careers – Michael McNeal

“It’s easy to be a great coach when you have great players.”

Who: Michael McNeal
Title: Director of Corporate Employment
Company: Cisco Systems Inc.
Location: San Jose, California
Age: 38


Michael McNeal doesn’t look like he’s from HR, sound like he’s from HR, or act like he’s from HR. But he is from HR — the HR department of a high-powered technology company that believes people are the driving force behind its rapid growth. “It’s easy to be a great coach when you have great players,” says McNeal, director of corporate employment at Cisco Systems Inc., one of the most successful companies in Silicon Valley — and the world. “It’s easier to be a great manager — and a great company — if you hire well. Managers here no longer ask, ‘How cheaply can I hire people?’ They say, ‘I’m going to invest money in the staffing process, because it’s going to give me a return on investment.’ “

McNeal started with Cisco in March 1996. Back then, the company had annual revenues of $4 billion, a stock-market value of $33.3 billion, and about 5,000 employees. Today it generates annual revenues of $8.4 billion, has a stock-market value of $76.7 billion, and has more than 15,000 employees. Cisco is adding new people at a rate of up to 1,200 per quarter. McNeal’s job is to ensure that as Cisco hires fast, it also hires well. How does McNeal approach his job? By rebelling against nearly every piece of conventional wisdom in his field. “If you’re going to be successful,” he likes to say, “you’ve got to be creative.” Consider, for example, his attitude toward the most basic tool used in hiring — Help Wanted ads. McNeal hates these ads with a passion. He compares them to the Yellow Pages — “the only other place on the planet where you’d run your ad next to the ad of somebody else who’s doing exactly the same thing you are.”

So how does Cisco let the world know it’s hiring? Just ask the huge crowd at last year’s Stanford-Berkeley football game. Every time the Bears or the Trojans scored, a group of Cisco people seated in the end zones waved placards that spelled out “” In the days following the game, visits to the college-recruiting section of Cisco’s much-visited Web site shot up by 10%. “The response from the game was tremendous,” McNeal says.

Or just ask the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Santa Clara Home and Garden Show, an annual celebration of petunia planting and geranium growing. Back in 1996, McNeal’s team put up the first Cisco information booth at the show. What do network routers have in common with roses? Demographics. Given the stratospheric level of real-estate prices in Santa Clara County, McNeal figured that anyone who could afford a home, let alone a garden, had to be at the top of their professional game. He was right. The garden show attracted up to 50,000 people per day — an astounding 78% of whom held professional degrees and worked in the high-tech sector. “People would walk up to us and say, ‘What are you guys doing here? Are you selling ISDN lines?’ ” he recalls. “We’d say, ‘We’re just talking about what it’s like to work at Cisco.’ “

That’s classic McNeal. When it comes to recruiting, Cisco is most famous for its cutting-edge Internet presence. (See “Hire Great People Fast,” August:September 1997.) The company’s Web site has become a turbocharged recruiting tool that lets job candidates match their skills with openings, submit an online resume — or create one using the site’s resume builder. But it’s the idea behind the Web site, not the site itself, that separates McNeal’s approach to hiring from how most companies do it. For one thing, he believes that great hiring requires creative marketing. “When it comes to staffing, we are the salesforce inside Cisco,” he says. “We sell Cisco every single day.” Indeed, McNeal analyzes his “hiring channels” in the same way that marketers analyze distribution channels.

One key channel is current employees. “If you have lots of great people at your company and you’re not asking them who else they know, then shame on you,” he says. Referral rates at Cisco are twice the industry norm. CEO John Chambers tracks referral rates as a key performance indicator, and he needles his staff if the numbers slip. Another key channel is college recruitment (hence the placards at the football game). And then there’s what McNeal calls the “direct channel” — people whom Cisco has identified as stars in their field and whom the company recruits directly. McNeal has 12 “sourcers” whose only job is to identify high-impact players who don’t yet work for Cisco. Sourcers scour the trade press, search through patent databases, look at who’s addressing prestigious conferences.


“Traditional recruiting limits you to people who are looking for work,” says McNeal. So he and his team go after what he calls “passive job seekers” — people who are satisfied with their current situation, haven’t thought about looking elsewhere, and may not even have a resume. The only way to recruit such people is to find them yourself. “That’s why we decided that we wouldn’t target places where people are walking around with resumes,” he explains.

There’s a second unconventional principle behind McNeal’s approach to talent: Hiring can work best when you work in tandem with customers and suppliers. Most companies consider recruiting to be a zero-sum game: Why should we help other companies attract great people? His rebuttal: Companies embrace partnerships in marketing and manufacturing — why not in hiring? “When several companies sponsor an event,” he argues, “we create more interest for people who might not be curious enough to look at one company, but they might look at several.”

A few years ago, for example, Cisco hosted a high-profile public breakfast. Don Blue, a prominent local radio personality, broadcast his morning show at company headquarters. Cisco invited Yahoo! and a few other Silicon Valley highfliers to be part of the event. Blue invited his listeners to stop by on their way to work and to learn about the companies. More than 2,000 people stopped by — and Cisco, Yahoo!, and their partners generated hundreds of leads. “Sure, there are similarities in the kinds of people we look for,” McNeal says. “But whether someone signs on with you or with me, we’ll both be stronger as a result.”

Michael McNeal may be creative, but he’s not crazy. He understands that if you operate outside the box, you’d better deliver results. That’s why he’s worked with a team of programmers to create software that quantifies the return on his offbeat investments. The software tracks how much each recruiting event cost, how many business cards it yielded, and how many of those contacts resulted in leads, interviews, and new hires.

“If a manager desperately needs people,” says McNeal, “and I walk in and say, ‘Let’s spend the $30,000 on the Santa Clara Wine and Arts Festival instead of a newspaper ad’ — that’s not an easy conversation to have. So it’s important to build systems that track results. Otherwise, you won’t be able to shift mind-sets. And you won’t get the support you need.”

What’s Fast

If you want to find great people, Cisco’s Michael McNeal argues, you’ve got to look in unusual places: “If you and I were marketing people, responsible for selling products, we’d ask a simple question: ‘Where are our customers?’ Well, at Cisco, we ask that question about our recruits. If we’re going to spend money recruiting great people, we want to spend it where we think they’ll be.” Superstar programmers and world-class computer designers don’t hang out at noisy job fairs in crowded exposition centers. But they do attend the Boston Marathon and the Mountain View International Microbreweries Festival — which is why McNeal’s recruiters (outfitted in their “” T-shirts) attend those events as well. And talented people go to baseball games — which is why McNeal’s crew signed up for a booth at the San Francisco Giants Fan Festival. (When the festival organizers later decided to make the event a combination Fan Appreciation Day and Job Fair, McNeal said fine — but he wanted no part of the Job Fair. He wanted a booth near the entrance to the ballpark, by the food.)


Eric Ransdell (, a Fast Company contributing editor, writes from San Francisco. You can reach Cisco Systems Inc. on the Web (