John Chambers, A Celebrity CEO, Paving Way for Chuck Robbins

Successor Choice a Surprise as Rob Lloyd was considered the frontrunner

Come July 26 this year, Cisco will have a new CEO, with the mantle falling on Mr Chuck Robbins, replacing Mr John Chambers who is relinquishing the position a year in advance after being at the helm for more than 20 years.

Mr Chambers, who will continue as Cisco’s Executive Chairman, had intended to step down as CEO only by July 26, 2016.

I consider Mr Chambers a celebrity CEO in the mould of Mr Bill Gates. The choice of his successor comes as a surprise given that Mr Rob Lloyd, Cisco President, was considered the frontrunner the last few years.

I joined Cisco in August 2005 as its first corporate bid manager in APAC, hired by the group headquarters in San Jose to steer its Proposal group in the region.

Visionary leader: I was filled with a sense of pride as Cisco had been hailed as a visionary company headed by a visionary leader. Cisco also had a very tough hiring process as its goal was to get the top 5% of people in their area of expertise.

I had the opportunity to briefly meet him during one of my visits to the U.S. for the Global Sales Meetings, which used to be held with a lot of fanfare before they made it virtual in 2008. He was an easily accessible, gentle leader and a brilliant speaker who could hold his audiences in rapt attention.

When Mr Chambers became Cisco’s CEO in 1995, it was just a $1.2-billion company. Today it is close to hitting $50 billion in annual sales.

Coming with a Sales background, he tried to give Cisco a consumer/entertainment orientation with some acquisitions such as Linksys, a home networking leader, and the Flip pocket HD video company. Mr Chambers was keen to make Cisco a household name and not just a cutting-edge technology company selling boxes – routers and switches.

Linksys owned the iPhone nomenclature/trademark and Cisco challenged Apple when the latter used the name without its consent. But the two reached an out-of-court settlement.

Chambers 20 years of leadershipDuring the dotcom boom, Cisco almost became Wall Street’s first trillion-dollar company. Then came the bust and its market value took a hit. Some failed acquisitions (Navini Networks, Flip, etc) and periodical global recessions kept the company’s stock price under pressure.

Cisco’s Democratic Traditions: In a scathing commentary here in 2011, I had even written that it was time to go for Mr Chambers — something I was not shy of airing even when I was with the company. The democratic traditions within Cisco ensured that I could speak my mind through the company’s internal staff blogging platform.

Cisco also faced intense competition from the likes of Huawei and Juniper, almost losing its technological edge.

But it consistently had a sound cash balance, $50 billion in reserves, that it continued to tap for innovations/R&D and acquisitions while ensuring profitability.

He saw a bright future for video and a digital world, initiating measures to see Cisco was ready to ride market transitions and capitalise on Connected Life trends tied to its core networking business. Some offerings that launched Cisco into the video market are TelePresence, Videoscape and the Digital Media System.

UCS, IoE: During my stay with the company, Mr Chambers also made Cisco take the plunge into the server space with UCS, a move that made some of its closest partners (such as HP) business foes.

It is now placing its bets on the Internet of Everything which has the potential to keep Cisco’s position at the top intact. Cisco has been doing very well the last several quarters.

My Resignation and Mail to Mr Chambers: My respect for Mr Chambers grew when, after submitting my resignation, I shot him a mail highlighting some reasons that made me decide Cisco was not the place I could continue working.

It elicited a quick response and the Executive Vice President for HR (who directly reported to Mr Chambers) called me from San Jose to discuss the issues I had raised and promised a thorough investigation. This was an extraordinary follow-up and I doubt any such thing could happen in any of the world’s top companies.

But I had already made up my mind to leave, accepting an offer from BT. So I did not reconsider my decision.

However, that was a positive experience which instantly enhanced the reputation of Cisco in my mind.

As Cisco will continue to have the services of Mr Chambers as Chairman, his successor and the company can benefit from his thought leadership without impeding the new CEO’s own strategies and plans.

G Joslin Vethakumar


Filed under Cisco, John Chambers

2 responses to “John Chambers, A Celebrity CEO, Paving Way for Chuck Robbins

  1. Pingback: Strong Quarter Will Give Chambers a Fitting Farewell! | Top of the Word

  2. Pingback: Goodbye Networking and Box Pushing for Chambers! | Top of the Word

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