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.
New CEO Robbins: Cisco Will Become Very Different Company
Robbins Introduced to International Media Group
Robbins, 49, made his first appearance as CEO to a group of about 75 invited media members at the editors’ meetup. He delivered a brief, straight-from-the-monitor overview of the company and later answered a few questions from reporters, including one from yours truly about how Cisco will be impacted by open-systems competitors, such as HP (with its new OpenSwitch network OS).
“We see a lot of unique use cases, and we’re supporting them where it makes sense,” Robbins said in answer to eWEEK. “But we do not have religion long term about how this issue plays out. There will be places where our rich software will run on x86 platforms—it’s happening today with virtual managed services and in search providers—and we’re going to support that. We also see our rich feature sets sitting on top of high-performance ASICs.
“As we build these orchestrations, they will be open northbound for programmers to write to; they also will be open southbound, so that if a customer wanted to have another vendor’s security device infrastructure, we would need to have that orchestration capability to apply that same intelligence to those devices as well. We are very committed to being very open across all those technology areas.”
Other than the brief Q&A session and a short visit with Quentin Hardy of The New York Times, Robbins didn’t engage much with media members. In fact, he was on a plane before the day was done as other activities were still being conducted on the company’s San Jose headquarters campus.
Cisco Will Become ‘a Very Different Company’
Robbins told the Times that Cisco Systems will become a very different company by slowly moving from selling individual switches and routers to integrated, software-defined, automated components. This is mandatory for new applications to be deployed faster, thus creating numerous new business use cases, he said.
“Companies do not want to be in the business of putting things together,” Robbins said. “A massively distributed network is where we are headed.”
Robbins filed an overview of his intentions in a blog published the same day. It’s a given that every customer is using technology to enable his/her business, Robbins wrote.
“Some customers view technology as a real differentiator for their business, and the most progressive define their strategy in the context of what technology makes possible. In doing so, they drive competitive differentiation and, in many cases, define new business models,” Robbins said.
“Our opportunity is clear: Cisco can be the most strategic partner to cities, countries and all of our customers on this digital journey. Frankly, every organization recognizes the transformative power that technology can provide, but our research shows that only 25 percent of companies and governments say they have a plan to execute on that opportunity. These organizations that have a plan need our help to deliver the ultimate benefits. The remaining 75 percent need our help in clearly defining the opportunity that exists for each one of them.”
eWEEK will continue to keep you up-to-date on developments at the world’s largest IT networking provider as it undergoes a major transition.