Dash of inspiration

Kevin Blair is blending innovative technology, data and market intelligence with years of experience to change the face of recruitment at networking giant Cisco

Fri, 29 Apr 2016 | By Colin Cottell


Kevin Blair is blending innovative technology, data and market intelligence with years of experience to change the face of recruitment at networking giant Cisco 

The leader of global talent and acquisition at internet networking giant Cisco, Kevin Blair, wears his responsibilities lightly. With between 10,000 and 15,000 hires a year, and a team of 200 recruiters, dispersed across the world, this is recruitment on an industrial scale.

And with that scale comes the ambition of being a global player in one of the world’s most exciting sectors. Advised that four senior executives left Twitter that morning, Blair takes the news in his stride. “Listen, if they are talent we will obviously talk to them. We have a very effective executive recruitment team here at Cisco, so if they are in dialogue and if they are on the open market, who knows.

“I wouldn’t want to comment on individual candidates,” he adds, “but feel free to send their CVs to careers@cisco.com.” And with that he lets out a hearty Northern laugh.

The affable and ebullient Blair joined Cisco in 2014 after being headhunted from technology company Salesforce.com. He agrees that yes, being responsible for 70-75% of Cisco’s global hires is a big role but “it doesn’t feel like it’s uncontrollable… We make the right investments around us, so from an operational perspective we’re able to run it fairly comfortably.”

One of those investments is a new recruitment dashboard. And it is evidently Blair’s pride and joy. “I live in the system,” says Blair, as enthusiastically as a kid showing off a new toy at Christmas. He invites Recruiter to examine the squiggle of lines, coloured charts and graphs on his laptop that are, frankly, bewildering to the untrained eye. Developed with the help of the talent acquisition team over the past 12 to 18 months, the system, according to Blair, is changing the face of recruitment at Cisco.

“Let’s look at one of my regions,” says Blair, pointing to a line graph showing how demands on his recruiters from the business jumped suddenly from 87% to 145% of their capacity in the space of just a few weeks. “It’s real-time trend data presented in a very visual way. It enables us to start a conversation on how sustainable this is, and whether we need to make some longer-term investments in the team.”

Blair says the dashboard was inspired by Cisco’s global head and director of the talent acquisition and people planning operations team, Ian Bailie, as part of his vision to move talent acquisition away from “spreadsheet-oriented” recruitment. That’s something Blair says he experienced during his in-house recruitment career and now clearly relishes having put behind him.  

“I think a lot of talent acquisition teams use data defensively, to prove they’re doing a good job. We see data as a means to fine-tune and spot trends, such as where time-to-fill is having an impact. We can look at these issues in detail using a methodology,” says Blair.

“Analytics is becoming more and more important to what we do and it involves consuming huge amounts of data,” he explains. 

Working with data in this way brings several benefits. “We’re a much better partner in being able to talk the same language as vice presidents and senior vice presidents, who are quite comfortable with data. They understand and appreciate this and it hands the power back to us in terms of arming us for those conversations.” 

Driving Cisco’s focus on data is the business intelligence team. Blair says one of its most significant contributions has been the development of talent ‘heat maps’ for different markets. 

“We can say to people ‘this is how we think you’re going to perform over the next six to 12 months. Not only that, but here are some of the challenges you’re going to run into and this is how you should be redefining your recruitment – and also, these are the kind of locations where you might struggle as an organisation’.”

It’s all about competitive advantage and getting ahead of the curve. “What we can then do is take this information and knowledge and pass it to a team that sits ahead of the recruiters, who are able to identify a huge number of individuals en masse. We already know what the talent landscape looks like and we already know some of the people in those markets.

“This allows us to take strategic planning down to a very tactical level, because you’ve got the resources in place and the information to hand. With that setup, you’re less likely to have a big panic if and when a hundred requisitions fall out of the sky. We’re able to absorb these flexes much more readily.”

Blair says the perennial challenge is that “less than 1% of people” who ever come onto Cisco’s radar are right for the organisation. “Part of our further evolution into becoming a sales organisation that wants to be as commercial as possible is to start to look at candidate management through our CRM (candidate relationship management) system. 

OK, they might not be right at the moment, but how do we continue to have a relationship with them?

“In many ways, recruitment is about timing, timing for the candidate, and timing for the business. We know what Cisco is going to do from a talent acquisition perspective and we know how candidates make decisions around their life. So, the more data we have and the more we are able to use technology to fine-tune that data, the more effective we are in bringing that talent in.”

Technology also makes life easier for his recruiters, with “the actual burden on the individual recruiter becoming less,” says Blair.

However, he acknowledges that it also puts new demands on them in terms of keeping up to speed. “We’ve moved on a long way from the Rolodex. But if your ATS (applicant tracking system) and your LinkedIn recruiter account are the only things you can leverage going forward, I’m not sure you’re going to remain as relevant in the market.” This is especially the case in the technology sector “where we’re seeing candidates existing in smaller niches. 

The dashboard, the talent mapping and the use of global hiring hubs are all elements of the ongoing transformation of Cisco’s talent function, under Blair’s boss, Jill Larsen.

She is the company’s vice president HR – global HR leader for services, talent acquisition and workforce planning, who joined the company in 2013. 

Blair says the transformation is continuing as Cisco moves into new “non-traditional markets, where candidates don’t see Cisco as an obvious destination”, such as security, the cloud, and the Internet of Things, where it is facing new competition for talent, for example from software companies. 

While technology, data and market intelligence have a crucial role in identifying that talent, Cisco has supplemented this with more investment in its talent brand, particularly through the use of social media. 

It comes down to being authentic, says Blair. “Instead of saying simply, ‘we’re hiring’, we try to communicate who we are and what we’re good at. 

If someone thinks they’ll thrive in that environment, we invite them to have a conversation because we’ll talk to them if they’re talent.

“The challenge is to communicate this in the right way to allow people to make the decision for themselves in a way that feels informed,” he says. 

Blair accepts that running a global recruitment function that operates in countries as diverse as the US and emerging markets poses unique challenges. “One-size-fits-all versus fine tuning: that’s the $64m question,” he says, adding with a laugh, “That’s not my budget by the way”. 

“Do I think we need to refine and tell a local story? Absolutely, because not everyone in the company works at our San Jose headquarters, so why would we just tell the San Jose story?” 

“I think it is 60:40 in favour of global consistency,” he concludes.  

He acknowledges that diversity is now high on the agenda of companies in the technology sector, in particular as a potentially rich source of ‘non-traditional’ talent. However, for someone whose personal approach to communication “tends not to be very dressed up corporate-speak” but more “how it is” he is unusually guarded on how Cisco is performing. “We release the diversity stats in a formal report, so I can’t comment around what our trajectory is,” he says. 

That said, he points to Cisco’s executive committee, which is 50% women. “As head of recruitment, it’s great to be able to point to that.”

However, he cautions about the dangers of focusing on just one figure “as being the measure of success”.

“It’s all about creating the right steps that support a diversity strategy, and that’s leadership behaviour, environment and culture.”

And just as he believes a company’s performance on diversity can’t be boiled down to one figure, Blair says that technology is only part of the company’s changing recruitment strategy. New ways of measuring and driving recruiter behaviour are just as important, he says. 

In addition to traditional metrics, such as time-to-fill, every recruiter is ‘scored’, both by hiring managers and by new hires. This is supplemented by a quarterly survey of Cisco’s own executives, which rolls into a KPI (key performance indicator).  

“Obviously when you are an organisation that’s pushing towards 80,000 staff, you’ve got to find a way to build in the high-touch humanistic element into this scaled-up environment. 

I think we’re getting that right, and we’ll see more of it as we move forward.” 

For all of his love of data and his whizzy new dashboard, it seems that even for Blair, when it comes to recruitment, technology has its limits. 


Feb 2014 – present: Global talent and acquisition leader, Cisco

2012-14: Senior director, EMEA recruitment, Salesforce.com

2007-12: Recruitment director EMEA, Oracle

2004-07: Recruitment director, Ikon Office Solutions/Ricoh

2002-04: Recruitment director, Caudwell Group


2015: $49.16bn (£34.39bn) annual revenue

          71,833 employees

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