Goodbye Networking and Box Pushing for Chambers!

Social Media, Voice Authentication and Drones Among his New Focus Areas

Some elements of surprise, awe and professional advancement from my five-year stay at Cisco remain firmly etched in memory. They have now been refreshed with the announcement that Mr John Chambers (68), its Executive Chairman, will vacate the post this December.

This comes amid talk of tensions between him and the man he made CEO, Mr Chuck Robbins, two years ago. Mr Robbins was reporting to the man (Mr Rob Lloyd) who was tipped to succeed Mr Chambers then. Effectively, Mr Lloyd became a subordinate to someone who was his subordinate, thanks to the outgoing Cisco Chairman! Understandably, Mr Lloyd and the other senior leaders who were overlooked quit Cisco.

Indian Software Startup

Mr Chambers will now shift his focus to startups in areas such as social media, voice authentication, defensive drones and security as he says in this Fox video interview. He is also expected to invest in Uniphore Software Systems, an Indian software startup.

He says Mr Robbins will take over the chairmanship as well, asserting that Cisco was getting its market transition (one of his favourite expressions) right. He was emphatic that “this is classic Cisco-style world-class execution, world-class transparency.”

To me, though, Cisco deserved a better leader with stellar credentials. To know the difference, one just needs to look at the kind of leadership companies like Google and Microsoft picked to succeed their founders.

Voyage of Discovery

My Cisco stay (2005 – 2010) was a voyage of discovery, and a rewarding one, with some defining moments in my career. One that allowed me to experience what a visionary spirit and thought leadership were all about. I held Mr Chambers as a celebrity CEO next to Mr Bill Gates.

There are some that will always stay afresh, including:

  1. Prompt leadership responsiveness – the points you raise count, not where you are in the hierarchy
  2. Its democratic traditions which allowed contrarian positions to withstand and survive corporate scrutiny.

My Resignation, Mail to Mr Chambers and Response

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.

I was writing a 3000-word email (crazy me!!) to the CEO and Chairman of a US$50-billion company, and I was certain it would go straight into the trash bin!

To my pleasant surprise, in a matter of hours, I received an email response. The same night, 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. That was an extraordinary follow-up and I doubt any such thing could happen in any of the world’s top companies.

Deviant Corporate Action 

Cisco and Mr Chambers instantly walked a notch up the pedestal in my esteem because of the positive experience. When the job market is vibrant and opportunities abound, staff tolerance of any deviant corporate action, perceived or otherwise, will ebb. My resignation from Cisco, consistently ranked as one of the best companies to work for, also came at one such intersection.

I am not one to take hasty actions, so the decision to quit Cisco was a well though-out one. Whether I can unreservedly say I did not regret it is hardly the point. I quit only after I was clear what my next career stop will be. Decisions taken must only be looked back with nostalgia.

My experience with BT, which is where I moved to from Cisco, was enriching as I gained skills unique to a P&L-oriented service provider environment. That was a shift away from a solution provider.

For a little bit of immodest bragging, as the first corporate bid management resource in APAC, I helped build the functional group in the region.

Blogging and Free Speech

I was a fairly regular contributor to Cisco’s internal staff blogging portal, often with scathing commentaries. Be it on the company’s quarterly revenues or the cautionary projections of Mr Chambers or even its acquisitions, the democratic traditions within Cisco ensured that I could speak my mind without fear.

In contrast, at the company I moved to from Cisco, there was resistance even to using the link to my personal blog as part of my email signature.

I continued to be strident in my criticism even after I quit Cisco. In one such post in 2011, I had argued it was time for Mr Chambers to go.

Similarities and Differences Between Genesys and Cisco

Cisco owes its gleaming growth and market positioning to Mr Chambers, under whose stewardship the company almost became the world’s first trillion-dollar company. That journey to the pinnacle was stopped in its tracks by the dotcom bust. That, though, was way before I joined Cisco.


I see lots of similarities between Genesys, my current employer, and Cisco, our biggest competitor now. Both share identical business cultures in terms of the engagement model and work ethos.

The difference is in solution focus – Genesys on the omnichannel customer experience software portfolio while the Cisco lifeline remains its networking gear.

Not Just a Box Pusher, iPhone was a Cisco Trademark

Cisco is an unquestionable IP networking giant, but Mr Chambers did not like the idea of the company being stuck with its image of being a box pusher, however pioneering its technologies were!  He steered the company to new areas of business – home networking, visual networking (as he strongly believed video was the future), the server space and solutions for a connected world amid the growing relevance of the Internet of Things (IoT) that Cisco referred to as the Internet of Everything (IoE).

Not many will remember that even the iPhone was a Cisco trademark, thanks to its acquisition of Linksys. Cisco and Apple, however, reached an out-of-court settlement on the issue.

Come this Christmas, Mr Chambers will be seen moving in a different direction. He has already taken directorship in Sprinklr, a software unicorn focused on enhancing customer service by tapping the social media. He has also invested in a drone software startup, Airware. There will be several more firms he will invest in and serve as director.

Cisco, though, will remain dear to him. In his own words, “Cisco is family for me, and I want to see it successful.”


G Joslin Vethakumar

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