Mentoring Women

Mentoring Women | Human Resource Executive Online In a Q&A with Senior Editor Andrew R. McIlvaine, Annemarie Neal, vice president of talent strategy and executive development at Cisco Systems, shares information on her organization's Women's Action Network and offers advice to other companies considering such mentoring programs.

Monday, December 1, 2008
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What is the Women's Action Network, and when was it started at Cisco?

Our Women's Action Networks are employee resource groups. ERGs are voluntary, employee-driven groups organized around a particular shared interest or dimension, such as race, ethnicity, culture or gender, and are sponsored and supported by Cisco Systems. 

Cisco supports these groups for a number of reasons, including its commitment to a diverse workplace and maintaining a culture of inclusion where employees can thrive and where different perspectives, styles, thoughts and ideas are valued and encouraged. 

Cisco's first ERG was the WAN (Women's Action Network) -- started in early 2000.  

When was the WAN's coaching program started, and how do you recruit women employees at Cisco to serve as coaches?

We started the WAN coaching program in May of 2008. Our coaches are cross-gender, as we strongly feel that women employees may wish to choose gender based on the issues that they are working through. 

Our coaches are members of either the Cisco Talent Organization or the Cisco Learning Community. We have three tiers of coaches, based on the expertise, training and certifications of our coaches. 

Tier 1 coaches are experienced to work with any issues that could arise -- for the most part, they're largely Ph.D.-level consultants who specialize in executive assessment, coaching and development. 

Tier 2 coaches are certified coaches who are trained to work with most issues associated with career planning and issues related to management. These coaches are also from the Talent Organization. 

Tier 3 are learning and development partners who specialize in coaching issues related to career planning. We have 25 coaches in total for this pilot program.

We set out to staff this pilot with a very small but highly skilled team of coaches (all internal) so we could control for quality. All of them went through extensive training.  

How will the success/effectiveness of the coaching program be determined?

Success is determined in two ways: First, each participant completes a survey post the coaching. The survey asks several questions, the best of which is, "Would you recommend this service to a friend?" 

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Ninety percent of our participants would -- so we view this pilot as initially successful.

Also, feedback from the coaches is important. We survey our coaches to understand whether they feel issues have been worked through and resolved in a productive manner. Since this is a confidential service, we have decided to not ask managers for feedback at this time.  

You told our writer, Lois Levine, that you had to shut registration down for the program because the response was so overwhelming. Have you, or are you planning to, take steps to ensure that the demand for the coaching is met? Were you surprised by the high demand?

We weren't surprised by the volume, based on our needs assessment. We have a full-scale plan in place to bring this service out to all of our ERGs. This plan will be fully technology enabled, whereas our pilot was not. We have no concerns regarding scale, post-pilot.   

What advice would you give to other companies that are thinking about starting a similar coaching program?

First, it is hugely important to have strong coaches who hold a common methodology regarding coaching. It's also important to have full access to technology that supports teleconferencing and Web conferencing, given the number of remote sites many companies have.

It's critical to have a strong team of executive sponsors. This program was sponsored by the leader of the WANs (our senior vice president of global affairs) and myself. It is crucial to have a strong Web site that allows for marketing, communication, registration, scheduling and survey distribution. And, it doesn't hurt to have your CEO's support, as we did.  

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