The chatter about John Chambers’ coming retirement appears to have accelerated and has “half the Cisco world freaked out,” according to a former high-ranking Cisco executive.
Last week, I reported that sources close to Cisco have talked about accelerating the plan for Chambers’ retirement, generally thought to be happening in the next few years, to as early as this fall. This revelation has apparently sparked an explosion of debate and discussion. Which brings us to the question: Why is this story drawing so much heat?
Where there is smoke, there is fire. The reason Chambers’ retirement is top of mind is because it’s top of mind at Cisco. My sources point out that Cisco employees are legitimately worried about their future as the buzz grows about another round of layoffs. After last year’s dismal year — shrinking revenue and mass cutbacks — it’s natural that the rank-and-file would be wondering what’s in store for the company’s future.
Pundits in the press have pointed out that Chambers has said that he will move on in the next few years, and the consensus appears to be 2015. Critics of my story say he wants to make things look better before he leaves, so that he can “go out on top.” The question has come up: Why would he push that forward?
The answer is because more people are talking about it — and investors are antsy. Maybe there is a cosmic groundswell of thinking that “it’s time.” Isn’t it interesting that as the Chambers chatter increases, the Cisco stock price creeps up?
Since my story went public, several sources have come to me after with more Cisco color and confessions. Many think it’s time for Chambers to transition out of the company.
Yes, there are also cheerleaders who ask how I could possible raise such a questions. They would rather promulgate the John Chambers-as-a-tech savant story. But the critics appear to outweigh the cheerleaders.
“He’s the Ken Olsen of the decade,” says a former Cisco manager of John Chambers, speaking of the former CEO of Digital Equipment Corp. Maybe could make the argument that he is Ted Baxter, the loquacious anchorman from Mary Tyler Moore show, which is what I thought this ex-Cisco mate was talking about. (The quote has since been corrected to reflect Ken Olsen, not Ted Baxter. Sorry, Ted Knight, Ken Olsen, you know.)
The former Cisco manager, who was in charge of several Cisco product lines and worked with some of the company’s top engineers, said Cisco has become a “siloed” organization where none of the product groups work well across divisions. He believes it’s time for new leadership that can integrate Cisco’s disparate technologies.
There are also a gaggle of Cisco critics on Wall Street who don’t like Chambers at all, pointing to the dismal M&A record of the last ten years.
“They’re still dealing with that Scientific-Atlanta disaster,” says the hedge-fund manager, who asks not to be named. “They haven’t really done anything, it’s time for him to go.”
Indeed, many of Cisco’s M&A moves of the past decade have been duds. There was the aforementioned Scientific-Atlanta deal, which Cisco paid $7B for in 2005, which generally was seen too steep a price to pay for a pedestrian settop box business whose manufacturing plants would later be outsourced to Foxconn of China. Then there’s Flip Video, purchased by Cisco for $590M in 2009, only to end up being killed in 2013.
And does anybody remember EOS? I do. At one time it was Cisco’s “next big thing.”
There is no doubt that John T. Chambers is a master marketer and salesman — and one of the things he’s been best at is marketing his own leadership story. Let’s give Chambers some credit: He created the Cisco dominance in networking in the 1990s by gobbling up every Ethernet networking player in the Northern Hemisphere. The vision of the future of Ethernet was a good one. But we’ve been waiting for an equivalent vision for many years, and Internet of Everything is not likely to be the story.
Yes, the mechanics and politics of how the forthcoming end of the Chambers era will exactly unfold are difficult to discern. Some former Cisco-ites point out that Cisco’s boards is filled with Chambers allies, so if he’s not ready, he won’t be pushed out the door.
But every rock star eventually falls off the charts. The discussion of Chambers’ retirement appears to have taken on new urgency. And plenty of former and current Cisco employees see reasons for moving on to the next era as quickly as possible.