The Best Thing I Learned From John Chambers



If you’re a CCIE or CCDE and a Cisco “NetVet” (meaning you go to Cisco Live a lot), then you get invited to an event with Cisco CEO John Chambers at Cisco Live. Sometimes it’s lunch, sometimes it’s a reception. In the years I’ve attended them, attendance has grown from maybe 50 people to about 250 people this year. In these, John, who retired earlier this week, usually chats with us for a while and then takes questions. This year, his decision to step down made me think of the interactions I’ve had with him over the years.

The first event I attended was a luncheon. We had an empty seat at our table so he sat down, ate a bit, had a Diet Coke, and talked with us. This was my first time meeting him, and I had a question that had been in my mind for a couple of years. John is one of the best speakers I’ve ever seen. He has the mechanics down pat – voice variations, moving around, eye contact, etc. But more importantly, he has the ability to convey an excitement about technology that’s contagious. And furthermore, he makes you feel that not only is this technology way cool, but it’s going to change your life and you really need it!

After teaching Cisco classes for Global Knowledge for four years, I envied that. The technology is cool and it is life changing, but my ability to convey that to my students didn’t come close to his. I had recently started working for a Cisco partner in a presales design role. There were times when I just knew that a certain technology solution was perfect for a customer, but it was hard to convince them. So when he sat at our table, I took the chance to ask how he did it. How was he able to impart his vision and make people want to go along on the technology journey with him? I expected an answer that involved coaching, lessons, and good speechwriters, but instead he said just two words. “I listen.”

John went on to explain that he talks with a wide variety of people – customers, partners, business peers, government officials around the world, people from companies large and small – and when he does, he listens carefully. He is not only interested in hearing their “pain points,” but also their business and their lives in general. You can feel it when you talk to him; he listens intently. His responses to you reflect an interest and curiosity.

This is not only a good interpersonal skill; it’s also a genius strategy. The more understanding you possess, the better job you can do at matching solutions to problems and helping customers prepare for the future. Or, if you’re Cisco, creating solutions to new needs we don’t have yet, but will.  And the broader your sample, the better you are able to spot trends. John (and Cisco as a whole) tries very hard to spot market transitions in advance and prepare for them. Listening, the kind of listening that leads to understanding, is a large part of their success in accomplishing that.

That conversation was in 2005 and, as you can see, the lesson has stuck with me. That’s because it applies across the board in every relationship we have.  When you truly listen to your co-workers, your customers, your friends, and family, it shows them that you care. It helps you get to know them better, which builds trust. You learn ways to help each other succeed. You create a connection.

I’ve tried to practice that type of listening in my own life. As a result, I don’t try to “convince” a client about anything. Since I have listened and sought to understand them, we are in sync about needs, requirements, and future plans. We can evaluate various technologies in light of their effect on the company’s processes and culture, not just their network. We become partners working toward a common goal.

For example, a client had some extra budget and planned to replace switches that are going end-of-life next year. But in our conversations I noticed that recent data breaches at similar companies were top of mind for them. So we called a “time-out” on the switch replacement, re-evaluated priorities, arranged some briefings on security options, and they used the budget to beef up data security instead.

For another client, a discussion of Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) barely mentioned equipment. Instead, we talked about changes in roles, departmental responsibilities, and staff skills because those are the areas where this particular group will need to make the most adjustments.

John Chambers Thank You CardIn John Chambers’ case, his willingness to listen to even the lowly engineers in the field brought 250 CCIE/DE NetVets together this year for one last lunch with him, a zillion pictures, and a really big “Thank You” card signed by the attendees. Plus a standing ovation from over 26,000 people at his Cisco Live keynote address. How many other CEOs inspire that sort of admiration from their customers? So thank you, John, for sharing your wisdom with a fellow traveler on this road. And best wishes for the next chapter of your life!

One response to “The Best Thing I Learned From John Chambers

  1. “Listen” seems like a simple lesson, but in reality, few people really do. I attended the most recent Cisco Partner event in Montreal and was able to ask Chambers a question in the press briefing. Even from rows away you could feel the concentration.

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Nick Kelly

Cybersecurity Engineer, Cisco

Nick has over 20 years of experience in Security Operations and Security Sales. He is an avid student of cybersecurity and regularly engages with the Infosec community at events like BSides, RVASec, Derbycon and more. The son of an FBI forensics director, Nick holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice and is one of Cisco’s Fire Jumper Elite members. When he’s not working, he writes cyberpunk and punches aliens on his Playstation.


Virgilio “BONG” dela Cruz Jr.

CCDP, CCNA V, CCNP, Cisco IPS Express Security for AM/EE
Field Solutions Architect, Tech Data

Virgilio “Bong” has sixteen years of professional experience in IT industry from academe, technical and customer support, pre-sales, post sales, project management, training and enablement. He has worked in Cisco Technical Assistance Center (TAC) as a member of the WAN and LAN Switching team. Bong now works for Tech Data as the Field Solutions Architect with a focus on Cisco Security and holds a few Cisco certifications including Fire Jumper Elite.


John Cavanaugh

CCIE #1066, CCDE #20070002, CCAr
Chief Technology Officer, Practice Lead Security Services, NetCraftsmen

John is our CTO and the practice lead for a talented team of consultants focused on designing and delivering scalable and secure infrastructure solutions to customers across multiple industry verticals and technologies. Previously he has held several positions including Executive Director/Chief Architect for Global Network Services at JPMorgan Chase. In that capacity, he led a team managing network architecture and services.  Prior to his role at JPMorgan Chase, John was a Distinguished Engineer at Cisco working across a number of verticals including Higher Education, Finance, Retail, Government, and Health Care.

He is an expert in working with groups to identify business needs, and align technology strategies to enable business strategies, building in agility and scalability to allow for future changes. John is experienced in the architecture and design of highly available, secure, network infrastructure and data centers, and has worked on projects worldwide. He has worked in both the business and regulatory environments for the design and deployment of complex IT infrastructures.