3 Lessons I’ve Learned from John Chambers

career success Jul 15, 2015


John Chambers has been the CEO of Cisco since January of 1995, but on July 26, 2015 he is stepping down and going into semi-retirement. Replacing him at the helm of Cisco is Chuck Robbins.

To honor John for his leadership of Cisco, in this blog posting I want to point out three specific life lessons I’ve learned from him.

Lesson #1: Have An Overcoming Attitude

Several years ago while attending Cisco Networkers (the predecessor to Cisco Live), I was sitting in the audience waiting for John Chambers to deliver the keynote address. Interestingly, prior to the presentation, he was walking around talking with various audience members. After the keynote, I had a few moments to chat with him. At that time, I did a lot of public speaking; specifically, I led lots of live classes for a Cisco Learning Partner. So, getting some insight into his public speaking skills would be super valuable. I asked him about his preparation for the keynote. I was surprised that he was walking around, visiting with audience members, rather than pouring over his notes, and what he told me when I asked about this was a real shocker.

John Chambers told me that he had Dyslexia (a reading disability, not related to one’s intelligence). Because of that condition, he didn’t use notes. Instead, he told me that he has direct conversations with people in the audience.

After researching it a bit, I learned how the public first became aware of his Dyslexia. It was during a Bring Your Parent To School Day at his daughter’s elementary school. Chambers was asked a question by a student who was having trouble phrasing her thoughts due to her Dyslexia. Chambers famously replied by saying, “Take your time. I’m disabled too.” That evening he received multiple e-mails from parents encouraging him to become more vocal and public about his condition.

Think about the attitude one has to have to reach the CEO level of a Fortune 500 company when they have trouble reading. Each of us has some challenge to overcome, and John Chambers’ example should encourage all of us to have an overcoming attitude.

Lesson #2: Know When The Right Thing Is Wrong

During his Cisco Live 2015 keynote, John Chambers said, “The reason most people fail – they keep doing the right thing for too long.” That quote really struck me, and I tweeted it out, and put it on my Facebook page. Then, one of my followers asked what that quote meant to me personally. After pondering it for a moment, I realized why the statement had resonated with me so much.

On September 26, 2014, I walked away from a full-time position of nearly fourteen years with a Cisco Learning Partner to start my own business. In my own business, I’m able to write books and create video training courses that impact far more people than I could reach through live training sessions. For a time in my career, teaching for a Cisco Learning Partner was absolutely the right thing. However, as the books and videos I was doing for Cisco Press started to grow in popularity, it became obvious that I had done the right thing (teaching live courses) long enough.

At the Cisco Live 2015 CCIE NetVet Reception, I was talking with the head of all of Cisco’s CCIE programs, and we were discussing this quote. His take on it was that when you’re no longer learning and growing, it’s time to make a change. So, let me encourage you to be sensitive to hints in your career that you’re in danger of doing the right thing for too long.

Lesson #3: Be Radically Customer Focused


One of the most striking characteristics of John Chambers is how he interacts with customers. While many CEOs might want to make a polished keynote presentation and then exit the stage, every time I’ve seen John Chambers speak, he is very interested in what the customers want and what the customers are concerned with. A few years ago, I was on the front row for John Chambers’ keynote. It was a few minutes before the presentation was to begin. I looked up, and there he was, asking us what we wanted to hear about in his talk.

During his presentations, Chambers is famous for walking the isles and making direct eye contact with audience members and having brief conversations with them. For years, he has also demonstrated his openness to candid feedback during the Cisco Live CCIE NetVet receptions. After giving some opening remarks, he would take questions from the audience. If someone complained about an issue they were having, Chambers would see if there was a consensus in the group that it truly was a serious issue. If it was evident that the issue was widespread, he would tell his staff to write it down as an action item. John Chambers did not merely pay lip service to the issue. It really got addressed. The way Cisco handles software licensing is one such example. After Chambers was asked to fix software licensing during one of these events, licensing got much better over the next year.

The lesson I suggest we take away is that we should be radically focused on our customers’ needs. Like Stephen Covey taught us with Habit #5 in his book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, we should seek first to understand, and then to be understood. Let’s understand what the customer really needs, and then give it to them.

Those are a few of the things I’ve learned from John Chambers over the years. I wish him the best in his semi-retirement, and I’m excited to see how Chuck Robbins will take Cisco to even higher heights.

Kevin Wallace, CCIEx2 #7945 (R/S & Collaboration)

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