Learning from John Chambers

John Chambers

There are no templates for being an effective CEO. When asked how to be a good leader, Jack Welch answered, "Be yourself" -- and I would concur. Especially if you serve for many years, you can't fake it.

That said, there are many valuable lessons to be learned. I get inspiration and tips from fiction (Martin Sheen's President Bartlet on The West Wing), history (Churchill's writings on WW II) academics like Warren Bennis, and from watching other CEOs in action. Recently I've drawn some inspiration from John Chambers, the CEO at Cisco. Here's what I've learned:

1) "Grab the marker." John is a good listener, but he's even a better talker. He's never afraid to push his ideas and the Cisco strategy -- he'll get to the white board and draw until the message is clear. Until John, no speaker at a Forrester Forum had ever gotten off the podium and roamed the audience, touching people, connecting to people, and convincing people one on one. For my taste John can sometimes talk too much -- but most people love it.

2) "Vision + execution." John carries vision in one hand and day-to-day execution in the other -- and he can show you how they connect. Very unique. 

3) Curiosity. When he gets into the mode, John can be an attentive, genuine listener. He wants to absorb and he wants to honestly debate. Many CEOs become robotic, imperial talking heads -- but John cultivates learning and opening himself to new ideas.

4) Accepting and embracing the future. As most CEOs age, they lose their curiosity and adaptability. They refuse to accept or understand change -- cf. media and music executives. In contrast, John appears to be forever in motion -- breathing in new technologies and methods and incorporating them into his operation.

If I had to sum up "Chamber's Lesson" it would be this: Be tough, but be open. When the tech market melted in 2001-2003, John quickly downsized Cisco -- tough. But when the company grew fast in 2005-2008 he used social technologies to govern the company in a new way -- open. If you get the chance, spend some time with John. He'll sell Cisco hard, but if you watch closely you will get some inspiring leadership tips.

Any other lessons out there from CEOs you've worked for or with? I'd love to hear about them.


re: Learning from John Chambers

Thanks for the CEO posts, George.This post and the A.G. Lafley post have gone over great on the Sloan CEO network.Ted Chan (from MIT)

re: Learning from John Chambers

Thanks for your post and for sharing your notes on John Chambers' leadership style and approach.Here're a few observations from my interactions with CEOs / leaders, that I've been fortuitous to benefit from:1. Time management - this is really about being able to prioritize across several conflicting demands on one's time. The importance of this skill, considering the times we live in, can hardly be overemphasized.2. Mentoring - truly great leaders invest in developing other leaders. It starts with knack for spotting potential and the art of cultivating relationships with colleagues that lesser CEOs might see as a competitive threat.3. Character - leaders usually have a charming personality (and in fact many are charismatic) but truly great leaders demonstrate strength of character too - not just in adversity, but also in success.I'm sure I'd be able to list more, but these were the top 3 that came to mind.- Hemant Puthli

re: Learning from John Chambers

Great content, thank you!When Brad Anderson was President but not yet CEO of Best Buy I had dinner with him. Two things I found striking:1. Have Integrity – people trust and follow Brad because nothing ever comes out of his mouth that isn’t thoughtful, honest and motivated by solid core principles.2. Get Experience – Brad was a big music and movie collector and he developed his collections shopping in his own stores indistinguishable from his other customers.

re: Learning from John Chambers

Nice post. Thanks for sharing.The best attributes you mention from John and those observed in other strong leaders can all be summed up simply in the term "Servant Leadership". The best leaders, particularly in the Technology field, put the needs of others (customers, employees & community) before their own. The rewards and recognition will follow.Thank you for the insights.

re: Learning from John Chambers

I'd add this:Encourage conceptual thinking as well as operational performance. Metrics of routine performance are certainly important, but the major leaps to higher levels begin with game-changing conceptual breakthroughs.