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

Now it’s also important to understand why this is occurring and what’s different. The speed of innovation, because of digitization and big data and artificial intelligence, is moving at twice the speed, maybe three times the speed of innovation  in the Internet era. And secondly, the majority of young people, the very best and brightest out of schools, used to all want to go to Wall Street firms or the automotive companies or the very big tech companies. Today they all want to go to startups, probably 70-90%, depending on the school, which says that a lot of the talent and innovation is going to occur from startups, and these startups are moving in a much faster pace than big companies.

This is why suddenly you see the innovation engine of a Fortune 100 company CEO, whether they’re in an automotive company or finance company or retail, saying, “I act like a startup. I’ve got to think about innovating my own traditional products. I’ve got to think about establishing innovation concepts across my company and knock down the silos, which is what digitization is about. I’ve got to think outcomes, not how do I do at manufacturing and sales and supply chain and finance. But how do I do them together?”

Talk to me about vulnerability as a leader. You know, you’ve talked about your dyslexia and how you deal with that, and the story of how that really came out was kind of a vulnerable moment for you. Why is this such an important trait for CEOs? Why do they need to be vulnerable?  

Leadership used to be about thinking the leader was superhuman and never made any mistakes and can execute. People are realizing that we all are human, and they will connect better with you if you’re open and transparent about your own challenges. And I think people are now realizing that great leaders, almost without exception, overcame challenges, sometimes those that could destroy their career or not, sometimes those that could have prevented them from going to college or not, and that openness surprised me.

I disclosed I was dyslexic on “take our children to work day” with 500 people in the room, and a little girl started to cry who couldn’t get her question out, and I forgot that I had a mic on as opposed to the stage mic, and I went off the stage to ask her what was wrong, and she said she was dyslexic, and she was having trouble reading the question. I said I was too, and I walked her through how I handled it, and I said, “Now let’s try your question again,” and then asked someone to get back up on stage, and suddenly when she asked it, I realized that I left my mic on. I thought I disclosed too much, and boy was I wrong. I got more comments on that session than almost any other that year, with people saying, “You made such a difference. John, we see a side of you we hadn’t realized, and it’s an important part of who you are. You need to show it more about how you care about people,” and the people who have limitations want to see they have a chance to be more successful.

Twenty-percent or more CEOs are dyslexic. Yet, very few of them will be the Chuck Schwab [SP] or the Richard Bransons of the world who would admit it. People in today’s society want people to be candid about their strengths and limitations, and I would argue you’re more a product of how you handle your setbacks and your limitations than your successes. You’ve got to be realistic. There’s nobody perfect. Lord knows I am not, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and that’s part of the value I bring these startups and, candidly, to government leaders around the world.

And then while I’m far from perfect, I do form relationships. Your currency of today as a leader? It’s track record. It’s trust and relationships. And when you think about that, that’s what people who read your concepts and your ideas really, if you take a step back, they need to understand, and then something that nobody writes about…Very few people write about how you handled your setbacks. Most people write about your successes, or they trash you when you get knocked on your tail, but I would argue that’s at least half the characteristics of all successful leaders, is how you handle those setbacks in life, in your business and your personal life, and everybody has them, especially if you’re in a role very long.

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