Advice from John Chambers to CIOs - and the World

We kicked off BoxWorks this morning with an intense, candid conversation between Cisco Executive Chairman John Chambers and Box CEO Aaron Levie. Chambers, who until just a few months ago was the long-serving and much-lauded CEO of the global networking behemoth, has plenty to say about how businesses — and governments — need to change in order to survive. We've collected some of his best advice below.

1. Get market transitions right.

When Chambers started at Cisco in 1991, their annual revenue was $71M. In the last 24 years, it has grown to $49B under his leadership. According to Chambers, getting this far (and with this level of success) has meant identifying and managing market transformation correctly: "What surviving companies do is get market transitions right. Our competitors from 20 years ago? None of them exist. We believed that the internet would completely transform the industry... we were lucky to emerge from every transition stronger than ever."

In surviving these transitions, John has made good on a piece of advice he got earlier in his career. In the 90s, he fielded a call from Jack Welch, the storied CEO of GE, who told him Cisco was a "good business." Chambers asked what it would take to be a great business. Welch's response? "A near death experience."

Ultimately, Chambers says, "You're judged by how you handle not only your successes but your setbacks."

2. Digitization is inevitable, so get onboard now.

Chambers sees a fundamental market transition in digitization. "Digitization is going to change the world and every business," he said. "Every company in the room knows they're going to become tech companies."

And though he believes businesses are moving quickly to embrace the change, there's one group he does feel is lagging behind — the United States Government: "We are the only country in the world where the leaders are not promoting a digital strategy."

3. Leaders have an obligation to reinvent themselves.

Chambers believes strongly that when reinventing your company in the face of dramatic market transitions, "if you put in new technology and you don't change the process and the organization too, you won't get the outcome you want." In these situations, "It's your organization and leadership changes that enable you to innovate faster."

Why do companies fail? "Because CEOs don't reinvent themselves...I reinvented myself 20 times at Cisco."

The key as a leader is to change the way you think about the problem. "In business school, we're trained to think linearly. You have to think exponentially. Reinvent yourself as a leader. Reinvent your organizational structure. Reinvent your company."

4. Stop talking technology and start talking business outcomes.

The role of the CIO is dramatically changing under the pressures of digitization. Chambers had simple advice for CIOs looking to help transform their companies.

"Quit talking to your CEO about technology. Start talking to them about business outcomes," he said. "When I talked to Prime Minister Modi, how many times do you think I talked about routers and switches and cloud? You need to talk business outcomes."