“A company or leader can’t be described as great until they have gone through a near-death experience and come back.” John Chambers, former CEO and executive chairman of Cisco and current CEO and founder of JC2 Ventures, once received this advice from a friend. That mindset helped Chambers guide Cisco out of crisis when the company’s stock crashed and business could have been lost.
In his book, “Connecting the Dots: Lessons for Leadership in a Startup World,” Chambers shares
the strategies to succeed in a startup and digital world and how to adapt to the changes that come with the digital age. Chief Learning Officer editorial associate Aysha Ashley Househ spoke to Chambers about the lessons he’s learned from his successes and mistakes and his professional advice for navigating corporate setbacks.
Chief Learning Officer: Why did you write this book?
Chambers: I was getting the exact same questions at every session, no matter if I was in Dubai or New Delhi or Silicon Valley or West Virginia. And what leaders want to know, regardless if they were a leader in a startup, a big company or just an individual contributor, were very similar. They really wanted to understand what lessons I’ve learned in terms of leadership for the future, not for the past. They were equally interested in not just the successes, but the mistakes made and how they can avoid them. The key lesson on leadership is that the leader has to think about the future. Leadership is about expressing a vision and then building a great team around you to accomplish that. That team could be two people in a department in a big store or it could be a startup. It isn’t about startups — it’s about how to think like a startup. How do you really understand the technology changes that will affect all of our lives? How does that apply to leadership future?
CLO: Can the lessons be applied to any leader, even one who isn’t running a startup?
Chambers: I think any chief learning officer in a company will grasp how they have to evolve not just their own self, but the learning within the company. Speed is a key element. A lot of it is built around artificial intelligence and digitization. A lot of it is built around how to catch market transitions as opposed to just doing the same routine. It’s having the courage to lead not by thinking, “Let’s do 5 percent better,” but thinking like a startup — do it exponentially better. That’s how startups think and everybody in this new startup world has to act like a startup regardless of the size of your operation.
CLO: You mentioned people sending you comments about your book. What’s the most interesting comment you’ve received?
Chambers: I think the coolest thing is, “John, it’s my bible for leadership. I go back to it regularly. I reread the passages.” It’s their go-to book for business and leadership. Along that line, the hardest thing for me was that they want to hear all your successes. But I think you’re more a product of your setbacks, and when disaster happens, how do you respond to it?
For parents, they don’t worry how you’ll handle your successes, they worry about how you handle your challenges in life. I love to teach the young leaders I coach. They’ll become a much better leader going through their very stressful times than they ever will going through their good times where everything is going well. It’s easy for me to say, but I’ve been through the stressful times [laughs].
CLO: For leaders in companies that do face a setback or crash, how can they stay positive and work themselves out of it?
Chambers: The first thing to determine is what’s self-inflicted and how much of it is external, because the way you deal with it is different depending on the degrees. The second thing you do is paint the picture for what you’re going to look like once you’ve come out of it. Because otherwise, your employees, your shareholders, your peers will have trouble following you. Then you say, here are the steps that we’re going to focus on to achieve that end result. Then you regularly communicate what’s working and not. After you outline that approach, write the press release of what you’re going to look like when you’re done. It’s amazing how that allows you to stay focused.
CLO: Is there something in particular in your book you think people won’t agree with?
Chambers: I hope I challenge them in every aspect. If I didn’t really challenge them and get them outside their comfort zone then I did not do my job. In every chapter there may be elements where some people won’t agree; that’s what I want. Does it make you want to change? Does it make you have courage and the curiosity to make a bigger change than you would otherwise? That’s what a chief learning officer’s job is — to be able to challenge the company and help them learn for where the future is going to be.
Change doesn’t make anybody comfortable, they all say it does, but it does not. When things change it makes you uncomfortable, but in this new world it is all about change at a tremendous speed. And it doesn’t mean you’ll be comfortable with it, but you need to accept it and figure out how to manage it and how to control your fears. That’s why I opened up with the story about drowning. What my dad taught me at six years of age is when you get caught up in something that seems overwhelming and you’re not going to be able to get out of it, the first thing you do is stay focused and not try to swim against the tide or go against the trend, but understand what’s happening to you, work your way over to the side, then learn how to get back into it and master it. That’s really what leadership is about.
CLO: What have you personally learned by writing your book?
Chambers: It’s harder than I ever dreamed. I’m dyslexic so it was very painful. But the second thing was the book taught me how to tell stories. How do you take a concept, attract the readers’ attention to it and say here’s the key takeaway? It is very powerful. And the third issue is that I like talking about people a lot more than I like talking about myself. My co-author kept pushing me back, saying, “John, it’s nice, but people want to know what you think here.” That was hard for me because teams win, individuals don’t.
A lot of people responded to how open I was to it, which was hard for me, including the mistakes and being transparent because that’s what people want to understand: How did I learn and how did I deal with the challenges? It made me more comfortable in my own leadership style. People might occasionally say, “John, you did a very good job at leadership, but you took a little bit too much risk and you spread yourself a little bit thin.” The one thing the book taught me — I wish I’d dreamed more and spread myself thinner and taken on more risk. I will in my startups.