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Cisco chief’s lessons in persistence

John Chambers on enduring highs and lows, the imperative of digitization, and why Flip cameras didn’t work out.

By Kara Baskin  |  March 20, 2017

2017-Chambers

Former Cisco CEO John Chambers (right) speaks with Hal Gregersen at MIT Sloan

John Chambers knows ups and downs. As CEO of Cisco Systems Inc. from 1995–2015, he led the networking company from an era of routers to one of mobile and cloud computing, building a reputation for smart acquisitions. In 2002, Chambers guided the company through a market value drop of more than $450 billion over two years, after having been the world’s most valuable company. Today, he talks up digitization frequently, and has a warning for the United States economy.

Chambers, who remains executive chairman at Cisco, discussed his career, competition, failure, and how you can always use a new mentor at a March 17 campus talk with MIT Leadership Center Executive Director Hal Gregersen.

On the imperative of digitization
Chambers warned that the United States is at risk of losing economic power if it does not accelerate digitization, as he has argued countries in the Middle East, and France and India are doing. An acolyte for digitization, he has personally invested in Pindrop Security, a company that specializes in fighting voice security fraud.

“The world will go digital: It will transform health care, enable people to live longer, and be a huge disruption to society,” Chambers said. “Either you disrupt or you get left behind. There’s no entitlement just because we led before.” He called the U.S. the only major country without a strong digitization plan.

Without one, he warned, “Other countries will blow right by us.”

On competition
Chambers “likes to win,” he said, but he wasn’t always poised for success. He reflected on his dyslexia, diagnosed when he was in elementary school.

“Twenty-five percent of CEOs are dyslexic, but many don’t want to talk about it. I learned to read backward. I give no speeches; I just do an outline in my head. I had one teacher who helped me understand how to make that weakness a strength, or else I wouldn’t have been able to get ahead,” he said. “But you can out-execute if you combine raw IQ and emotional IQ.”

On admitting defeat 
Chambers discussed Cisco’s ill-fated acquisition of the Flip video camera line, acquired from Pure Digital in 2009 for $590 million. He was “dead wrong,” about the acquisition. “I let my team fall in love with the device,” he said, though it wasn’t core to Cisco’s strategy. Meanwhile, said Chambers, Apple’s Steve Jobs was praising its “amazing technology” — and offering such services for free via the iPhone.

“When you get outmaneuvered, you need to self-correct, or can it and move forward,” he said.

On solid partnerships
“Partner big-to-big, acquire big to small, and never partner with a company with a different vision and values,” Chambers cautioned, even if it means putting your job at risk in favor of your convictions.

On finding a mentor
In 2011, Cisco was undergoing a historic round of layoffs — 18 percent of its headcount — in order to slash costs, shortly after offloading its Flip camera business. During this time of “soul-searching,” Chambers sought out mentors by asking them simply, “Will you mentor me?”

It paid off: Former General Electric Co. chief Jack Welch (who spoke on campus in 2015) told Chambers that, to be a great CEO, it was necessary to have a “near-death experience.” When Chambers called him to say that people were turning on him during the layoffs, Welch, Chamber said, told him, “Now you have a great company. This could be your best year of leadership ever. Anyone can be there at the good times.”