Chambers: Build and Buy

John T. Chambers joined Cisco in 1991 when the company was a $70-million maker of routers, simple black boxes that allowed computer networks with differing protocols to communicate. Since 1995, when he assumed the role of chief executive officer, he has helped grow Cisco from $1.2 billion to record revenues of $46 billion in fiscal 2012. In 2006, Chambers was named chairman of the board in addition to his CEO role.

Cisco’s growth has come from internal innovation and an aggressive acquisition strategy, a combination that has made the company a dominant supplier of the critical hardware underlying the Internet, the World Wide Web and social media. It was briefly the most valuable company in the world, and still commands a market capitalization of $127.5 billion.

Yet like other technology giants, Cisco must adapt to a new world where software and services are playing an increasingly larger role than conventional computer hardware. Cisco has been a beneficiary of so-called cloud computing, because many of those service providers buy its routers, servers and other equipment. But to sustain growth the company must provide more value-added service of its own.

Toward that end, Chambers has been extolling a vision of the future that the company calls the Internet of Everything, in which sensors and network connections are ubiquitous, and trees send data to climate scientists while cars communicate with traffic signals. As “things” add capabilities like context awareness, increased processing power and energy independence, and as more people and new types of information are connected, he foresees unprecedented opportunities as well as new risks.

As Chambers positions Cisco to seize its share of those opportunities, the company faces competition from decades-old players like I.B.M. and Hewlett-Packard as well as companies like Google and Amazon, which did not exist when he joined. Briefings contributing editor Lawrence M. Fisher spoke with Chambers about how Cisco stays on the cutting edge of the ever-evolving technology industry.

Q/A

Q: Your chief technology officer, Dave Evans, wrote a fascinating paper called “The Internet of Everything.” That’s a terrific slogan. What does it actually mean?

CHAMBERS: Networking and IT are going to come together. They won’t be separate. If you watch every technology company in today’s market, all of them have major Internet and networking initiatives. The second key component is that the power of the network is the number of devices connected squared—Metcalfe’s Law. It’s absolutely true: two telephones have a power of four, 10 is 100, and 100,000 is 10 billion.

It’s off the charts. The Internet of Everything will probably be the greatest productivity driver of any we’ve seen to date. Our first cut is $14 trillion of profits to our customers over a 10-year time period. It will connect every organization, every device, and it will change almost every industry.

The opportunity is more than just being connected. How do you combine people with data, with sensors and with processes? It will mean that you and I get the information we need, right when we need it, as opposed to having a whole bunch of data that we don’t know how to use dumped on us. So the next phase of the Internet is going to be pervasive, it’s going to be very big, and it will be across all the industries.

Q: What can organizations do now so that they are part of making that change happen rather than having it happen to them?

CHAMBERS It varies by industry. Manufacturing, for example, is already well on its way. There’s almost 25 percent that totally get it, that see the potential return. But what all organizations can do is take a step back with their people, and whether it’s with us talking to them or somebody else in the industry, they should really ask, “How does this apply to my industry and where we’re going to go? And what are the business returns, what is possible, and what is not?”

Now what’s been interesting is that even 12 to 24 months ago, even among smart people in connected industries, most CEO’s did not pay a lot of attention when we talked about this. Almost every CEO I talk to now gets it. Everyone can grasp what this can mean for them.

Q: A lot of these CEO’s probably have bitter memories of other big initiatives, like E.R.P. (enterprise resource planning), where they spent a fortune and often the systems didn’t deliver. Do you find that they’re a bit gun-shy?

CHAMBERS There were a lot of lessons learned from market transitions, and I think outlining a path to success means looking at what’s doable today and how do you get there while maintaining control over your destiny, so it gives this concept a vision, a strategy, priorities and relevant metrics. But CEO’s are remarkably good at grasping this. The E.R.P. system, maybe the CFO. kind of got it. You don’t have to explain the Internet of Everything to Wal-Mart—what it’s going to be like in terms of retail stores of the future and how does it impact inventory, their competitive edge, pricing and everything. So this might surprise you, that this initiative will be CEO-led at many companies, not by the CIO. or CFO., in terms of the real strategic undertaking.

Q: A core part of the Internet of Everything is exponential change. Much of what they teach in business school—and much of management processes—is about linear change. What would management for exponential change look like?

CHAMBERS You know, you’ve hit the point. We have our top 13,500 people together virtually tomorrow all day, and what it means is innovation and speed that we have not seen before. And to do that successfully, you’ve got to prioritize very carefully and you’ve got to educate with world-class capabilities. That’s the nice way of saying that if you use the technology the way you approached it before, you will probably be disappointed in your result. The speed of change, regardless of industry, the opportunity to bring innovation to bear, is dramatic, but the attention to discipline and process behind it is equally as important.

Q: How can we ensure that the Internet of Everything preserves privacy and enhances government transparency, rather than allowing government to intrude in citizens’ lives?

CHAMBERS Very good question. We use the word a little bit differently. We talk about trust, not as much as a privacy issue as a security issue. It needs to be an opt-in as opposed to an opt-out mentality. That will be a fundamental part of the companies who implement this capability. We’ve had this discussion very actively with the steering committee of the Internet of Everything.

It’s got to be around trust and protecting privacy and security. It means moving to an opt-in for sharing data rather than an opt-out. So if you don’t get a verifiable consent authorizing you to do it, and usually people will consent in return for free bandwidth or whatever, you don’t do it. The customer gets to decide if your offering is worth it.

Q: You’ve said that education and the Internet are the two great equalizers. Tell us what you mean by that, and how education and the Internet can create greater equality in the world.

CHAMBERS My parents were both doctors, and they taught me from the very beginning that you had to be fortunate enough to be in the right geography, but if you were in the right geography with the right education, there were almost no limits on what you could accomplish. But the key word here was “geography.” What the Internet does is level that geography issue, and it’s inclusive of everyone, so all of a sudden time and distance is no longer a factor. Education expanded with the power of the network effect of the Internet can change not just a small segment of society; it can increase the opportunities of all society.

When I talk to government leaders around the world—it doesn’t matter if I’m here in the U.S., or with Cameron in the U.K., Harper in Canada, Putin or Medvedev in Russia, Singh in India, where I was just a short time ago, or the president of Indonesia, who I’ll be seeing in a week and a half—they all get it. And so the combination of the two can have huge impacts on countries. And you know what the priorities of government leaders are? First are jobs. And then second is education for jobs. And third is how do you increase the standard of living for the population? How do you educate and innovate in ways that speak to the importance of priorities for a country leader or for a business leader?

Q: United States students don’t lack for Internet access, yet their performance continues to lag. What kind of reform do you believe is needed in our schools?

CHAMBERS You’re right in terms of Internet access in the least sense of the word. But Internet access for education is video—top-quality video, multiple streaming capabilities. For that you need high bandwidth, not the slow Internet connection you often find in the U.S. And that kind of leads into the second part of the equation. When we seek increased productivity in business, you and I both know from experience, if all we do is automate what was being done before, our productivity is maybe improved by a third or a fourth. But if you automate and change the process, that’s where you get dramatic productivity gains.

And so if you watch what is occurring in society, and you watch these massive open online courses [MOOCs], that’s just the beginning of what’s going to occur. You’re going to be able to teach your courses online and live in the classroom, virtually or physically, and be able to collaborate and learn together. So it’s almost the reverse of the way that you and I went to school. Secondly, it does require that we teach students more the way that they learn as opposed to ways that we learned or our parents’ parents learned. And that’s a much more interactive, social networking type of approach.

Q: On another issue, even a casual walk around the campus of any Silicon Valley company makes very visible the contribution that skilled immigrants make to this country, yet many of these people live in a kind of immigration limbo. What policies can we implement beyond the H-1B visa?

CHAMBERS The H-1B is a very important and necessary first step. The second is a green card [proof of permanent resident status]. Once you get an H-1B visa, it’s got to be a reasonably fast process to get your green card approved. Today, it is 10 years, so the people live in limbo the whole time. They can’t move. It’s hard to get other jobs. It’s hard for their spouse to find work. It puts pressure on the kids. So streamlining this to match the speed at which all innovation is now moving is very, very appropriate. So I hope that our country is going to come to that issue in a constructive way this time.

Q: You’ve said that the U.S. is one of the most difficult countries to do business in, and that countries like Canada are easier. What does the U.S. get wrong? What do these other countries get right that we might emulate?

CHAMBERS Well, first, let’s use Canada as an example, but I don’t mind you also using the U.K., or Russia or China. What Canada does remarkably well is they understand the importance of businesses and government working together, and that translates into jobs. It translates into innovation. It translates into inclusion. It translates into solving their health care challenges and education challenges. They’re willing to take good business risks with businesses to make that happen, and they encourage businesses to grow and expand in their area, and to develop joint win-win scenarios where their country might describe the win-win as job creation, innovation and creating new startups, and health care. And then companies like Cisco might describe it in terms of industry leadership, growth, revenues and profits. But they actually go hand in hand.

And the atmosphere toward that in Canada means they’re the easiest place for me in the world to do business. And surprise, surprise, we’re growing faster there, even though the weather’s a little bit more challenging—faster than the U.S. Same thing in Russia—we found that even with all the restrictions and challenges going on there, they make it much easier to do business. They understood the value in business and government coming together to create jobs in new industries, because their young people are leaving the country. And when your educated young people leave the country, the country has a tough future. They’re addressing the issue for their country long-term, in terms of job creation, to keep the young people at home in a very positive way.

Q: Are there steps that the United States could take to make that relationship more mutually beneficial?

CHAMBERS Absolutely. Absolutely. There are many steps. Let me mention one that we’re doing together with the first lady [Michelle Obama] for veterans. This is for multiple companies to be very aggressive in terms of how we both retrain and realign the veterans who have protected our country at so much sacrifice for them and their family. They have to get a job when they come back here, and so we are rethinking how you do education for them. We want to do a program perhaps in a month or two at the end of their service that would normally be done in 12 months or 24 months of school, to create capabilities where the jobs are. We want to help them with the transition and translation between a resume in the services and a resume in the private sector, which is like French and German.

The result is 50 percent of the people who have gone through this have achieved a job offer in their first job fair—so you see the ability to truly partner between business and government, and to partner to solve a monumental challenge. I think it’s a million-plus men and women in the service coming back to our country, and to do this at that scale, public-private partnerships are the only way. And I want to really applaud the first lady on her leadership. But you see Wal-Mart jumping into this in a very positive way, hiring 100,000 veterans. You see JPMorgan Chase and us and others jumping into it. That’s what public-private partnerships are about—and they have been intermittently powerful. But our country has not done that well on scale. They do it transactionally, and there’s almost not a level of trust between the groups.

Q: You’ve been a very visible player in Republican politics, particularly the last two presidential campaigns. Do you have political ambitions of your own?

CHAMBERS I don’t mind you asking, and several of my friends over the years have pushed me very hard to do this. I just don’t enjoy politics. Politics—the definition is what I don’t want at the company. I want to just do big stuff and do what’s right for our customers, our employees, our shareholders and our partners. The second is even though I’m a strong Republican, I actually support a lot of Democrats, including Nancy Pelosi and Barbara Boxer. They are people that I’m very proud to support. And at the same time, I’ve been very strong behind John McCain and Mitt Romney.

So I think these issues we’ve been talking about today don’t relate to politics. I think the Democrats get it just as well as the Republicans. In terms of my own view, if I were going to go into politics, I would have had to do it about 12 years ago. I probably would have started at the state level, and seen if I could make a serious run at the governor, and then see where it went from there. But I would have had to do it over a decade ago.

Q: You’re going to be 64 this year. What kind of succession planning do you have in place?

CHAMBERS We outlined last summer a crisp process in terms of what we were going to do, how we will review it with the board, where we will go. And we outlined it in detail, because for the first time I said two to four years as opposed to three to five. We also said at that time this would be the last update until we do an update when we’re probably six months out from making the change.

Q: You have had about a 20-year run, building one of the most successful companies on the planet. What would you like to have people say about John Chambers?

CHAMBERS The legacy to me is not that important. All I want is for Cisco to be even more successful as the company grows up than it was under my leadership, and that’s really the most important factor, period. I’ve been very fortunate and privileged to be in the right spot at the right time and to be part of this. And so this is a family that I believe in. We have very, very wide and deep leadership. All I want is for Cisco to be even more successful with the next group of leaders than they were with the first group.

Q: Cisco has a reputation as an incubator of leadership, and Cisco’s been around long enough now that we’ve seen many Cisco people go off and run their own companies. What would you say are the characteristics of a great Cisco leader

CHAMBERS So you just hit the real heart of the question. I’ve maybe lost five senior leaders the entire time I’ve been here over 20 years. And it was time for them to go, either because they weren’t going to go further in the company, or it wasn’t quite the right mix for us. We hold our talent unbelievably well. And many of the names that have been mentioned in the industry, with almost no exception, would not even be considered for the top leadership positions here.

But back to the very specific question at hand and a more positive approach. The characteristics that are really important to us are that we are results-oriented. That’s part of our working culture. We are a company that prides ourselves in building and developing great leaders and then repaying them. We always have our cultural badge right next to our company ID badge, and at the top it says we’re a company that wants to change the world. Halfway down it talks about win together, innovation, respect and care for each other, and always do the right thing. To this day, I still follow every serious illness of every employee, their spouse and their children, and we’re there for them in a way that no one else is. And I call almost half of them myself, which takes a lot of time and commitment and is also very emotionally draining, but it is who we are. And we’re not perfect, and we know that.

So it really comes back to great leaders here get results. They’re hardworking. They are very good at building, developing and keeping talent. They drive our culture. They understand our industry. They are open to collaboration with other groups. And they work together as a team in ways that I think others do not. And they have no fear. This is a company that has a healthy paranoia about whether we’re wrong about something, but we have no fear about taking on almost unsolvable challenges and finding a way to do them. 

Authors

  • Lawrence M. Fisher

    Contributor, Korn Ferry Institute