For those of you not directly connected to the IT industry you might not even know who John Chambers is much less that he announced his plan to step down as Cisco Systems CEO after 20 years at the helm. Love him or hate him, or Cisco, you have to be able to reflect on his career and the company he led to learn a few things that you can leverage in your own career and life. For me his legacy and what I have learned from being in the IT industry is that his company has been a giant and breaks down into three things: Vision, Failure and People.
Many will argue that John Chambers and company really saw something coming (VoIP, Security, Video, IT of Things) but no one can argue he was a master in explaining his points in a way that his company, the IT Industry and the World could understand. The exact makeup of the vision may have been less impressive than others but you never failed to know what their vision was. Over the years I was able to be part of many events where he spoke and every time I was mesmerized by him as much as his message. He was known as a “crowd walker” many times, not staying on stage but walking through the audience making eye contact with those closest to him. The people who produced those events were said to hate it when he did that because it made capturing him on camera for the big screens very hard. But for those that he was looking toward they felt even more connected to the message and open to listening and not just hearing him. He understood that to communicate you had to connect. Like many of our great pastors from the churches of youth, when you thought he was looking and talking to YOU then you paid attention. He also amazed me by how much he could communicate when he spoke at a pace of a lazy creek in summer. Never rushing and never over doing the delivery, he always had you leaning in to hear him and make sure you didn’t miss the point. I will miss not seeing him on those stages just like I miss the other greats such as Steve Jobs and Robert Metcalfe.
With anyone pushing the envelope failure is inevitable. It is the only way to know where the line is between possible and hasn’t been done yet. Cisco has had their share of failures. Chambers has talked about them having 4 major failures at different times but for me it is less about the exact failures and more about how they handle them. Failure is an opportunity to learn what doesn’t work and/or whether you should be doing something. You never saw Chambers just fail and say “Oh Well”, what you saw him doing was explain what was planned, what was expected, what happened, and then how they were going to move forward. So many of us just give up on something when it doesn’t work out. But like Edison with the light bulb (he found 99 ways to not make one first) we should all look to learn from something that doesn’t work. Because that which doesn’t kill us makes us better for the next thing and if it doesn’t then we are likely to repeat the failure and the next time it might actually kill us.
For me the biggest thing I’ve learned from all of my reading and hearing about John Chambers was how he dealt with people. He was known to take part in sales meetings where is interaction would help result in successful outcomes because he was genuinely interested in helping his sales team and ensuring clients would be successful from a partnership with Cisco. He took time to talk with partners of Cisco, even small ones, about how the partnership was going and how Cisco could make it better. I was lucky to be part of one of those meetings where 10 partners spent an hour not listening to him but having a dialog and I left truly feeling that he heard what we needed and that it was going to be considered as they made future plans. But the biggest lesson was from some articles that have come out lately about how much he cared about the people of his company. He refers to Cisco as a 40,000 person family which is great to say but he actually showed through action that he believed it. Managers can submit any staff member to him that is having a ‘life’ event. He will likely reach out to see how he might be able to assist or just to make sure they know he is aware and available to help. There was actually one event where a staff member was having an event while he was in the middle of an interview with the press and he excused himself to make a call to personally pass along his sympathies because he felt that this staff member needed him more at that moment than the interviewer did. You might consider this action as grandstanding and self-serving based on when it happened but how many times over the years have you heard about him engaging his staff like this? For me not many until lately. For 20 years he has invested in his people both in good times and in bad and this is a true example of a leader.
So love or hate Cisco, agree or disagree with how John Chambers led the company, what you can’t argue with is that he led as he said he would and acted as an example of his values. For many people talk about greatness and leadership but don’t show it by their actions. For me John Chambers is someone I will also see as an example of how I should lead. Who do you hold up as an example of great leadership? Anyone I can learn from? Please share your thoughts and feelings so that I can continue to learn and grow.