Emerging from the Shadows: A Career Transformation Journey

How participating in the Executive Shadow Program transformed the trajectory of Zonerphia Williams' career at Cisco.
Emerging from the Shadows: A Career Transformation Journey
Mar 26, 2024

By Zonerphia Williams · Project Manager · United States

with Helen Gall

3 Minute Read · 5 Minute Listen

After a fulfilling six-year stint as a stay-at-home mother to four wonderful children, joining Cisco was perhaps one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve made in life.

Like many families, the need to return to the workforce for economic stability was a necessity. While this transition wasn’t necessarily easy and my career faced a significant setback, it also presented an opportunity for growth and resilience.

A smiling family of six at the beach.
Zonerphia, with husband Larry, daughters Zariah and Zaniah, and sons Israel and Isyas, enjoying a day at Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Despite holding a finance degree, a master’s degree, and over 17 years of experience in the industry, I found myself starting from scratch, like the early days of my career.

Initially, it felt like my worth and relevance had taken a hit, but I soon realized that this was my chance to rebuild and excel. I had to tap into my rich history and experience, keep learning, and nurture an insatiable curiosity to grow.

As the saying goes, "When one door closes, another opens, but often there’s a long hallway in between." I found myself in that hallway after closing the door to my life as a stay-at-home mom.

For five years, I was a contractor at Cisco. There were other doors in this hallway, but at the time, they seemed closed to me. Those years were filled with patient, diligent work, often feeling unnoticed and underutilized. However, I was determined to make an impact, regardless of the outcome.

Then came the turning point! I got noticed, and the full-time conversion door swung wide open, leading to new opportunities for career growth and development. Among these was the most rewarding opportunity of all: The Executive Shadow Program.

Following my application and video submission to the program, I was privileged to be the first in the program’s history to be selected to shadow the remarkable Chief People, Policy & Purpose Officer Fran Katsoudas.

I have always held a deep admiration for Fran; I was elated. So much so that when she sported a new hairstyle with bangs on our employee all-hands, the Cisco Beat, I tried to emulate it. Unfortunately, the trim didn’t quite go to plan, and although my diagonal bangs were a temporary experiment, my respect for Fran only grew.

Two smiling women wear head coverings in a vehicle.
Zonerphia travels with Fran to Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi while attending the Forbes 30/50 Summit.

In March 2023, I got a call from Fran offering me the opportunity to travel with her to Abu Dhabi to attend the Forbes 30/50 Summit.

Celebrating the world's most powerful women for International Women's Day and being paired with an incredible executive, whose mentorship and wisdom have enriched my professional journey, was a remarkable and enriching experience.

“No man is capable of self-improvement if he sees no other model but himself,” someone wisely noted.

As a participant and lead in the Executive Shadow Program, I had the privilege of learning from some of the most distinguished and innovative minds in the industry.

This experience boosted my social capital and also provided me with invaluable insights into the roles of executives and the qualities needed to contribute to Cisco remaining one of the world’s best workplaces.

Exposure to the leadership styles and decision-making processes of seasoned executives has afforded me the opportunity to build professional relationships with high-level management and fellow participants.

Observing Fran clarified the skills and competencies I need to hone as I advance in my career, while also giving me a deeper understanding of Cisco’s operations, culture, and strategic objectives.

Being a participant in the program has been an incredible learning opportunity.

I’ve gained insights into best practices, as well as the challenges and responsibilities associated with various senior roles. The increased visibility within the organization has been an added bonus, potentially leading to future career advancement opportunities.

It has also been a source of inspiration and motivation, propelling me to set new career goals and deepening my resolve to achieve them.

Employee resources

Related links