HR in the Hot Seat - Alex Johnson, Cisco Canada

IT giant’s HR leader on the importance of knowing your strengths and why HR should experiment more

HR in the Hot Seat - Alex Johnson, Cisco Canada
As Cisco Canada’s HR leader, Alex Johnson oversees the IT giant’s HR strategy and operations.

After nearly a decade with Cisco, his current focus is on building better teams, through pioneering and launching strength-based global engagement and talent programs.

Here, he shares why HR professionals should follow their career passion and experiment more, and the importance of empowering teams.

If you could give your younger self or someone entering the HR field one piece of advice, what would it be?
Well, I actually have a few. First, be cautious with advice from anyone who isn’t genuinely invested in your success. Second, spend the time and effort to find work that you’re good at, but don’t stop there - place your career bets on the work that you’re good at and that energizes you. Lastly, always work to develop your strengths.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for your HR department?
We all know that the workplace is becoming more dynamic, requiring more collaboration than ever before. In fact, I’d say that teams are the basic building blocks of a successful, dynamic organization. We are all part of different teams and we all have roles to play on each of them. Companies have historically looked at hierarchical teams because HR and finance tools are set up to staff, pay, and generally manage them; however, some of the best results come from teams that come together temporarily to solve for a solution together. Historically, we haven’t had the appropriate tools to measure these dynamic teams, let alone manage them. At Cisco, we’re using an application called Team Space to help all types of teams to focus, optimize their strengths, and improve their engagement. We are using our expertise around optimizing networks, to better optimize teams.

Equally exciting for our employees across the globe is Our People Deal. Through Our People Deal, we articulate what our employees can expect of Cisco and what Cisco asks of them in return. It is tremendously exciting to engage employees at an individual level and capitalize on moments that matter most to them.

What’s the biggest professional obstacle you (or your team) have faced and how did you overcome it?
This may sound surprising, but I would say the perception that some outside of the function have of HR. HR has evolved from a compliance role to an innovating, change accelerating, business partner. I am fortunate to have led teams that have created exceptional value for the business and that have largely been viewed as consistently driving positive impact for our stakeholders.

What’s your biggest industry worry or concern right now?
The industry is not experimenting enough. Our opportunity to utilize the latest technologies is incredible. We’re currently exploring and experimenting with the use of artificial intelligence, virtual and augmented reality, and cognitive computing knowing full well that they will dictate the future of our industry. I simply don’t see HR practitioners taking the steps to investigate these technologies nearly enough.

If you could change anything about the HR industry, what would it be?
We need to focus more on understanding the changing experiences of our stakeholders and work backwards from there. It’s been amazing to watch business models completely change over the last decade. For example, apps for your phone used to be targeted for use outside of work only. Now, we have apps that help you manage your work teams and that give you insights into how members of your team are likely to behave. As more value is uncovered, we’re afforded a much bigger opportunity to lead in a different way. We have some exciting times ahead.

What is the proudest moment or achievement of your HR career so far?
Succeeding in driving real business impact has always been exciting and has defined many of the proud moments I’ve experienced in my career thus far. So often, we think about how we need to push the larger HR agenda instead of enabling the business to pull an HR agenda that will accelerate business strategy.

How do you predict the industry will change, if at all, over the next five years?
Machine learning, predictive analytics, and automated data gathering will begin to reduce the number of administrative tasks required of HR professionals as technology becomes better able to manage them. This will require many roles in HR to pivot into helping facilitate the intersection of digital solutions and people.

What would you like your HR legacy to be?
With the HR function at a digital inflection point, I’d hope that I was a leader in adopting innovative solutions that drive our function forward. I think it’s incredibly important that we leverage the new digital capabilities that we have to advance HR’s role and better position all HR practitioners for the future.

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