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10.03.18

John Chambers: Connecting the Dots

John Chambers

S
INCE STEPPING DOWN as CEO of Cisco in 2015, John Chambers founded the venture capital firm JC2 Ventures specializing in startups. That experience has led him to write Connecting the Dots as a way to help others to learn from the key events in his life and career as they navigate business and life.

It has always been true, but it is worth repeating: “What will differentiate the winners from the losers won’t be technology or capital but leadership and a willingness to learn.

Experiences early in life taught him to be calm under pressure. Manage your fear until you can work a solution. This has been a critical skill throughout his whole career. “When you stay calm, the people around you are less likely to panic and the situation you’re dealing with is less likely to spin out of control.”

A reoccurring lesson he learned from the economic changes in his native West Virginia is one of the perils of success: doing the right thing for too long. Many of Cisco’s competitors disappeared along the way because they failed to see the transitions happening around them. They didn’t disrupt themselves, so they were disrupted.

The lessons learned in West Virginia taught him to stay ahead of the next big wave. “If disruption isn’t at the core of your strategy, you’ve got a problem.” In business or life it is important to remember this: “When you compete against another company, you’re looking backward. When you compete against a market transition, you learn how to see around corners.” It is, in part, why comparing ourselves to others is not a good strategy.

The ability to connect the dots comes from being able to see the big picture. “The visible condition of any one person, company, state, industry, or country is always a symptom of a deeper issue. To address the real problem, you have to investigate the specific underlying issues and learn to step back to see the patterns and trends that point to the big picture.”

You have to begin by disrupting you. “The strengths that you build can be deployed in a new way. It’s not easy, but if you start by shifting your focus to the big picture and look for clues to what’s around the corner, you’ll have a head start on those who are focused on preserving the past.”

Being curious and hungry to learn is critical to success. “A lot of leaders would say they’re curious. I can tell you from personal experience that most leaders are not. They don’t ask a lot of questions, rarely challenge conventional wisdom, stick with what they know, and often turn to sources that reinforce their existing point of view.” Chambers believes that “my curiosity about things I don’t understand has been a critical factor in my success as a leader.”

Curiosity stems from humbleness. “As a general rule, leaders are not a humble bunch. It takes confidence to lead people and a certain degree of cockiness to make tough decisions when there are smarter people in the room who disagree. You have to connect with them on an emotional level. You don’t do that by dazzling them with your talents. You share a part of who you are.”

Focus on outcomes. “When you plan around an outcome, you can adapt your behavior when new factors arise.” Know where you want to end up and think through the path you will need to take to get there. First, know where you are and define it in human terms. Cisco was an “internetworking router provider.” Chambers reimagined it to be a company that would change the way we “work, live, learn, and play.” Focus on the outcome and work back from there.

Don’t personalize every crisis. Just because it’s happening to you doesn’t mean it is about you. Thinking that way can “lead to a whole truckload of emotions, from anger and denial to a desperate feeling that we have to do something—anything—to turn things around.” Determine first if the crisis was self-inflicted. “If the problem is market inflicted, don’t dramatically change your strategy.” Additionally, “Do what’s necessary—ideally in one decisive move—to weather the tough times and stay focused on the long term. To come back stronger, you have to be brutal in addressing the flaws that let you become vulnerable.”

Too often in a crisis, we miss this bit of advice from his Dad: “Focus on the issue at hand, deal with the world the way it is, and respond appropriately.” It’s easy to deny reality and just simply complain.

Chambers deals with acquisitions, building teams, creating a culture, communication, and our digital future. He also answers thirteen questions that entrepreneurs want to know. While optimistic about America’s future, he does leave us with this caution:
In the United States, we are not moving at anywhere near the speed or with the focus on startups that our global peers are achieving. We are missing major market transitions; we continue to do the right thing for too long; and we’re failing to reinvent the drivers for new job creation and household incomes. In short, we are not reinventing ourselves. We act as though our success is a given. It’s not. The United States is the only developed country in the world that lacks not only a digitization plan but also a national plan for startups, something almost every other country in the world is already implementing. As a result, we do not have a well-thought-out strategy for creating the kinds of infrastructures, education, tax strategies, regulation simplifications, skills training, and public policies to promote innovation and startups.

It's a startup world.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 07:54 AM
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