Feature Story

GenerationNow@Cisco: 10 Things I Learned from 100 Minutes with John Chambers

Cisco "greengineer" Shraddha Chaplot shares perspectives on the traits that make John Chambers an inspirational CEO.

Every two months, Cisco's Chairman and CEO John Chambers hosts an hour-long Birthday Chat – a chance for Cisco employees to ask him anything. Since my birthday is in August, I had the opportunity to recently attend the chat.

The scene: 300 employees in a balloon-filled room joined by nearly 800 more via Cisco TV and four TelePresence screens, representing employees from around the world. The atmosphere was warm, comforting, and inspiring. The 100 minutes I spent observing John quickly inspired me to write this list of 10 things I learned from him:

1. John is accessible.

John arrived on time, like he has at every Cisco event I have attended in the last five years, but he stayed an extra 40 minutes. He answered every question, addressed every issue, and took every picture. In addition to these chats, John invites employees to the quarterly company meetings, and has several other ways for employees to reach him. He responds to every email, listens to every voicemail, and if an employee is feeling daring, (s)he is free to visit him in our executive building. No special access required! How many CEO's do you know who do that?

2. John's tone is calm and consistent.

John has been Cisco's CEO for nearly 19 years and has led this company through some tough times. But watching him speak and seeing his calm mannerisms, you'd think the sun had been shining every day for John. Whether you're handling your day to day affairs or managing a global company, learning to handle stress can greatly impact your success. If you're a leader, your ability to demonstrate this can influence the way your employees deal with it as well.

3. John listens. Really listens.

An employee asked about bringing Cisco's Bring Your Kids To Work Day back and John immediately agreed. I asked if I could bring my parents instead. After everyone chuckled about it, John said an enthusiastic, "Of course!" Later, when it was my turn to take a photo with him, we bumped fists and as I left, he said, "Make sure you bring your parents!" He remembered. (It made me feel like a million bucks, the CEO of the company I worked for remembered what I asked for. A happy family is a productive family.)

4. John's personality shines through.

As John turned to one of the TelePresence screens in Canada for a question from an employee, fishing came up as a topic. All of a sudden, John turned back to us in the room, pulled out his duck call (a device used to imitate the sound of ducks) and started telling us a story by playing his duck call! I first saw him share his talent at our 25th Cisco anniversary celebration a few years ago. He reminded me to embrace who I am. The work you do can be enhanced when you bring your personality into it.

5. John has a very open mind.

Though he is a baby boomer, it seems like John has the values of multiple generations within him. He believes in equality for all employees and actually walks the talk through his actions. He welcomes change and understands its importance in building an innovative and enjoyable culture.

6. John is a captivating, engaging speaker.

No one would ever guess that John is dyslexic. But, he is. And the fact that he is one of the most engaging speakers I've seen makes me realize that the most difficult challenges actually give us a chance to be the best.

7. John is proactive.

(One of my favorite John stories) During the August Birthday Chat 2012, an engineer in attendance shared the conditions of his small lab. Without any hesitation, John asked the engineer if he had his phone with him. The engineer replied "Yes". Then, John told the engineer, "Text your manager and co-workers that I'm taking you in my car and we're driving to your lab after this chat." JUST. LIKE. THAT. I recently saw the engineer and asked him what became of his lab and he mentioned that since the chat, it had been improved and that experience was one he'd never forget.

8. John is a brilliant leader.

A question when we were in line for pictures:

Cisco Employee: "What do you do when people and competitors attack you or Cisco in the media? Do you fight back or ignore them?"

John: "Neither. I prove them wrong."

9. John empowers us.

An employee asked about a STEM event, asking for more events like it. Knowing that STEM is a complex effort, John encouraged her to make her own choices about how to become more involved. Building such ownership can have many positive ripple effects.

10. John takes time for himself.

Last but not least, John takes time for himself, spending it with his grandchildren, going on fishing trips, etc. These moments allow him to come back ready to lead the company with a great attitude. When your leader takes time off for relaxation and rejuvenation, it sets a positive example for employees to do the same.

As I walked out the door that day, I felt all sorts of emotions: pride, inspiration, motivation, fearlessness, the entrepreneur vibe while appreciating the opportunity to hear and be heard, to learn and share, and to think forward. For me, the greatest quality of a leader is not in the words (s)he speaks, but the simple ability to empower and make you believe in yourself. The people who inspire me to believe in myself are the people I want to be around. Unlock your potential and passion. Go find yourself a John Chambers and persevere.