At some point in life, you come to realize you’ve had a lot of interesting experiences that have helped influence and shape you to become the person you are today. I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve had a wide variety of experiences in my life – and all have helped teach me valuable lessons (some more than others of course).

And so, I’ve decided I’m going to start a new series on my blog titled “What I learned from…” I hope that some of the lessons I’ve learned will also be interesting and helpful to others. The first post in the series focuses on what I learned from working with John Chambers, Cisco Systems CEO.

CEO, John Chambers, Lessons
John giving one of his dozens of monthly presentations during the early 2000s.

I was hired as communications manager for John during the summer of 1998. The Dot Com Boom was in full force during those days and the company most capitalizing on the exploding growth of the Internet was Cisco Systems. In those days, Cisco was the darling of Wall Street (with its stock splitting multiple times per year) and John was one of the biggest stars in the industry. Joining the executive communications team for a high-flying corporation was a huge change for me after selling my shares in a 25 person PR/IR firm I helped found and build over the previous 5 years.

John had an incredibly busy and ambitious schedule as CEO – and it included a ton of speaking opportunities. On an average month, he gave between 20-25 presentations internally and externally. As communications manager, one of my roles was to review and respond to speaking engagement inquiries. There were a LOT of inquiries and requests arriving daily and naturally, we had to turn down probably 99 out of 100 requests due to his already packed schedule (not to mention wanting to keep him focused on speaking engagements that were the right fit).

Lesson #1 – Learn how to say “no” graciously and in a way that makes the other person feel good.

Lesson #2 – Take the time to respond to *everybody* and don’t play favorites.

John was exceedingly polite and professional – and he wanted to make sure his staff and communication reflected this approach as well. So it was clear that even though we had to turn down so many requests, there would be no canned response from our office and each response had to include a “thank you for the invitation” as well as reason why he would unfortunately have to decline it.

I was amazed at the level of appreciation displayed by those who we had to turn down. On numerous occasions we received “thank you” emails back – simply for answering (many said that similar requests to other companies/CEOs were simply ignored).

Lesson #3 – Treat everyone with respect and show your genuine appreciation

As I noted, John had an incredibly busy and tight schedule. We were often running from one conference presentation to the airport for an important flight (or another meeting). But no matter how late we may have been running, John *always* made sure to stop behind the stage to thank the production crew for their help. He made it a priority to make sure that everyone he worked with knew he appreciated the hard work that went into the presentations. How many Fortune 500 CEOs do the same?

Lesson #4 – Don’t be afraid to laugh – even at yourself

One of John’s best qualities has always been his ability to connect with others – whether its a small team or a large keynote audience. While I know there are those who have wondered whether his “folksy/friendly” persona was just an act, I can tell you it was not. And even better, John was willing to use humor in situations when others may panic or falter. Let me explain.

Our corporate PR team landed a huge opportunity for the company and John when 20/20 agreed to feature John in a segment that would eventually be called “The best boss in the country.” Arrangements were made for the ABC crew to arrive in San Jose to tape a series of interviews and follow John around showcasing “a day in the life of a CEO.” When the day arrived when the crew was going to be in town taping John’s presentations to employees, he was mortified to discover he had laryngitis (too many speaking opportunities had strained his voice). He and I were driving from San Francisco down to the Cisco Systems campus and he was understandably worried about how it would look and sound. The way his voice cracked as we talked reminded me of one thing: Peter Brady in the famous Brady Bunch episode. So I asked John, “Why don’t you just joke that you’re going through puberty again?”

Sure enough, when it was time to give his presentation in front of employees, he struggled with his voice but he used the line…and the entire room burst out with laughter (and it also made the 20/20 piece).

How many CEOs would be confident enough to say something like that in front of employees (or a national TV audience)?

Lesson #5 – Be careful what you promise

Cisco Systems was going through incredible employee growth during the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. When I joined in 1998 there were approximately 14,000 employees. That number had ballooned to nearly 40,000 by 2001. The company was hiring about 2,000 employees per month and was acquiring nearly 10 companies per year and assimilating those employees as well. One of the questions often asked of John during those days was “is Cisco growing too fast? Can it sustain all of these new employees?”

Before joining Cisco Systems, John had built his career at IBM and previously worked at Wang Laboratories. Both of these companies experienced huge layoffs while John worked there – and he recounted time after time how these were the most painful points in his career. And he would do everything possible to make sure this wouldn’t happen at Cisco Systems under his watch.

In April 2001, the Dot Com boom was starting to bust (along with the Internet bubble) and it caught up to Cisco Systems quickly. A company that was hiring 2,000 workers monthly in late 2000 suddenly decided to lay off 18% (8,000) employees. Many employees (and shareholders) felt betrayed – because they had been “promised” by John that this wouldn’t happen to the company with his leadership.

I was one of those employees who was laid off but I certainly didn’t feel betrayed or hold any negative feelings towards John (or Cisco Systems). By that time I had moved on to the corporate marketing group and was part of the fledgling sponsorship team – which included sponsorship investments in golf tournaments in Japan and the UK (among others). These could hardly be called “mission critical” company activities so I understood why this function had to be cut. I was also completing my Masters degree in Sports Administration from the University of San Francisco (thanks in huge part to Cisco’s generous tuition reimbursement program). So I was happy that I would (seemingly) be able to pursue a new career in the world of sports marketing. I wasn’t out of work long as I was hired as Director of Marketing and Promotions for the University of California Athletic Department in August. My tenure at Cal will make up another future segment of “What I learned from…” series.

There were many things I learned while working with John Chambers and at a fast-growing corporation – far more than can fit into a single blog post. But the lessons outlined here are truly the most memorable and meaningful takeaways from that unique chapter in my professional life.

2 Responses

  1. Thanks for writing this David. It sounds like you’ve had the opportunity to learn and be mentored by an amazing person in John Chambers. I love these kinds of lessons learned posts. I’m reflecting back on the last five years of running my company and doing something similar.

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