose that we launched last year in the spring was to power an inclusive future for all. And the interesting thing was that we created that purpose before we understood what the pandemic was going to do and what it was. And that purpose guided us and still guides us since that time, and we continue to look at what an inclusive future looks like.

I think the amazing thing is when you have [purpose] in your title, when you have someone who has the responsibility for purpose, it means that as a company you were thinking about how you build the systems and the accountability to ensure your impact on this bigger purpose. And I think for our employees, they didn't need the title as much, because I think as a company, we're there. I think the biggest impact is externally, because it definitely tells the story that Cisco is going to focus on purpose and the impact that we have beyond our business.

You said you could see there being more purpose officers in the future. Why do you think there will be more?

Because I do think the pandemic deepened many companies' commitment to doing better by all people. I think early in the pandemic, even before the social justice issues really were front and center over the summer, we could see the disparity in health equity and equality from a support perspective.

I think the most important thing is that, in the past, I think companies looked at, "What donations do I need to make to be a corporate citizen?" It's a totally different conversation now. Now the question is, "In my day-to-day business dealings, how can I show up for the community? How can I ensure that I play a role in reducing the digital divide?" And it has to be real and tied to who you are, and what you do. As that shift is happening, a purpose officer can bring the company together to be clear around plans, how they communicate and how we hold ourselves accountable to progress.

Shifting gears to Cisco's hybrid remote work policy: Something that the company is known for is its conscious culture, which you all have touted. I'd love to hear a little bit about how you bring conscious culture to work when everyone's working from home or in different places?

For us, it's as simple as: We are not going to tell our people where they need to be and how they need to work. I think in a conscious culture you set up your leaders to facilitate that dialogue with their team. So the approach that we're taking is that each team leader will facilitate a dialogue that basically says, "OK team, what do we need to get done this quarter? What's working for us?" Questions like, "Who's a morning person, who's an evening person?"

And so what we're hearing from some teams is that they're going to come together on the same days of the week in the office. What we've heard from other teams is they're not going to come in on a weekly basis, but then they'll meet up every other month for three days. So in a conscious culture I think you understand where your people are at, you understand where the work is at and then you make the best decisions. The other thing that we believe strongly in is that just make those decisions for a quarter and then just see how it works for you. And then if you want to make some changes, you can. But I think there's respect and understanding baked into that approach and that's what conscious culture is all about.

You all are going completely into more of a hybrid workplace so employees can work wherever. Is there also an ability to work whenever?

I think it depends on the work and the team … What I find for a lot of our roles is it is up to you as far as when you get your work done. And so I guess what we would say is that the when you work, the where you work and the how you work is something that we want teams to decide together.

In a past podcast interview you said you don't think there's a separation between work and life. And I think a lot of employees are seeing this as they work from home. How are you all modeling that as leaders, and how are you encouraging that hybrid moving forward?

I think hybrid, once and for all, is really busting this myth around work-life balance. And I honestly think that whole concept isn't fair to people, because I think those lines are artificial. And it's a lot of work to drive well-being in the environment that we have today. I don't think we have it there yet, but it's something that we're working on.

We have a subset of our employees that work four days a week. I think this is a moment where more employees are going to be interested in that, so that's something that I want to look at again. My sense is that if people have three down days, that will also help them manage some of the stress and all of the things that we have to do. So we really want to be the world's best hybrid workplace, and I think we just have a lot of learning to do. But the biggest thing is, let's just start first by acknowledging there isn't your work life and your home life. There's just life and we have to now create benefits and experiences that allow you to be your best.

OK, of course as a workplace reporter I got excited when you said four-day workweek. So who is that subset, and how do you get to work four days a week?

So, this idea came from one of our peers. And I had to laugh, because I think two years ago no one would have suggested this. So one of my peers said, "I want us to do a four-day workweek, and I will be your test case to prove that we can do it." And we do have close to 1,000 people, I believe, that work four days a week. They requested it about a year ago, At the time, we looked at it as a pilot. There's a member of my staff that does it and he loves it, it's been a really good experience.

And so what we plan to do, just like with hybrid work, is there's a question first around, "OK, can this work with the work that we do?" And if it can, we'll just get really clear with the deliverables with a four-day workweek. The expectation is that you achieve everything you would in a five-day workweek, in four days. And so that's something that we're going to play with, but at this particular moment I think it would be really helpful for people and help them just continue to take care of themselves and their families as we navigate.

You have new tools for meetings that help with translations and meeting transcriptions. Are employees using it, and what's the feedback been so far?

Yeah, it's really cool. I used it in South Korea, I think, like a month ago and it's amazing, because there's nothing more important than being able to connect. And for some people, seeing their local language also drives more confidence in the communication, and more comfort, and I think that's beautiful. So yes, we have over 100 languages instantly translatable. We use it in a lot of our meetings as well. The other thing that's really just basic is that when you capture all of the meeting minutes, you can capture action items, so there's no more note-taking, which is such a little thing, but a really nice thing.

There's this element right now I think around giving our people the tools to be their best and just understanding what they're doing. There's a ton more on the technology side, but those are some of the favorites that I have.

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