How Cisco develops the HR leaders of the future

The technology company cultivates early- and mid-career HR talent through a rotational leadership program.
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· 5 min read

Ask your favorite young person what HR does, and they might look at you with a blank stare. Or, thanks to The Office, they may think HR is horrible (thanks, Toby!) And yet, Cisco is actively recruiting those same The Office fans for HR leadership programs.

As the HR function experiences an evolution, one that’s been accelerated by the pandemic, the skills needed to enter the field have expanded to include technology and analytics.

With those challenges in mind, Cisco started the HR Leadership Program, which later rebranded into the FLEX program. The program began in 2004 and became fully-fledged in 2013.

Macy Andrews, VP of communications, marketing, events, and employer branding at Cisco, has been leading FLEX for three years and is aware of its newfound role in ensuring the company’s success.

“We do a lot of recruiting that allows for people that maybe haven’t had exposure to [HR] is so different than the HR of the past,” Andrews said. “We used to say it was a personnel office where you kind of hire, fire, and deal with escalations. Now, it’s such a strategic element to your business.”

Basic training. Andrews told HR Brew that the program takes around eight summer interns from each of two tracks, undergraduate and MBA, who return after their studies for a two-to-three-year rotational program aimed at placing them into a more permanent role at the end in the company’s people, purpose, or policy functions.

The FLEX experience starts with a “bootcamp” where participants are introduced to the company in a process that’s slightly more involved than a traditional onboarding, Andrews explained. Around 60 people between the two programs are participating at one time.

The program also asks participants to work on FLEX itself, leading “key elements” such as university recruiting, curriculum development, and community engagement.

Who’s participating? Cisco leaders and former FLEX participants say there is no ideal background for acceptance.

“We look for data sciences. We look for psych majors, behavioral economics majors. We look for MBAs,” Andrews said. “All of these skills are now desirable, and actually some of what you need as a foundation to be a good HR professional.”

Some FLEX’ers have worked in HR before, while others are completely new to it. Some have a very strong idea of what they want to do in their permanent roles, while others are more open-minded. Andrews added that while referrals from employees and FLEX participants are a large aspect of their recruiting, they also recruit through the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, a nonprofit which promotes inclusion in graduate business programs.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.

Ali Wallace, a third-year participant in the Rising Leaders FLEX program, for MBAs, had previous HR experience before enrolling in business school at the University of Southern California. She told HR Brew that she pursued this opportunity at Cisco to explore the HR side of mergers and acquisitions.

During her program, she completed rotations as an organizational consultant, an HRBP, and a split role as an HR lead for M&A deals and chief of staff for the FLEX program.

“One of the biggest benefits of the program is the community,” Wallace said. “We have a list of where everyone’s been assigned for [rotations], as well as where they’ve been previously…So, we’re able to really get the insider scoop on what’s going on in the organization. We also have a really robust alumni network.”

Culture builders. The flexibility baked into the program and the connections across the FLEX community have kept Wallace energized and informed as she makes her way through her HR career journey. “‘One Cisco, many careers’ is a mantra at the company,” she said.

Lane Hartman joined the FLEX program in 2014 after completing a similar program at a different company and gaining experience in HR during college. Though he was set to get his PhD in psychology, he chose a different route. In his three years of rotations, he worked in learning and development and total rewards before his third rotation as a people consultant.

Like Wallace, Hartman emphasized that he and his cohort peers were extremely close. Nine years after their internship, four of the six are still working at Cisco. He told HR Brew that his cohort was the most influential part of his career.

Hartman also appreciated that the program was not about the race to the top. He said he wanted to prioritize flexibility and playing an active role in his family life. For these reasons, he said he pursued “horizontal experiences” in a path more resembling an individual contributor.

“Since I’ve been at Cisco, I’ve been in a learning and development role. I’ve been in an HR business partner role. I’ve been in a compensation role. I’ve been in a talent analytics role. I’m in a workforce planning role right now…it just felt very natural for me to just keep picking up all these different horizontal experiences, and then that will just help me be a little bit more well rounded,” he said.—AK

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.