I find myself in Dallas this week for the Cisco partner summit and being in Texas is an interesting setting for a Cisco conference - it's a state that at times seems stuck in its gun-toting cowboy tradition past in a ever-changing world. Cisco will be hoping to avoid any direct comparisons.
This Cisco partner summit will be the last with former CEO John Chambers as chairman, with his 24-year tenure on the Cisco board coming to end next month. Current CEO Chuck Robbins, who took over as CEO from Chambers in 2015 and will become chairman in December too, will lead the Chambers-less Cisco. Despite two years as CEO, Robbins will now be able to act freely as CEO, without the considerable spectra of industry stalwart Chambers looming in the background. Even in his diminished operations capacity as chairman, there has always been a sense that Chambers continued to pull the Cisco strings in a capacity behind many board members.
Chambers was CEO of Cisco for 20 years, and helped guide the company to be one of the world's biggest and most profitable tech firms in the world. However, in recent years the rise of cloud computing has put the pinch on Cisco and it has fallen to Robbins to put together 'the difficult second album' by overseeing the firm's transition from selling networking hardware to networking services sold in subscription software bundles. The partner summit also has plenty of talk of security, cloud and artificial intelligence as Cisco looks to break free from its networking vendor moniker.
During his keynote Robbins briefly mentioned he had been Cisco CEO for nine quarters now, but said nothing about what that has meant for the firm. So at the media Q&A with Robbins afterwards, I asked him how he differs as a CEO to Chambers, and here's what he said to me: "As John [Chambers] and I worked through the transition there were a lot of things he and I agreed on that he had not done and he said 'you need to do these'. The thing that I believe is needed to be successful today in big organisations moving incredibly fast in tremendous times of change is that you have to be more transparent with your employee base compared with 10 or 15 years ago. We have changed our entire communications approach in the company. We are now much more transparent. I am not saying we were wrong before, but times have changed and it requires us to do much more frequent communications, and to be transparent and authentic. For our teams to move as fast as they need to move, they need to understand why we want to do it."
Such humility towards staff was evident in Robbins' keynote too. One of his five key elements of success is 'employee and customer experience'. Robbins also dedicated part of his keynote to Terri Gracy-Udoh, a Cisco employee who recently passed away, with her funeral taking place two hours after the speech. Robbins fought back tears on stage as he talked about Terri's contribution to the company.
So it seems that the post-Chambers era at Cisco might mean a bigger change for the firm's employees at first, with Robbins going for the 'leader who can listen' approach. It stands in contrast to the approach of many tech CEOs, perhaps most famously Steve Jobs who kept Apple's departments in silos and unaware of the wider corporation's activities.
Robbins' more open approach will presumably mean that the channel can expect more open communication too, even if that comes via Cisco employees opting to have more open dialogue with resellers directly. For a vendor that has often tweaked and overhauled its partner programme with great regularity, it might mean the channel is more ahead of the curve in knowing about such changes as Robbins drives his transparent Cisco into the future.
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