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A Fireside Chat with John Chambers

May 12, 20228 min readThought Leadership

Recently, everyone at Balbix got a fantastic treat. John Chambers, globally renowned tech CEO and one of Balbix’s earliest investors, joined our team for a fireside chat. What started as a casual conversation, quickly turned into valuable leadership lessons and insights for the Balbix team to incorporate into our everyday lives both personally and as a “grow-fast-or-die” startup company.

Here are some of the biggest takeaways I garnered from my mentor and friend:

You Must Evolve Constantly and Remain Resilient as a Leader

John reflected on leadership in times of adversity, citing the challenges he faced while at Cisco during the 2001 dot com bubble crash. While Cisco came out of that difficult time stronger than any other company in the industry, John learned that leadership is not for the faint of heart. Like his mentor Jack Welch told him, “You can’t have a great company until you’ve had a near-death experience.” Leadership is difficult – and lonely – and times of adversity are inevitable, but resilience is key in the face of unforeseen challenges.

“My lesson learned was that doing the right thing too long is just as bad as not doing the right thing. I became too reliant on the data that said we would be fine and ignored the signs of where the market was going. You constantly have to evolve, reinvent yourself, and make changes.”

Naturally, we discussed how to take advantage of one of these downward market trends, particularly when it’s unexpected. John had the perfect response:

“You deal with the world the way it is, not the way you wish it was. You adjust appropriately to gain more market share and more market presence in a tougher market. As leaders or individuals, it’s easy to say, but much harder to do. My advice is: don’t waste a lot of time on things you can’t change. Focus on what you can control or influence, then execute well. And if we get hit with some challenges, instead of saying, ‘Oh shoot, this is going to be terrible,’ say ‘How do I gain advantage from it?’ Get your team focused on how and what you can control or influence, and then go for it.”

Dream Big and Embrace Failure

When building a company and undertaking your journey to constantly evolve and reinvent yourself, mistakes are an inevitable result of dreaming big. Sometimes missing the mark is an essential part of the process – as long as you understand why you got knocked down and adapt appropriately after determining the causes of failure, especially if they were inflicted internally or externally.

“If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. If you’re playing too cautiously you risk moving too slow and getting disrupted by competitors and the market at-large.”

John also discussed the importance of transparency during times of failure, which can so quickly turn into crises. Once you identify the causes of a crisis, it is critical to communicate regularly with your customers, employees, shareholders, and partners, outlining your strategy to get back on track.

“If you summarize my philosophy on the currency that I think any leader should have in business today, it’s based on track record; it’s based on relationships; it’s based on trust.”

Never Pass Up a Restroom

John shared that a customer of his once advised him to “never pass up a restroom.” At first, John thought it was a joke, but it really means to never walk into a meeting ruminating on the previous one. Dwelling on prior experiences will weigh you down as you prepare to face new challenges. Failure can only be an opportunity for growth if you are able to shake it off.

“If there’s pressure on you, a phone call home, or you have to go to the bathroom or get your diet coke, go do it. Start every meeting off crisp and ready to go – focus on only that and don’t think about a past meeting or a dinner that night. This has been one of the most fundamental pieces of advice; whether you’re a CEO running a meeting, a sales rep making a call, or a customer service person focusing on it.”

In thinking about the larger aforementioned theme of mistakes, I think this can have an even deeper, bigger meaning. Dwelling on prior experiences will weigh you down as you prepare to face new challenges. Failure can only be an opportunity for growth if you are able to shake it off, learn, and move forward.

It was great to have John join us and share his leadership lessons learned that are relevant for our whole team, for those just beginning their careers, to those who are veterans. For those interested in even more of John’s invaluable insights, he recently met with the Silicon Valley Business Journal to share why he’s counting on companies like Balbix to keep the Valley thriving.