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Goodbye John Chambers & Thanks for the Memories

As Cisco's John Chambers passed the leadership baton to Chuck Robbins on July 27, so ended his tenure as iconic CEO and head of one of the most successful companies of the last 20 years.

A lot has been written about Cisco in that period, but very little penned discussing Chambers, the person, and how he transformed Cisco from a single-product company with barely a billion in revenue to the dominant IT solutions provider it is today.

John Chambers, Cisco

I've been involved with Cisco now for about 15 years as an analyst, and prior to that I worked for a few years at a Cisco VAR and I also spent many years as a Cisco customer. I didn't meet Chambers until I became an analyst, but since that first encounter I have had the good fortune of meeting with him regularly. Over the years I've gotten to know him, which has helped me understand why Cisco has been so successful and why it has such a strong culture.

I feel a number of Chamber's personality attributes have permeated through Cisco to make it the unique company that it is. They are as follows.

Obsessed with customer success
Resellers and customers have many choices available in the areas of networking and communications. I believe the loyalty to Cisco is so strong because of the support it gives its customers. Every employee, from Chambers on down, receives a bonus based in part on customer satisfaction scores. That delivers the message to employees that if they leave customers unhappy, then they'll be taking money out of everyone's pockets at the company.

I first noticed the company's differentiation in customer support as a customer calling into Cisco's technical assistance center (TAC). Typically when you call a vendor's support line, even if you have a critical problem, you'll need to supply a contract number or maybe even break out a credit card before you can talk to an engineer. Not so with TAC. I remember calling in about products that weren't even under warranty and had no support contract. Regardless, the support staff would open up a courtesy ticket anyways -- just to ensure it could help get the business back up and running. Any billing or other logistical issues would happen after problem resolution. It's a pretty easy business philosophy that I wish more companies would adopt: Take care of your customers and resellers, and make sure they know you have their backs, and success will come.

Willingness to take risk
Risk-taking is a crucial part of being successful in the business world. If you're always making the safe bet, you're probably not making enough bets. Chambers certainly never feared taking a risk if he believed he was right. The best example of this is when he declared publicly that voice would be free. He made this proclamation in the mid '90s when Cisco had no telco presence and was looking to become a credible supplier. At the time, the majority of telco revenue came from voice, so in his statement Chambers alienated many of the global service providers and even telecom suppliers. However, he ended up being right: Voice moved to IP, and the cost of voice fell through the floor. Today Cisco is one of the industry's dominant telco providers; making the statement "voice will be free" put him and Cisco on the map.

Another example is when Chambers took Cisco into enterprise voice when it acquired Selsius Systems back in 1998. At the time, companies like Nortel and Lucent guffawed at Cisco, steadfastly sticking to their guns that voice was too important to run on IP. While those organizations were trying to hold the industry back, Cisco was running away with the early adopters in the VoIP market, and now holds the market-leading position.

Strong family-like culture
Despite having almost 70,000 employees, Chambers often refers to Cisco as a family. If anyone is struggling or sick, he takes a personal interest in the situation and does what he can to help. The story of Hope Galley, covered by The Washington Post, is a great example of this. Years ago, Galley, a Cisco account rep, received a diagnosis that she had stage 4 cancer in her leg. Chambers took a personal interest in her condition, made some phone calls, and was able to accelerate her ability to get care.

This is just one of countless stories of how Chambers has helped employees with career and personal struggles, a family-mindedness that seems to have filtered downward and is widespread among managers, too.

One thing I've noticed is that when employees leave Cisco, even if they've been let go, they seldom have anything bad to say about the company.

Is on a mission to change the world
On the surface, you might believe that what has driven Chambers over the years is the desire to make Cisco the biggest and best IT company. While that's certainly true, Chambers is passionate about using Cisco's technology to change the world and make it a better place. He has repeatedly called out education and the Internet as the two equalizers in business -- and that's driven him to use Cisco's position to influence country leaders to build out broadband strategies and bring education to places lacking in it.

In addition, Cisco takes corporate social responsibility (CSR) as seriously as any company I have ever seen. Most large businesses have a CSR group, but Cisco talks the talk and walks the walk. For example, many groups at Cisco work on Habitat for Humanity projects as a way of team building. Also, the company has put together a disaster relief team, which I profiled in this recent blog. This is one of the reasons why Chambers has won so many humanitarian awards, including the first Clinton Global Citizen Award. Frankly, I wish Chambers and Cisco would talk more about their social initiatives. They do really great work making the world a better place, but very few know about it.

A willingness to listen
In this post on my Top 10 favorite Chambers' quotes, #1 on the list is: "Tell me three things Cisco could be doing better." In my opinion, his asking of this question is why he has been so successful. He asks this of everyone -- employees, customers, partners, analysts ... anybody that has an opinion on Cisco. However, he doesn't just ask the question; he listens to all feedback and uses it to improve the company. One time he asked me that question while we were in Hong Kong. We ran into each other six months later, as I sat in the lobby of a Cisco building and he happened by. He stopped, taking the time to remind me of how I answered the question and telling me about the actions he took as a result -- then asked for my feedback again. When the leader of a company takes the time to understand what you're thinking and then respects it enough to take action, he gains a tremendous amount of respect.

Dealing with integrity
In this era of social media, it seems corporate scandals are becoming more and more commonplace. But I don't ever recall a situation in which Cisco has had the finger pointed its way for doing anything even remotely related to a bending of the rules -- no option fraud, lawsuits, personal scandals... or even deflated footballs. Don't get me wrong, Chambers will roll up his sleeves and compete with anyone, but he'll do so with integrity. And that's true across Cisco today. When asked about working for Cisco, a common refrain of many employees is that Chambers is, above everything, an honorable man. If he says he's going to do something, he will. If you need help, he will help you. Why? Because it's the right thing to do. (Watch a tribute video, below.)

In hindsight, on any of the occasions in which Chambers asked me what Cisco could be doing better, my answer one of those times should have been to talk more about company culture and what makes the company unique and what partnering with Cisco means. Like I said, I've dealt with a lot of companies in my career as an analyst, and prior to that as a customer, and Chambers' values cut across Cisco and make it different. Perhaps, getting the broader world to understand this could be a task for Robbins as he digs into the CEO role.

One last point, at Cisco Live in June, Chambers assured me that he will continue to be active in his role as executive chairman. So, he'll continue to be visible and influence Cisco, just in a different way. I'm looking forward to the next chapter.

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