Cisco’s John Chambers: Learning from Adversity

Today’s article from the New York Times features an interview with Cisco CEO John Chambers. I’d like to take a moment to review and analyze what Chambers believes to be the “secrets” of successful employees:

  • A Generous Spirit: Chambers mentions both listening skills and mentoring as key elements that he looks for in potential employees.  Too often, recent college graduates are taught to be self-focused and center in on their own desires and personal career advancement at the expense of their coworkers or employers.  As Chambers suggests, truly successful employees take the time to listen to the ideas, concerns and desires of their peers, thus fostering substantive and lasting relationships that will continue to serve them throughout their career.  Additionally,  wise employees should avoid focusing solely on the classic “What can I gain from this job/assignment/situation?”.  A self-centered attitude will quickly become apparent to supervisors and peers, making these people less likely to advocate for you and your personal advancement.
  • Learning from Failure: In these uncertain times, many employees are less willing to take risks and fear of failure is at a peak.  However, Chambers’ words send a clear message: be willing to take intelligent, calculated risks.  Additionally, successfully employees must develop an indomitable spirit so that they are able to deal with and learn from failure, rather than to be defined by it.
  • A Focus on Customer Service and Engagement:  Just as successful employees have learned to care about individuals other than themselves, successful corporations cannot simply be focused on their bottom line.  Companies that care about their customers begin by hiring customer-focused, service-oriented employees who are empathetic, creative and passionate about developing new ways to improve the customer experience.

In a Near-Death Event, a Corporate Rite of Passage

This interview with chairman and chief executive of Cisco Systems, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant.

Photo: Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Corner Office

Q. What are the most important leadership lessons you’ve learned?

A. People think of us as a product of our successes. I’d actually argue that we’re a product of the challenges we faced in life. And how we handled those challenges probably had more to do with what we accomplish in life.

I had an issue with dyslexia before they understood what dyslexia was. One of my teachers, Mrs. Anderson, worked with me and she taught me to look at it almost like a curveball. The ball breaks the same way every time. Once you get used to it, you can handle it pretty well.

And so I went from almost being embarrassed reading in front of a class — you lose your place, and I read right to left — to the point where I knew I could overcome challenges. I think it also taught me sensitivity toward others.

I learned another lesson from Jack Welch. It was in 1998, and at that time we were one of the most valuable companies in the world. We were the stock of the ’90s, and I said, “Jack, what does it take to have a great company?” And he said, “It takes major setbacks and overcoming those.” I hesitated for a minute, and I said, “Well, we did that in ’93, and then we did it again in ’97 with the Asian financial crisis.” And he said, “No, John. I mean a near-death experience.” And I didn’t understand exactly what he meant at that time.

Then in 2001, we had a near-death experience. We went from the most valuable company in the world to a company where they questioned whether the leadership was really effective. And in 2003, he called me up and said, “John, you now have a great company.” I said, “Jack, it doesn’t feel like it.” But he was right. It was something I would have given anything to have avoided, but it did make us a much better company, a much stronger company.

Read more…

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