New CEO Robbins: Cisco Will Become Very Different Company

NEWS ANALYSIS: Three months after taking over for longtime CEO John Chambers, Chuck Robbins is still in due diligence and lying low for the media.

SAN JOSE, Calif.—The culture and personality of a company always emanates from the top. Eventually, if the leader is powerful enough, the company starts taking on his/her personality—for better or worse.

Three months ago, Cisco Systems executed an awkward change in leadership, with a lower-visibility executive, Chuck Robbins (pictured), sliding over to replace 20-year incumbent John Chambers in the CEO corner office. Two leading-candidate Cisco presidents, President of Development and Sales Rob Lloyd and President and Chief Operating Officer Gary Moore, were bypassed and eventually resigned. Robbins was a mere senior vice president.

It's too early to know if and when Cisco employees will take to Robbins' personality and go to war with him, and it looks as though stockholders, employees, company partners/resellers and the media will have to wait a while longer to find out.

The CEO has to be all things to everybody: salesman, strategist, recruiter, evangelist, sound-bite specialist, speechmaker, insufferable smiling face—the list goes on. Chambers was able to be all those people for 20-plus years; Robbins, not as ebullient as his predecessor, has a keen challenge ahead in following him, and he undoubtedly knows it.

CEO Must 'Translate Vision and Strategy Into Execution'

Chambers surprised the industry May 4 when he announced that Robbins, a 17-year Cisco veteran, would be taking over as CEO. Chambers said he and the company's directors "selected a very strong leader at a time when Cisco is in a very strong position. … Our next CEO needs to thrive in a highly dynamic environment, to be capable of accelerating what is working very well for Cisco and disrupting what needs to change. Chuck is unique in his ability to translate vision and strategy into world-class execution, bringing together teams and ecosystems to drive results."

Chambers' substantial presence still engulfs the C-suite because he remains executive chairman of the board of directors. Chambers, 66, has gained respect far and wide during the last two decades for overseeing the phenomenal growth of the world's largest tech networking provider from $70 million in annual revenues in 1995 to its current run rate of about $46 billion. Cisco Systems in 1995 had 1,000 people; it now has 72,000 employees and a current market capitalization of about $140 billion. Hard to argue with those numbers.

Chambers was around Oct. 5 at the company's Global Editors' Conference to greet international media visitors. He was his usual affable self in introducing everybody to Cisco's futuristic new boardroom, a hangar-size penthouse that features multiple video-conference screens, iPads for board members to use, wireless controls, a sweeping view of Silicon Valley—the whole shebang. Visitors were impressed.

Chambers appears relaxed in his new, calmer role.

"The morning after Chuck took over for me, it was the first time in 20 years that I wasn't awakened by this," Chambers told eWEEK, showing us his smartphone. "I set it to vibrate and then just slept on through."

Chambers said he works about half time now and makes himself available whenever duty calls, but he's also spending more time with his wife, Elaine, and his son, daughter and grandchildren.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...