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A Discussion with Cisco’s Brian Schipper

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The Boyden’s Leadership Series presents discussions with business and thought leaders from organizations all across the globe. The series focuses on topical issues that executives, political leaders and the media find useful in understanding trends in talent management and running businesses in the global marketplace.

In this issue is a discussion with Mr. Brian Schipper, Senior Vice President, Human Resources at Cisco Systems. The architect of a global workforce of 72,000, he discusses the future of HR, moving up the management ranks and the growing opportunity of virtual meetings.

A highly respected senior executive with more than 25 years of experience, Brian Schipper leads the global Cisco HR team. His function enables Cisco’s workforce of employees who develop products and support customers in more than 200 countries.

Most recently rated first in Fortune Magazine’s Most Admired Companies in the network communications category, the company was also ranked sixteenth in the Best Companies to Work For list. In addition, Cisco was highlighted on the 2010 World’s Most Ethical Companies list for its record of corporate citizenship, governance, and industry leadership.

Prior to joining Cisco in 2006, Schipper led the HR function for the Platforms and Services Division (PSD) of Microsoft. Prior to Microsoft, Schipper was Partner & Senior Vice President, head of HR and Administration for Andor Capital Management, LLC in New York. Prior to Andor, Schipper was Senior Vice President of HR and Administration at DoubleClick in New York.

Schipper held three senior HR positions at PepsiCo. In his last assignment, Schipper led HR for PepsiCo Food & Beverages International for Europe, Middle East and Africa. Prior to PepsiCo, Schipper held HR roles at Compaq Computer Corporation as head of HR for North America, and head of Compensation & Benefits for the corporation. Schipper began his HR career at Harris Corporation.

Discussion with Brian Schipper

Boyden: How has the HR function changed in the last few years?

Schipper: CEOs are now expecting the function of their HR departments to drive innovation, enable growth and maximize productivity; which is in line with the senior management’s expectations of other functions in the company. What hasn’t changed is that HR functions must always demonstrate excellence in executing baseline business processes for which the department is accountable. As an example, at Cisco, there is a clear expectation that HR be responsible for building a company culture that will enable business success, which includes caring for our employees and their families.

Boyden: What’s unique about HR at Cisco and other equally successful companies?

Schipper: What’s unique about HR at a company like Cisco or some of the other marquee companies for which I’ve worked is the expectation that HR employees be as business-oriented as the clients they support. To expand, people in the HR department need to understand how the company makes money, have a high degree of pragmatism, and be a good business partner that shares the same goals and expectations as the business client.

Boyden: Fast forward to 2020 and where do you see HR going?

Schipper: All leaders will expect HR to create value for customers and shareholders. Disruptive market transitions are impacting nearly every segment and sector—both public and private. These disruptions demand that an organization’s employees and its culture create sustainable competitive differentiation. This will place new demands on HR—especially on Chief HR Officers—to lead their functions and attract, retain and engage the talent that sustains that organization’s capability.

Boyden: Where do you see that some organizations won’t be able to keep up?

Schipper: What’s unique to HR is that the quality of the people has a strong impact on how effective the function can be in the aggregate. Unlike certain other functions that have clearly established practices and tremendous certainty around the boundaries of where the department impacts the organization, HR lacks this because expectations have changed so dramatically over the last 50 years. As a result, if the company hasn’t paid attention to hiring really great people in this function, it seems acutely hard for them to keep up.

Boyden: Are there any particular HR programs as a whole that you think are very interesting or that you admire?

Schipper: Microsoft does one of the most impressive jobs with recruiting of any company I know. I am particularly impressed with how well Microsoft tracks and follows the careers of leading thinkers in technology, regardless of whether they are candidates for employment today or the future. I’m also impressed by how Starbucks wins the hearts and minds of its frontline employees, and requires any new employee, regardless of level, to develop a deep understanding and appreciation for the customer experience by having them work in stores.

Boyden: What have been the “secrets” to the success of your career?

Schipper: First, I’ve made a conscious decision to stretch outside of my comfort zone, which allows me to focus on learning and building new capabilities on a consistent basis. Second, I’ve maintained high standards of performance —for myself, my team and peers—with continual investment in building next generation leaders. Third, I’ve worked to find the right balance between driving results and demonstrating the patience necessary to build long-term,  sustainable outcomes. Finally, I have nurtured my capability to take abstract and complex ideas and communicate them in simple, comprehensible ways, which gains high levels of alignment and builds trust.

Boyden: Over the years, how have you stretched out of your comfort zone?

Schipper: There are several examples. I’ve changed from business-alignment to company-wide roles in HR and I’ve moved from my home country to different host countries as an expatriate. I have moved between purely HR roles and jobs involving oversight of all administration functions.

Boyden: Will the “secret sauce” change for the new generation coming up the ranks, for management functions, including “C-level” executives?

Schipper: Many of the attributes of success will remain unchanged and many of the attributes that derail leaders will, I suspect, continue to do so in the future. Holding a leadership position in a large organization carries the risk of losing selfawareness—the capacity to take in new information about oneself and respond appropriately to that information. Selfawareness will continue to be a necessary prerequisite for sustaining success over the long haul. One leadership quality that’s changing rapidly is the ability to demonstrate achievement of results through working cross-functionally, often without formal control over resources. Increasingly, leaders will have to achieve results by setting a compelling vision, creating strategies with competitive differentiation, and communicating in a compelling way that enrolls support and engagement.

Boyden: What has been the biggest challenge of your career and how did you overcome it?

Schipper: Overcoming challenges is a terrific working definition for any successful career. Some challenges are bigger than others, especially those that might initially create a fear of failure. Finding a way to channel fear into positive action is a big part of what builds strong leaders. While there have been many big challenges over my career, the one that stands out is when I elected to take over a large group of people who had very deep domain knowledge in areas which I knew very little about. Earning trust, building a team, and getting results are attributes of leadership that are distinct from being an expert at a task or having strong knowledge of particular subject. Those are lessons that have served me well.

Boyden: Can you mention some of the biggest mistakes you may have made?

Schipper: At a couple points in my career, I failed to see the importance of the company and the industry over the job and its responsibilities. I think it takes time and experience to learn to appreciate the importance of those things that make for an rewarding career: a dynamic industry, a company that is impacting the world in ways that matter, a culture that rewards results, and colleagues who are smart and who collaborate on achieving a shared vision. Put differently, it’s not easy to have a great career in a less-than-great company.

Boyden: Are different types of executives needed for certain functions, especially with technology and virtual management playing more prominent roles?

Schipper: There are stages in the evolution of markets and companies that demand different leadership attributes. Some leaders have the breadth of skills and the ability to adapt that enable success in nearly every kind of environment. Leadership jobs in technology tend to require a strong vision combined with a sense of urgency, because market transitions happen quickly. Opportunities for market leadership often have very narrow windows to create a differentiated value proposition.

Boyden: Do you find it exhausting sometimes or is it always a challenge that you enjoy being in an industry where you have to practically start over [reinvent yourself] every day?

Schipper: This is a good way to describe it, but it’s not exhausting. If anything, it makes it very difficult to get bored in this job because so much shifts so often that it really tests your ability to adapt and gives you a platform for channeling your achievement orientation almost daily. One feels the push more in newer markets compared to mature markets. In addition, something that tends to get overlooked in a large global company, and is acutely true of technology companies, is that your working life is flexible and completely virtualized—the decision to disengage is yours to make when you need to make it.

Boyden: When you do go on vacation, are you able to completely shut down?

Schipper: No, never. I personally don’t find it relaxing to completely shut down or disengage because if I do, the pace of the work just keeps moving forward, and I pride myself in never having more than about eight or 10 emails in my inbox... so I would actually find it extremely stressful if I disengaged for five or more days. But, I have no problem working with people that have a different pattern of how they manage the demands of their role.

Boyden: As technology matures, are we going back to a time when “people” are important again, not just in tech companies, but across industries?

Schipper: Organizations that do not value their people are wasting huge amounts of productive capacity. Research has consistently shown that creating a high-engagement culture directly translates into higher levels of financial performance and customer satisfaction. Think about your own experiences as a regular customer of companies competing in the same sector, such as air carriers. The degree to which those respective companies value their people is palpable in the customer experience. In the same way, think about the level of impact and results that a consistently highly-rated, high-potential team member achieves versus an average performer in the group. I don’t think it’s possible to create a truly great company that has a culture that does not value its people.

Boyden: You’re a big believer in leveraging technology even for areas such as long-distance mentoring and video discussion. How do you ensure people keep in touch with the “human side” as these tech tools proliferate?

Schipper: There is an emerging continuum of video-enabled collaboration technologies. Some fairly low-cost technologies work extremely well to enhance group discussion, over and above what only voice communication is able to provide. Today we regularly use technologies—where the video and sound quality is so good—there is essentially no compromise relative to an in-person interaction. Some collaboration can only be accomplished using a high-definition, no latency video technology solution—an example being my weekly staff meetings that involve direct-reports in nine time zones, or company-wide meetings that allow every employee both a real-time and after-the-fact opportunity to participate. Being able to accurately read a single person or a group’s reaction through non-verbal signals is critical for knowing whether information is really being internalized by others.

Boyden: You mentioned the nonverbal signals…this seems to remain critical for meetings. With the right technology, can those be picked up even in video?

Schipper: In collaboration technologies there is a hierarchy of capability emerging, such as very easy to use and broadly accepted tools like WebEx, which enable more information sharing and collaboration. On the other side of the spectrum we have Cisco TelePresence technology, which I use four or five times a day, often for interviews with very senior people ... where there is no latency either in the voice or in the video. It’s ultra high-definition and life size,
and there is no loss of connectivity with the person. In fact, what’s interesting, I find that more gets done more quickly because of the degree of focus we get from all participants. For example, it’s usually a larger distraction for participants to use a laptop and to respond to email during one of these meetings.

Boyden: Cisco, along with other progressive companies, regularly uses video for interviews and job offers. What can be lost in that process and how do you prevent that loss, especially with the intangibles?

Schipper: Having gone through the entire end-to-end process of hiring many candidates solely using video, including at senior management levels, I can say unequivocally that there is nothing substantive that gets lost in the process. If anything, the discussions benefit from the level of focus I spoke of earlier.

Boyden: What would be the one area where video could get in the way versus in-person?

Schipper: We have used video for large scale meetings and what you are starting to see is that super-high-quality videoconferencing for this type of meeting is actually superior. For example, if you are conducting a company or all-manager meeting that is a couple of hours long and is a combination of presenting and responding to questions —in that kind of a forum, you can actually create greater intimacy with video than if you had bussed everybody to some giant room. On the other hand, when we have used video for multi-day conferences, there are two things that happen—the level of intensity of the video experience being so close in front of you poses an endurance challenge, and I think, too, as does the loss of the social time that happens on breaks, in the evening and before the meeting begins. Those kinds of social interactions, where people catch up with one another, reestablish relationships, talk about work related things can get lost. Today, that is a compromise that has to be made when you choose to use video versus in-person gatherings. But it’s a fun challenge to really think about how we can overcome this gap in the experience.

Boyden: What you’re describing is the difference in attending a sporting event live at the stadium or watching a game in a living room with the benefit of fifteen cameras and close ups?

Schipper: That’s the perfect illustration of what I am describing... And to your point about preference, there are times when you prefer to be there live and other times when you prefer to experience the advantage of what video enables you to do in terms of the visual proximity to the game. I think you can often experience what’s going on on the “playing field” actually better through video.

Boyden: One of your Cisco initiatives has been to engineer a flatter organization, which allows better access and leverage of talent. What are the upsides and downsides to a flatter structure and how do you compensate for that?

Schipper: Work that results in important outcomes for our customers usually happens by involving committed, expert employees from multiple functions and/or geographies. Often, formal hierarchical reporting relationships and the implied level of consecutive approvals needed to endorse a group’s direction serve to do little more than slow down progress. This is acutely true because the scarcest commodity in most companies is senior leadership time and bandwidth. In a world where technology enables the full engagement of any and all who are needed to do the work, we have committed ourselves to a model of leveraging collaboration in our work processes. The upside is that everyone has the chance to get involved in work where they can add value based on their expertise and interest. As important, is the ability to rapidly gain alignment and progress without the need of perpetual reviews by a very few individuals at the very top of the organization hierarchy who have little available time. The downside is that not everyone is comfortable leading through expertise and influence versus through control and power that is derived from organizational hierarchy.

Boyden: A few years ago it was “de rigueur” to tout that HR executives were on the best path to become CEOs. We’re seeing more HR executives in the boardroom, so where do you see the future of the function as it relates to company leadership?

Schipper: Great CEOs create and communicate a compelling vision of the future, and have a track record of attracting and retaining leaders. And great CEOs build a culture of excellence and performance. Leaders who have these capabilities will always be in demand, either for top-level leadership positions or to lead companies in the future, regardless of their functional expertise. HR leaders are more actively recruited for board membership because the work of the board is increasingly accountable and conscious of issues of executive succession and readiness, as well as higher levels of scrutiny around reward practices. This is a trend that I fully expect to continue going forward.

Boyden: Globalization dominates nearly every discussion of corporate growth. How has that changed the hunt for the best executives?

Schipper: Companies that operate on a global scale must attract talent in all markets globally. The dilemma is that while entry and mid-level technical talent in the developing world is prepared, or mostly prepared for a professional career—this is less true at the managerial or leadership level. Companies have to establish better globalization practices, such as deploying leaders from countries and geographies that have larger pools of qualified talent to accelerate leadership capability in developing markets. The fact that there are so few managers and leaders who are ready to take on roles at the size and scale of most global companies, means that the competition for these candidates is intense.

Boyden: In which global markets do you find is most difficult to recruit? Why are they a recruiting challenge?

Schipper: We are always challenged to find talent in emerging markets. These countries are educating large numbers of technically oriented, newly graduating engineers and professionals—so as individual professionals, they have established, or are beginning to establish an advantage over many developed countries. This is especially the case because in the developed countries, in the US in particular, education in the sciences and technology disciplines are lagging in terms of numbers. But in developed countries, there’s a much longer tradition of established management and leadership practice than in the emerging countries, so the latter have to catch up.

Boyden: When trying to recruit a manager that is reluctant to change companies, what has been your best move to attract him or her at decision time?

Schipper: I’m not that interested in candidates whose primary focus is on job duties, scope, or responsibility. For the successful leader, these job attributes are constantly subject to change. I try to focus the candidate on the company culture, the leadership team and the industry. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a great job in a less-than-great company. So what matters is that the candidate views the company as a place to make a difference and build a career—not just do a job. When we talk about the opportunity we have to change the way the world lives, works, plays and learns—we find that our value proposition is hard to beat.

We would like to thank Dan Grassi of Boyden Atlanta for making this edition of Boyden’s Leadership Series possible.

The views and opinions expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of Boyden; only those of Mr. Schipper.