UK exclusive: Outgoing Cisco leader talks candidly about his successes, failures and expectations for the future.
Chambers on doubts and mistakes
Chambers clearly places a lot of stock in a company’s ability to weather transitions. Did he ever have any doubts about where these transitions would come from?
"The role of the internet did evolve to where we said, and it probably will again with this digitisation. Did I have doubts 20 years ago about the role of the internet, or today about the next generation of the internet being around digitisation? I have no doubts.
"However there are going to be lots of transitions along the way. I’ve probably reinvented myself five maybe six times as a leader, and so when a transition occurs that’s when we go. We were an enterprise company and we moved into small business. We were in enterprise and small commercial business and we moved into public sector, we moved in as a service provider.
"We saw data, voice and video combining and we moved into telephony and became the number one telephony player, when many of the strong telephony players said we couldn’t spell telephony – might have been true, we now have 65 percent market share.
"As a leader I’ve had to reinvent myself and I’d argue our company maybe five or six times, and Chuck will do it again over time. Companies and countries and cities that are going to really lead have to have the confidence to change. Are you always sure of the results? No. If you are you’re over-confident. But once you get the trends right then you’ve got to have to courage to go and stick behind those.
"So at any time did I believe that I lost confidence in my ability to lead the company? No. Do you get questioned during the tough times? But during the tough times I had already made my bets."
"I have no hesitation about buying 177 companies and a couple dozen of them not working out. If my worst criticism is Flip, which was a $600 million acquisition, and we did 20 acquisitions much larger than that. You’ve got to have the courage as a leader to create a culture where people take risk and are periodically not successful, that’s what makes your children stronger and that’s what makes your company stronger."
Chambers on the future of telecoms
As CEO, Chambers famously (or infamously) made the prediction in 1999 that voice services would eventually become free, as they have done. CBR asked if he had any similarly shocking predictions to make about today’s landscape:
"The fun part is that we predicted almost all of these moves. Voice will be free is just the one I wished I’d worded differently because I upset every service provider customer in the world…
What the concept was there was the second bullet [in the keynote] on my why companies fail: you do the right thing too long.
"It wasn’t just voice that will commoditise and be free. Data transport will commoditise and be free and then video will commoditise and be free. If you’re not constantly moving ahead of these trends you do get left behind, so you’re doing the right thing too long. What we’ve done is nail the convergence issue, first data to the internet and then voice to the internet and then video and we’ve nailed the convergence issues with convergence and technology in the data centre compute storage network.
"That’s why in a market that’s growing two percent we grew last quarter at 30 percent in that segment. Our ability to get these trends right by listening is pretty good. So if you were to say where to bet now, I’d bet heavily on digitisation on the companies that learn to reinvent themselves and the countries that do. If I were betting on emerging markets now, I’d probably say bet on India first and Mexico second.
"But I think people don’t understand: it’s way beyond just connecting 500 billion devices, it will change your healthcare, it will probably solve many of the health issues today that are more difficult to solve. It will create a much more level playing field on a global basis; you don’t have to be in a given country or a given city to participate as the market goes forward."
Read about Chambers’s vision of the future on page 3.