How Cisco Disrupted Its Approach to Talent

Cisco Systems’ talent acquisition leader explains how the company changed the way it finds great people.
By: | March 6, 2017 • 8 min read

Throughout my entire career, regardless of the industry I was in or the company I worked for, there has been a theme that has emerged. It’s simple—the most consequential investment an organization can make is hiring and retaining great talent—period. Ironically, one of the other consistent themes I’ve witnessed is the lack of investment that companies are willing to make in their talent or HR functions. In fact, I’ve often seen human capital consulting firms disparaging the relevance and capability of the talent/HR functions, all the while charging a multiple of 10 to 30 times what it would cost a company to properly invest in the internal HR capability to generate similar outcomes! It’s been an interesting paradox for me. This becomes even more perplexing with the emergence of data clearly showing that the future technology talent we need will be scarce and, with startups and incubators popping up by the hour, there is an unprecedented demand for this talent. Couple that with the fact that the very concept of talent acquisition as we know it is being disrupted and digitized, and you have yourself a big, hairy audacious problem.

Even if we assume that our current fiscal approach to HR and talent investment isn’t going to change in the near future, that doesn’t diminish the fact that we need to reimagine our approach to talent acquisition. At Cisco, we recently turned TA on its head and disrupted ourselves. We simply couldn’t scale to hire the next-gen talent we needed for our shift to the cloud, the “Internet of Everything” and Software-as-a-Service. We were a requisition-fulfillment function that needed to become a consultative generator of amazing cloud and software talent—not an easy feat for a 30-year-old Silicon Valley company. Morale was low, investment was negligible and attrition was high in TA. The transformation has been no small feat.


We started simply—with a vision, mission, executable goals and metrics. At first, the team was skeptical; they had seen too many optimistic leaders come and go. Not a week would go by without a “We tried that already” or “That won’t work.”  But our mission was simple: We needed to build a best-in-class TA organization to inspire today’s talent for tomorrow’s Cisco.

Our collective efforts led us to achieve some incredible results: We’ve hit our highest hiring manager and candidate satisfaction scores; our cost-per-fill and time-to-fill beats industry estimates; our TA attrition is at miniscule levels; we’ve dramatically improved our diversity talent hires; we jumped significantly in exposure with our talent brand, winning awards and accolades frequently. We’ve dramatically grown our recruiter capabilities while investing in the infrastructure necessary to allow them to focus on what they do best.

Based on my experience transforming Cisco’s approach to recruiting, here are three lessons HR leaders should consider as they reevaluate their talent acquisition strategies:

1. Recognize the power of social

Simply put, recruiters need to be where their candidates are. Our recruiters are leveraging social networks daily to accelerate our talent brand and connect with active and passive talent pipelines. We repurposed investment to build a talent brand team. We learned to become storytellers and leverage our leaders and employees to accelerate our brand through their networks. We shifted our approach to recruiting events, realizing that we can leverage Cisco’s collaboration technology to make hires at events and to show up differently. We all have become brand ambassadors. We got a lot smarter about how to leverage LinkedIn, Glassdoor and even our career site to vastly improve our candidate experience.

In 2015, we kicked off a major social initiative with the launch of our #We Are Cisco talent brand campaign. That campaign increased our recruitment reach on Twitter by 2,253 percent and created a presence on new channels like Snapchat, Blab and Periscope, where we can reach new candidate audiences—the types of candidates we need to hire today to build tomorrow’s Cisco.

In our journey, we gave our recruiters the ability to curate social content under the “We Are Cisco” umbrella and theme. We used an authentic voice—that of our employees—to connect to potential candidates and sell the value of a Cisco career. It’s important that you find a voice that’s not only authentic to your talent brand but also grabs audience interest through mediums like video and audio sound bites, GIFs or even memes.

Candidates weigh an organization’s culture heavily when considering an opportunity to work there. We created a strong connection with candidates by using our employees to amplify our We Are Cisco brand.  We were able to share multiple perspectives on the employee experience through the personal stories told by our own employees, effectively turning our 70,000-plus employees into brand ambassadors. By leveraging employees’ own digital networks, we can also reach more potential talent through an authentic and genuine look at what makes employees love the work they do.

One word of caution: To be successful with social, you do need to put some guardrails in place regarding employee content (what they can and can’t post on behalf of your company) and it will require you to negotiate with (or ask forgiveness from!) your marketing organization to ensure that the talent brand approach has a different strategy, vehicles and risk tolerance than your product strategy. Once you build momentum and credibility with social, you’ll find that this becomes more of a symbiotic relationship.

2. Rethink the “recruiter”

If you want to attract the best talent, then you need to make an investment in your most critical TA asset: recruiters. TA is often the first touch point for a potential new hire; the TA team should reflect the very best, freshest features of a company’s culture and talent brand. Recruiters should be equipped with the ability to generate talent pipelines, know how to competitively differentiate your company, deeply understand your products and markets, be able to consult to all their constituencies and, most importantly, they need to be able to negotiate and close the deal to hire the best candidates.

To do this, you have to invest in their capabilities and you have to make tough decisions about how you reward and manage accountability. Our significant investment in this area has more than paid for itself in massive productivity savings over the last two years. We invested in TA consulting and business advisory skills, methodologies and governance around our new candidate relationship marketing system and recruiting certifications to allow recruiters to better leverage LinkedIn and sourcing tools. We also introduced a new rewards program tied to our new key performance indicators. This has created competitive differentiation among our recruiters, which was really important to them. Lastly, we are investing in career paths and rotations and, most of all, we are having fun!

In order to facilitate this transition, organizations should amplify digital training and incentives. Initiating a “gamification” of the recruiting process can create a higher level of engagement for your talent advisors, as they earn the right to influence by informing their decisions through deep organizational knowledge and market expertise. One of the best byproducts of this investment has been a marked improvement in our hiring-manager satisfaction rates and the quality of candidate feedback.


Investing in the recruiting role will also instill a more creative, empowering recruiting environment—and prospective hires will take note. In our transformation, we provided our recruiters with social networking tools and insights. As a result of this, our recruitment team was able to make decisions that resulted in the Cisco Careers site earning 80,000 unique views per month, and becoming the second-highest traffic driver to

3. Leverage cloud-based talent intelligence for proactive sourcing

Creating a transparent talent ecosystem is probably the most important step Cisco is undertaking in its digitization of HR and transformation of talent acquisition. It’s by no means simple or turnkey, but once we’re complete, we are confident we’ll easily be able to align the right people to the right work at the right time, creating the best teams.

Traditional recruitment techniques utilize many standalone tools that can hinder efficiency and productivity. By integrating cloud-based platforms to break down infrastructure silos, we can more easily aggregate and deliver talent insights to our leaders and dramatically reduce time spent identifying our talent needs and potential candidates. With a solution that integrates many previously disparate data points, recruiters and HR are able to focus on strategic approaches, high-touch candidate management and consultative relationships with hiring managers.

One of the most significant elements of the cloud-based system we’re developing is a module that identifies macro talent trends. New capabilities allow us to map talent pools, provide insight for strategic people planning, and influence STEM and diverse talent pipelines. We have a team of data scientists and business intelligence analysts who’ve built tools and algorithms to analyze and map talent communities. Their work rivals that of the large human capital consulting firms and it’s helped Cisco make intelligent, data-driven decisions about our site strategy and hiring strategies.

The results speak for themselves. Cisco has reduced its overall TA spend, increased productivity, created an enviable talent-brand strategy, improved every metric and introduced next-generation KPIs, massively improved our talent pipelines, introduced cutting-edge tools and data insights and unleashed the potential of our recruiters. We’ve been able to attract amazing talent in all of our new growth areas. Together, we’ve proven that not only is it possible to transform the HR and TA strategy for a 30-year old technology company, but you can have fun in the process, too.

Jill Larsen is the senior vice president for talent acquisition, people planning and services HR at Cisco. Her accomplishments include building global HR organizations, HR technology transformations, talent brand and employee engagement, total rewards, design and implementation of HR analytics, and the design of talent management and leadership development strategies. Jill has also completed over 40 acquisitions during the course of her career.