Empowering employees to define and pursue their career opportunities is something every company should focus on. This isn’t just a great way to motivate people; it also helps to realize the full potential of all the skills, talent, and experience within your teams.
At the same time, companies also need to offer the right tools and resources to help people make the most of these opportunities. So, how should you balance this focus on career empowerment with the right structure and guidance?
Recently, I spoke with Josh Clark, Learning and Careers Director at Cisco, about this very question. Josh talked me through Cisco’s approach to career enablement, including the three ways his team supports people across the business to pursue their goals.
We kicked things off by discussing what career enablement looks like at Cisco.
For Josh and his team, supporting Cisco employees to have the career they want is a big job.
“Cisco is an organization of around 70,000 employees, and we’re present in 95 countries,” says Josh. “As a company, our purpose is to empower an inclusive future for everyone. We do that by helping customers connect, secure, and automate to accelerate their digital agility in a cloud-first world.”
“I’m part of Learning & Careers, which is part of our People & Communities organization. Our team is really focused on developing the skills that employees need across the enterprise, so that we can give them an opportunity to have a meaningful career at Cisco.”
As Josh explains, this focus takes the right blend of skills and experience within the Learning & Careers team. “We have about 23 people in our team across the globe, and we’re composed of a mixture of learning consultants, learning curators, and learning experience designers.”
Our team is really focused on developing the skills that employees need across the enterprise, so that we can give them an opportunity to have a meaningful career at Cisco.
For large organizations like Cisco that offer a lot of different opportunities for employee development, providing the right guidance and structure to help people make the most of these opportunities can be a big challenge.
“I’ve been at Cisco for over 21 years, and it’s always been a singular focus of mine that employees should own their own career and development journey,” says Josh. “As a leader, I play more of a support role–like a guidance counselor or a coach–to guide people on their career journey at Cisco.”
“We’ve done some research and listening efforts recently, which told us some interesting things about the challenges we’re facing. Even though employees at Cisco feel like they’re firmly in charge of their own careers and development, we found that people want more structure, help, and guidance on how to navigate their careers. It’s our job to provide this for them.”
“At Cisco, we always say, ‘one company, many careers’, and I’m a perfect example of that. I’ve been with Cisco for 21 years, with a range of experience in sales, IT, and HR. I’ve had 17 different roles, but not everyone at Cisco has had the same experience I’ve had. Our research is telling us plenty of people are looking for more guidance on what their next move should be.”
So, how can Josh and his team provide this guidance?
As a company, Cisco focuses on offering people with the right tools and resources as they make their personal growth decisions. As Josh explains, it all starts by recognizing the central role of learning in career development.
“Our team is called Learning & Careers for a reason,” he says. “It’s because learning and careers are so closely interconnected. Personal growth and development is inextricably linked to professional growth and career development. That’s why we formed a combined team focusing on learning and careers, and offering the resources and tools people need to navigate the opportunities available to them.”
Josh talked me through three ways Cisco offers the right learning and career guidance: the Talent Expo, Career Launchpad, and Talent Marketplace.
“One resource we’ve been working on is the Cisco Talent Expo,” says Josh. “This is a two-day structured experience where employees have a coach to help them hone their career story. Then, they have a chance to tell that story to senior leaders in organizations they’re interested in. It helps them find the right opportunities.”
“For example, someone might be interested in career opportunities in our security division. The Talent Expo gives them the chance to hone their personal story and tell it to the right people. They can hear about the job opportunities that exist in that organization, and they can even take on stretch assignments to build their familiarity in new areas.”
Next up: the Career Launchpad.
“Another example we launched very recently is what we’re calling the Career Launchpad,” says Josh. “This is a diary with an accompanying digital guidebook offering employees guidance on the things they need to consider to navigate their careers at Cisco.”
“The Career Launchpad asks people to consider a series of questions: What are your strengths? What skills do you have? What are your career aspirations? How can you have a development conversation with your manager? What does your network look like? How can you expand it?”
“We want to help people think through all of these different scenarios. Then at the end, they’re able to come out with a concrete plan and a set of next steps. This gives people a sense of their learning goals, and what they need to do to pursue these goals.”
Finally, Josh talked me through the Cisco Talent Marketplace.
We want to help people think through all of these different scenarios. Then at the end, they’re able to come out with a concrete plan and a set of next steps. This gives people a sense of their learning goals, and what they need to do to pursue these goals.
“Right now, there’s a lot of discussion around talent marketplaces,” says Josh. “It’s a hot topic. This is something we’ve had in place at Cisco for quite some time, with an internal tool we call our Talent Marketplace.”
“Our Talent Marketplace allows anyone in the business to post a stretch assignment and make new opportunities available to others on a partial time basis. In addition, we’re also looking at several different platforms to expand the functionality and improve the experience, for example by allowing people to match skills with opportunities.”
For Josh and his team, the Talent Marketplace reflects Cisco’s career development philosophy. “The Talent Marketplace is such an important part of our career strategy, and it reflects a key understanding we’ve found through our research,” says Josh. “Careers aren’t about paths; they’re about little steps. As a little step in your career, you might decide to do a stretch assignment for three months, which is 10% of your time, and gives you a set of new skills.”
Even though these steps may be modest, they still contribute to valuable new capabilities. “In the past, someone might not have viewed these steps as an important part of your career. They’d be asking: Well, what was the next full-time job you had? But we’ve changed our thinking about this, because each new learning opportunity is an important part of your career journey.”
These opportunities to take on stretch tasks and build new skills are a critical part of Collaborative Learning. They’re a great way to expose talented people to the right leaders, and they help to develop, recognize, and share subject-matter expertise across the business.
Careers aren’t about paths; they’re about little steps. As a little step in your career, you might decide to do a stretch assignment for three months, which is 10% of your time, and gives you a set of new skills.
So, those are three of the ways Cisco balances its focus on career enablement by providing the right resources and tools for employees. But how can Josh be sure these tools and resources are making a positive impact?
“It’s still early days with some of these career enablement resources, such as the Career Launchpad,” says Josh. “We’re still gathering the data on how these resources are performing. But there are definitely some things we’ll be looking at.”
“First, we’ll be measuring employee engagement. We have a platform at Cisco that measures interactions between employees and managers on a weekly basis. This gives people a way to rank how they’ve used their strengths during the week, and how much impact they’ve created. This gives us a dataset to compare with other indicators.”
“We’ll also look at the amount of opportunities that have been filled during that time, whether they are short-term or long-term. And we’ll also run a follow-up listening exercise to see how employee sentiment has changed.”
As Josh explains, for a global company like Cisco, this sentiment analysis can be a big operation.
“We do a lot of sentiment analysis, including what we call the ‘real deal’ survey, which we run on a quarterly basis. Over a full year we try to reach every one of our 70,000 employees, which helps us build a comprehensive and detailed picture of how we’re doing.”
Thanks again to Josh for taking the time to share his story with us!
While you’re here, check out my expert interviews with Jeff Lowndes of Snap about his three techniques to make new sales reps feel connected to their teams from day one, and with Ryan Giordano of Gong about using performance management to attract and motivate top talent.
Want more peer insights on transforming workplace learning? Check out #CLOConnect, our interview series with top L&D leaders on driving growth and scaling culture through Collaborative Learning. Or you can subscribe (below 👇) to our weekly newsletter to receive our latest posts directly in your inbox.