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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