At age 69, former Cisco CEO John Chambers tells us 'I'm not retired'

  • John Chambers stepped down as CEO of Cisco in 2015, and left the board at the end of 2017.
  • At age 69, he says he’s embarked on a new career as an investor and advisor, with the goal of helping startups that will create jobs across the US.
  • And he just published a new book of business advice, too.
  • He says he’s having “the time of my life” in this new career.

“I’m not retired, but I am on to my next chapters,” John Chambers told Business Insider in the hours before his new book launched.

He’s not kidding. First, there’s the book: Titled “Connecting the Dots,” it’s part memoir and part business advice book. And then there’s the 16-and-counting startups he’s advising and/or has invested in, some of which are still in stealth mode – not to mention that he’s personally mentoring some of the execs at those companies.

Chambers is best known for his 24-year tenure as CEO of Cisco, a job he vacated in mid-2015, ultimately retiring from the chairman role, too, at the end of 2017.

But, he says, he’s working almost as hard now on his own investment company, together with his son out of his home office. The one big advantage over his Cisco days, he says: more time for fun.

“I’m just having the time of my life,” he says. “My fly fishing is better. My golf game is improving, and I get to spend more time with my wife – who was my high school sweetheart – than before.”

And, truth be told, sometimes he combines the work with the fun. “I took 22 people out fishing in Alaska for a week and half of them were my CEO startups, and half of them were my established leaders that were very good friends.”

Dreaming big and surviving catastrophes

The book is full of tips on everything from setting big goals and beating competitors, to surviving failures. Chambers is both extremely proud of the book, but also says that he’s somewhat uncomfortable in talking about some of it.

He’s proud of the achivement of writing the book because he’s dyslexic and “hates” to write, he tells Business Insider. The condition damaged his ego as a child so much so that he didn’t publicly fess up to having it until he had been running Cisco for years.

Although he wrote the book with help from author Diane Brady, “I worked on every word on that book,” he says. “It took us 15 months and I thought I could do it in 90 days.”

At the age of 69, he now sees dyslexia as one of his super-powers, forcing him to process information differently and allowing him to see patterns; a trait all business leaders must develop, he writes in the book.

Yet, he’s a little uncomfortable, because in addition to giving business advice, Brady pushed him to recount more personal stories about himself in the book, he said. Those stories range from his childhood upbringing, through to his most painful mistakes leading Cisco.

For instance, the biggest mistake happened eleven years into his tenure, when the dot-com bubble burst and threatened to take Cisco with it, he recounts in the book.

Cisco had been struggling to meet demand for its Internet networking equipment. When the dot-com world crashed, “a quarter of our customers simply vanished. Raw material that we’d fought – and I mean fought – to get just months earlier was piling up in Cisco warehouses alongside gear designed for now-defunct customers and parts that might at best be salvaged for metal,” he writes.

Cisco had to write-off $US2.5 billion in inventory that year, one of the largest inventory write-downs in history, and investors and pundits began calling for his head on a platter.

He didn’t get fired, but he vowed to never let that happen again. So Cisco created, and later became known for, a super tight supplier management system that ordered raw materials as needed, rather than stockpiling them in the way that got the company into trouble.

The book gives other tips as well, like his advice on how to feel lucky: “People who believe that they’re lucky tend to be optimists, outline bold goals, prepare for the opportunities and challenges and know exactly what they want to achieve. As a result, they tend to be lucky again and again,” he writes.

Perhaps one of the best anecdotes in the book is about his first day at Cisco when the company literally put him in a telephone closet for his office, and his coworkers were hostile – you can read the full excerpt below.

16 startups and counting

As for the daily work, Chambers is mentoring and coaching, advising and investing in startups.

Cisco John ChambersFortune Brainstorm TECH 2014Cisco CEO John Chambers

He’s looking to help companies that can “grow rapidly and create jobs, not just for Silicon Valley, but in every state in the US,” he tells us.

He’s investing in everything from drone startups to “solving world hunger with crickets,” as he puts it. He’s referring to Aspire Food Groups, which uses the jumping bugs in foods like cricket granola, cricket flour and whole roasted crickets.

His goal with his investments, as well as his book, is to “get a replicable playbook,” he says, to help companies grow as fast as possible.

But there’s one big difference between being a coach/advisor and being the CEO, he says.

“I no longer have to do anything I don’t want to do,” he laughs. “It’s like having grandkids. I get them excited. We have fun together and when they go to bed at night, I give them back to their management.”

Office in the closet

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 3 of “Connecting the Dots” by John Chambers that shows that great success can come from even the most humble beginnings.

I was so excited when I showed up at the Cisco office in Menlo Park on my first day in 1991. I came in and they didn’t have anywhere for me to sit, so they put me literally in a telephone closet. All I could hear was this constant click click click of switching telephones in the background. When I stepped out of my closet, the place felt like chaos. Boxes were stacked up in the hall. People were racing around, looking busy, but it was hard to tell what they did.

I walked away from my first meeting that day with a distinct sense that several people on the senior team really didn’t like each other, or maybe they just didn’t like me.

As I walked back into my closet with the sound of clicking in the background, I wanted to pick up the phone and call [my wife] Elaine to say I’d made a terrible mistake.

Then a customer complaint came in and I went to share it with the folks in customer service. I went downstairs looking for our customer service department and was directed to where a few people were sitting near an inflatable penguin.

We both looked surprised at finding each other-me and the customer service team, not me and the penguin! It was then that I realised how much value I could add at this company. I had come to a place that knew its product but was dramatically underestimating its potential.

The Cisco that I joined in 1991 looked very different from the one I left in 2015. We had moved from an initial focus on routing to switching to Voice over IP to video, data centres, the cloud, collaboration, the Internet of Things, security, and country digitization, among other areas.

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