Google, YouTube, Facebook, Baidu and many others are the sites we can’t live without, yet one name that is as essential to the web is rarely mentioned in the same breath. If you guessed another content provider, you would be wrong.

The backbone of the internet, Cisco is the network system giant that makes it possible for us to stream high-definition video, hold face-to-face conferencing with colleagues around the world and increasingly provide the first line of defense against cyber attacks. But is it the first name consumers think of when it comes to web technology? Probably not. Does it have the appeal of Apple or the employer brand of Facebook? Again, no. So when it comes to competing for great talent, it can be a real challenge.

Realizing this, Jill Larsen, senior vice president for Talent Acquisition at the company, has set out to transform Cisco’s approach to winning and retaining talent — despite the company’s size and its long presence in the IT industry. What she and the team did was to shake up its image and reinvent itself as an employer of choice.

You may be thinking, doesn’t Cisco’s leadership in the networking world and its 30-year legacy count for something? For some workers, these attributes are highly desirable but not for most. According to the 2017 Randstad Employer Brand Research, which surveyed more than 160,000 working age adults around the world, only 25% say they prefer to work for a large company. Among IT workers, those numbers are more encouraging; 38% are attracted to big IT brands, but that still leaves a majority wanting the excitement that smaller, entrepreneurial businesses can offer.

Furthermore, experienced workers express an even greater reluctance to join big companies, with only 20% of those age 45-65 willing to do so. For Cisco, this fact can impact its ability to recruit those who have long-time knowledge of networking and cyber security. Despite the odds, Larsen’s strategy has led to significantly better recruitment outcomes at Cisco.

differentiation is key

“It’s really about differentiating ourselves,” Larsen recently told us over a video conference call on the company’s ubiquitous WebEx system. “We’re doing a lot of different things with our brand to make Cisco more accessible to talent. We’re talking to many different audiences with relevant messaging. We have to because we’re competing with start-ups, with incubators, as well as some large companies for critical talent and skills.”

The company has invested in a variety of efforts to create an employer brand that stands out in the industry. From leveraging social media (Cisco encourages employees to directly post to its Snapchat account and has created the popular #WeAreCisco hashtag) to expanding the role of recruiters as brand ambassadors to emphasizing the stability and financial rewards of a Cisco career, the company has a very strong employee value proposition (EVP) that it shares aggressively. Most importantly, the company is being creative in the way it recruits the talent it needs today and tomorrow.

“Our EVP is about the People Deal — essentially what you can expect as an employee and what we expect of you,” she explained, adding that creating a positive candidate experience is especially important to recruitment success. This means developing a genuine employer brand, leveraging the voice of their employees and creating a transparent workplace so prospective recruits better understand the mission and values of Cisco.

Some of the big changes in Cisco’s recruiting approach include unleashing the power of social media, which she said was absolutely necessary to provide an authentic look at the company’s culture. 

“We’re letting our employees tell our story,” she added, pointing out that the company provides a channel on its careers site in which employees recount their own work and life experience through weekly blogs. Topics can range from a worker’s journey up Mount Kilimanjaro to volunteering at homeless shelters. All of these stories add up to painting a holistic picture of work and fun — life in general — at the company.

Tactically, the company redesigned its career site to give it a more accessible and modern feel. Social media sharing is present on just about every part of the site, reinforcing the sharing mentality for its workers and site visitors. Furthermore, the company offers up a diversity of voice in an industry that’s often criticized for its gender imbalance in leadership and general workforce.

“For us, it’s about focusing on the work at Cisco. We want to get talent into our workplace and create a compelling story for them moving forward,” she added. “People are surprised with what we’re doing now. People aren’t aware we’re one of the largest cybersecurity companies in the world, so we continue to articulate our work.”

That articulation will shift as Cisco itself changes its product portfolio. Although widely known for its networking products, the company is also focused on its software and subscription offerings. At the same time, the company has made a number of acquisitions to broaden its portfolio. Moving into new businesses means it will have to compete for skillsets it previously didn’t need a lot of. Successfully competing with software giants and startups is the challenge facing Larsen and her team.

Larsen believes, however, that Cisco is well-positioned to go up against all the headline-grabbing internet companies. She notes that many of the employers they compete with can’t deliver on some of the most important attributes workers value. For instance, Randstad’s research reveals that the top three attributes they seek in an employer are an attractive salary and benefits, a good work-life balance and long-term job security. She pointed out that many internet startups fail to meet these requirements.

In contrast, Cisco is a well-established global leader whose solvency is never in doubt, offers a flexible work environment and provides competitive compensation, she pointed out — facts that the company is emphasizing to candidates. “Our recruiters are doing a better job explaining the wealth you can build at Cisco among other benefits, in contrast to the fact that many start-ups don’t make it as a business. At Cisco we help candidates envision their career and the equity they can achieve. The important thing is to share our story.”

And Cisco has been prolific at sharing the story in many ways, including with veterans, students, the disabled, and even workers who have dropped out of school who can still find a career at the company through training from its Network Academy. Larsen said it’s important Cisco recruits a diverse group of workers, who provide different perspectives that help build the company. 

“The ability to work virtually across the globe using Cisco’s collaboration tools allows us to provide jobs and create inclusiveness for those who may otherwise not have access to employment,” she added.

At the end of the day, Cisco’s efforts are about results, and Larsen pointed out that the company is making significant progress in its new approach to talent acquisition, which is in part supported by partners like Randstad Sourceright. She reported that manager and candidate satisfaction is at its highest level, cost and time to fill have improved and turnover among its recruitment team has dropped significantly. All of this comes with a high return on investment.

“Overall, I’m very proud of the ROI we have achieved. We haven’t spent a lot of money on our transformation. It is more about being thoughtful and strategic in how you approach the challenge,” she reflected. And that is a lesson from which many of Larsen’s peers can learn.