Former Cisco CEO John Chambers On Startup Cultures, Vulnerability And More

Chief Executive spoke to the former CEO of Cisco, John Chambers about how establish companies can cultivate startup cultures and why CEOs must be vulnerable. Not too many people get the chance to change the world once—never mind a second time. John Chambers is aiming to be among the select few.

The former CEO of Cisco remembers back in 1993 when people doubted the company’s ability to change the way the world works. “People said, ‘Nice marketing. You’re a router company,’ yet I think most people would say that we did change the world.” Indeed. Cisco’s revenue was just a shade over $1 billion when he took over as CEO of Cisco in 1995. By the time he left in 2015, it was at nearly $50 billion.

In his next chapter, as founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures, Chambers is looking to develop startup ecosystems across the globe. The VC firm is based out of Palo Alto—but has quickly found inroads in India, France and the U.S. Chambers has spent the first year examining startup cultures across the world and recently was a recipient of the Padma Bhushan award, one of India’s highest civilian honors.

Chief Executive spoke to Chambers, who recently wrote a book, “Connecting the Dots: Lessons For Leadership In A Startup World,” about what he’s learned about cultivating startups and why vulnerability is an important trait for CEOs to exhibit. Below are excerpts from this interview.

How would you rate your first year with JC2 Ventures?

I think we’re off to a very good start. One of the things that is so exciting to me is the concept appears to be working. There is a French global high-tech ambassador for President Macron. We’ve developed a relationship with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India on his Digital India initiative. I’ve been there twice in the last two and a half months, working with the prime minister’s government. And I think it’s indicative of the recognition of the Padma Bhushan Award. I didn’t even know how special it was until literally I got texts from the highest levels of government in India saying, “Congratulations. I had no idea what they were congratulating me for. And then when I looked, I heard from almost every major Indian CEO and government leader and almost any first and second-generation American Indian leader. I’ve had tremendous honors over the years, and I hope that I earned them. But I’ve never had an award like this and got this many comments from such a group of people that I respect in the volumes.

This points to what we’re trying to accomplish in terms of changing the world, realizing the large companies will not generate incremental jobs over the next decade because of digitization and artificial intelligence and the scale of automation. If you’re going to have job growth and income growth, you must become a startup nation. And the largest companies to do innovation are going to have to look to startups to say, “I’m going to partner with you uniquely to achieve this innovation.”

It was tremendously exciting this last year, and I’ve been working on it for three years, but we had formally announced it a little bit over a year ago. And the receptivity on both a national level and the three countries I’m focused, India, France and the U.S. has been good. We do probably 40 or 50 different startup sessions a month for individual companies and the 18 that we’re investing time and energy on, and I’m having the time of my life.

You’ve been a voice in saying that established companies really need to team up with startups, whether it’s something in-house or it’s just some kind of collaboration. I’ve noticed, not just in the tech space but really across the board, leading companies across any industry are really getting into the incubation game. I’m seeing more and more incubators in some of these companies, whether it’s like a manufacturing company or a packaging company. What do you make of this trend?

I think it is something that’s coming at us with tremendous speed. And if you watch what all leaders, CEOs, or government leaders that are really successful, instinctively know, they catch trends even though they may not understand some of the implications or why they’ve occurred. I think every organization, regardless of size, will become a traditional business and a technology company, regardless if you’re in retail, healthcare, government, etc., and that every organization has to innovate or they’re going to die.

And when I first said 40% of large companies were going to disappear in the next decade, people said, “John, you’ve got a lot of predictions that have been remarkably right. Not a prayer on this one.” And yet, they’re now saying that probably is too conservative. And so, I think leaders, by countries or by large companies or small companies, know if they don’t innovate, they get left behind. Innovation can come in the traditional way of innovating your own products, or they can become innovation hubs within your company. There’s a lot of positives, but challenges to go with that. Or they can be innovation hubs where you acquire innovative companies, also with technology that comes into your retail industry or your manufacturing or your public service group, or you can partner uniquely with startups in a way you haven’t done before.