In January 2018, Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s chief people officer, joined 80,000 protesters who gathered in San Francisco to speak out for women’s rights and against the Trump administration.
It was an unusual move for a top executive at a Silicon Valley giant. But joining a protest underscores how Katsoudas sees her role as the exec in charge of the well-being of the global tech powerhouse’s 75,000 employees.
“I’ve always been a big believer in ensuring that every voice is heard,” she told Business Insider. It’s a principle she shares with CEO Chuck Robbins, she said, “this belief that we’re better when every single employee has a voice that we’re not top-down.”
It’s a belief that’s been defined by Katsoudas’s own odyssey from the new employee who landed her first Cisco job by accident, but who stuck with the tech giant through three economic crashes and ended up helping define how it treats its people — from the jittery workers at companies that Cisco has bought, to a massive workforce now reeling from a global pandemic.
‘We didn’t have a lot as a family’
Katsoudas grew up in Fresno, California, the oldest of four children. Her father, who immigrated from Greece, worked as a grocery store manager. Her mother is Mexican American.
“We didn’t have a lot as a family,” she said. She went to UC Berkeley where she supported herself by working odd jobs. “I worked at pumpkin patches, selling Christmas trees, you name it,” she said. “Anything I could do to make ends meet.”
Tech was a hot sector by the time she finished college, though it was not exactly a world she knew much about. “When I was young, I have to be honest, I didn’t really understand the world of technology,” she said.
But she got a business development job at a startup which she described as an early version on LinkedIn. Ultimately, that startup “didn’t make it.” In fact, she knew the business was in trouble and offered the CEO a way to keep it afloat at least a little bit longer.
“I remember telling her if you let me go, it probably will give you about four more months of being able to run this business and give it a shot,” she said. “And I didn’t think she was going to take up on that immediately. She basically said, ‘You’re so right, thank you.’ And that was my last day.”
Landing a tech support job by accident
But many other tech companies were hiring. In 1996, Katsoudas applied for a job at Cisco, then a 12-year-old networking equipment maker. Katsoudas was looking for a non-tech position, but she showed up for the wrong interview.
“I found myself interviewing for a technical support role,” she said. After spending a few minutes “trying to figure out how do I get out of this interview without offending anyone,” she decided to just go for it.”
“I started fighting for why I thought I’d be a great tech support agent,” she said. “I didn’t know what a router was. I didn’t know what a switch was. And they decided to take a chance.”
That started a long career at Cisco, enduring the dot-com crash and the Great Recession. The tech giant was led at the time by former CEO John Chambers, whose ability to guide the tech behemoth through both crises is something Katsoudas still raves about.
“As a company, we were going to be more bold at a moment where there was a crisis,” she said. “That stood out to me big time. You hear a lot of people say, ‘Never let a crisis go to waste.’ I believe that.”
Integrating companies Cisco acquired
Katsoudas played a key role in an area where Cisco was known to be bold and aggressive: mergers and acquisitions.
She became in charge of integrating the companies Cisco bought into the organization, making sure that their employees were being brought in effectively and that their clients were getting the support in the middle of the transition. At one point, Katsoudas said she was working concurrently on integrating 15 acquisitions.
It was in this role that she grew to appreciate the importance of “culture fit” in M&A, a point that Chambers and Robbins have also been known to stress.
“It’s really important to us,” Katsoudas said. “We have walked away from companies, where we have really been enamored by the technology, but had this realization that it wasn’t going to be the right culture fit.”
This typically becomes evident as Cisco is evaluating a potential acquisition. “You can see a lot when you’re doing due diligence around how customers are treated, how employees are treated, the pace of innovation, the willingness to change,” she said.
Katsoudas also played an important role in the way Cisco absorbs an acquired company, stressing the need to sometimes go slow and build trust with employees as they join the organization.
“If you move too quickly to just start to work on your action item list for integration, you could lose them, like, from a heart and mind perspective,” she said. “If you went slower with the acquired company and just built trust and really focused on what shared success looks like, you would hit all of your milestones.”
A thoughtful approach in the COVID-19 crisis
A slow, thoughtful approach is also what she has embraced in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis.
Like other companies, the sudden pivot to remote work has been challenging for its employees, Katsoudas said. Recently, the company gave its 75,000 employees a day to recharge, an initiative that Katsoudas led.
Amid criticisms of the way Trump has handled the crisis, and despite her own reputation as an activist, Katsoudas declined to comment on how she views his administration.
“I don’t think there’s value in doing that,” she said.
But she does worry about the road ahead, particularly the speculation that the health crisis could escalate in the fall. Like other tech giants, Cisco is embracing a flexible game plan for bringing people back to the workplace.
“My sense is that less than 20% of our employees will be back before the September-October timeframe,” she said.
“We do have an element of choice. If you don’t feel comfortable, we have technology like video and can work this way as well…We’re taking special consideration to anyone who could have higher risk factors, not feeling like we have to move too quickly one way or the other.”
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