Lessons learned observing John Chambers

John Chambers

On Wednesday May 13th 2015, Cisco reported quarterly earnings. The numbers were overshadowed by the fact that it would be Chambers’s last conference call.

John Chambers has led Cisco since 1995 and under his leadership Cisco grew to become an internet giant. I don’t want to bore you with numbers and I’m not here to write about how well the company has done financially with him at the helm; a fact that is undisputable. What I do want to share is my experience working at Cisco.

Early in ones career you can benefit tremendously from good managers and leaders from whom you will learn. It’s even better when they actively take a role in developing you. I didn’t have that proactive leader developing me but I did  have a thirst for learning and wanting to become a leader in the future. I listened in on as much as I could. I was on all the conference calls, I watched and read all internal communication by Chambers. I did everything I could to capture as much as possible from his actions.

Here are three lessons that I took away from John Chambers.


While I worked at Cisco if there was one thing I was certain of it was that the company operated with a big emphasis on integrity. This aspect of the culture was on our badges and applied to everything from managing people to deciding on technology. Why it worked was because Chambers himself lived according to those values.

I vividly remember the back options dating issues that came up and it was mainly tech companies, including Apple, that were in the spotlight. When it came up I remember thinking to myself if Cisco would be one of the guilty companies. It took me a minute before I was confident it would be the case. At a quarterly press conference; Chambers was asked about it and it was a complete non-issue. He very confidently said that at Cisco that was not happening. That was the end of it for them. I was not at all surprised. Integrity is a big part of why John Chambers has been a successful leader.

Treat people like you want to be treated

One of the hardest experiences to live through is a workforce reduction. I was at Cisco when they had to resort to layoffs at a difficult time in 2001. I was safe because I was a coop student, but it was still difficult to see people I worked with be affected. However, it was made easier by Cisco’s market leading severance packages. It was great for us to know that our colleagues would have six months of severance to help them with the transition. In addition to the six months of severance, there were other services provided to help.

It was clearly not one of John Chambers’s favourite periods, but he did not shy away from communicating with the company. He spoke of the challenges and the fact that he made sure that everyone affected would be treated as he would want to be treated. It was very clear to us watching him that he was upset about what was happening and that he was doing what he could to make it easier for those affected.

The result was one I won’t forget. One of the folks on my team was saying his goodbyes as he walked out and he expressed his appreciation for the company and that he would gladly come back in a heartbeat. At that moment to still express your appreciation for a company is not common.*

Long term matters more than short term

It is common sense to manage a company for the long term rather than the quarter. It just doesn’t seem to happen often enough. Pressure to meet quarterly earnings expectations can cloud judgement and a lack of long-term vision can be very harmful.

Cisco went through the challenges of the dot-com bubble bursting but focus on long-term performance helped Cisco perform relatively well compared to peers like Nortel and Lucent. One of the best examples of this was when the layoffs were happening Cisco made sure that all the pain was done in one round. Nortel and Lucent went through multiple rounds of layoffs and moral was surely low as uncertainty reigned.

Cisco’s actions along helped it take the pain in one shot and recover to focus on delivering for the long term. In combination with treating employees who were affected well the company made sure moral recovered quickly enough to steady the ship.

Although I have not been at Cisco for many years now I still keep up with the company and enjoy hearing good news about the company. I may not have stayed for very long but I learned a lot from being there and it was thanks to the values that John Chambers encouraged. It will be weird to see another face represent Cisco. It will be difficult to replace Chambers’s southern charm but I am sure like he did with Cisco he has now picked a great leader for the next phase of Cisco’s life.

*I am unaware of how things have changed since then. I do know there has been restructuring occasionally, but I do not know how those were managed.