COLLABORATION AND LEADERSHIP AT CISCO SYSTEMS

COLLABORATION AND LEADERSHIP AT CISCO SYSTEMS

“I believe that only those companies that build collaboration into their DNA by tapping into the collective expertise of their employees—instead of just a few select leaders at the top—will succeed … This sounds easy, but it is incredibly complex.”  That is what John Chambers, CEO of Cisco Systems, told an interviewer in 2008. A year later, he was even more adamant that collaboration, teamwork, and a supportive technology would be the hallmarks of the company’s future.  “If they’re not collaborative,” he said, speaking of potential future employees, “if they aren’t naturally inclined toward collaboration and teamwork, if they are uncomfortable with using technology to make that happen both within Cisco and in their own life, they’re probably not going to fit in here.” And yet, as Chambers was the first to admit, he was not always so comfortable with teamwork and collaboration himself.

Cisco, widely recognized as “the Internet behemoth,” designs, manufactures, and sells Internet‐protocol networking and other byproducts related to the communications and IT industry, and provides services associated with those products and their use. Founded in 1984 by a Stanford‐based husband‐and‐wife team (seeking a way to connect the computer systems in their two departments), Cisco grew so rapidly that, at the height of the Internet bubble (2000), its market value made it the third most valuable company in the world (behind Microsoft and GE). Chambers became CEO in 1995 and helped drive that growth. When the bubble burst in 2001, Cisco experienced what Chambers called “a near death experience.” Layoffs and cutbacks helped Cisco survive, but Chambers was determined to do more: Cisco would thrive by understanding market trends and responding earlier than its competitors, or even its customers.

Chambers came to believe that the only way to stay ahead of the markets was by “tapping into the collective expertise of all our employees.” That meant building cross‐functional collaboration and teamwork throughout the entire organization. An elaborate network of councils and boards brought together “groups of people with relevant expertise” who could “work together to make and execute key decisions supported by networked Web 2.0 technologies.” All well and good, but Chambers also realized that neither he nor his top executives were quite prepared to make the transition themselves. “I’m a command‐and‐ control person,” Chambers admitted. “I like to be able to say turn right, and we truly have 67,000 people turn right.” His top executives were the same.

At first, Chambers found that his top executives did not much like the process of collaboration and would have “opted out” if allowed. “But I didn’t give them a choice in the matter,” he noted, “I forced people to work with others they didn’t get along with.” He also tied executive bonuses to collaborative efforts and let about 20% of his management team go. “It’s not that they weren’t successful working on their own or that they weren’t good people,” he explained. “They just couldn’t collaborate effectively.”  Cisco CEO, John Chambers was committed to building collaboration as a way of keeping his company agile and responsive to a rapidly shifting competitive and technological environment.

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