Chuck Robbins, president of a $185 billion technology company, says, “We’ve got to run a good business, but there’s more to it.”
When a statement was issued by the company roundtable in August suggesting that corporations should no longer serve the interests of investors, Cisco’s chief executive, Chuck Robbins, was among those acclaiming the announcement as a significant moment for corporate America.
Indeed, Mr. Robbins is a member of the board of the Business Roundtable, a lobbying organization representing many of America’s largest corporations, and president of its immigration committee. But the judge also seemed to reflect unusual of what he’d done at Cisco, which he’s been running following 2015.
While Cisco is an enterprise technology company that makes money from selling phones, video conferencing equipment, it also emerged as a good corporate citizen as data centers the tech industry could use a few.
Cisco made a significant grant in Silicon Valley to combat homelessness. It has set ambitious emission reduction goals. And Mr. Robbins, 54, who grew up fixing fences in rural Georgia, recently joined the Ford Foundation panel, working in its myriad forms to tackle poverty.
This condensed and edited interview was administered at Cisco’s New York offices.
Where have you been growing up?
Born in Georgia, I grew up in Grayson, a small town. My dad was a city commissioner for planning and zoning, which wasn’t all that complicated. And for the sister city, he was planning, and zoning administrator called Snellville, which was still not very complicated. My mother was the county court clerk.
My grandfather had a farm right next door. He was a minister, and the farm was mostly for food to feed everybody. They all grew, from maize to vegetables. We’ve got chickens, pigs, goats. Preachers weren’t making money back then, so he fed his family this way. And we’ve all been working on it. You go in the morning to collect eggs, or you’d be out to repair fences, whatever needs to be done.
What was the first job you did?
I was employed in a repair shop for a lawnmower. And I think that because I was there, the guy who hired me had to work harder, as opposed to me making it easier for him. But I always walked around the neighborhood asking people if they had odd jobs to do for me, mowing lawns and such things. I finished working as a busboy. Restaurants. In a grocery store, I bagged groceries. So I ended working in the computer labs at university.
Why did you leap?
The time of the early Macs and the I.B.M. P.C. came on the scene was right, and I just enjoyed them. I loved it. I was teaching myself how to code. I went to buy more memory for my computer every time I got paid so I could increase my capacity. This was the days of newsletters and dial-up modems and all the rest. It’s been pre-internet.
What was your first college job?
It was as a COBOL programmer at the National Bank of North Carolina. In the morning, I’d wake up, put on a suit, go to the bank, sit on your lawsuit in a cube, and schedule it. It’s so different from today. But it was a bank; you’ve been wearing a suit.
Then about two years after I began, one of the engineering company leaders came to me and said, “We’ve got these things popping up called local area networks, and we’re not sure what they are. But we’ve recruited three people who seem to know about this stuff, and we’d like you to go and manage that team potentially. “So that day I drove home and stopped at the store and bought a LAN magazine. I didn’t even know what they were.
Why did you move into senior management?
And I didn’t get the first management job that I met, and that was a defining moment and me. I started with a man who had more experience than me and was probably the right guy for the job.
When I was told I couldn’t get Wellfleet’s head of U.S. marketing, Where I was at the time, he asked me, “In the next 24 hours, people will learn more about your character than they’d ever understood about your character if you got this job.” When I was told I couldn’t get the job Wellfleet’s head of U.S. marketing, Where I was at the time, he asked me, “In the next 24 hours, people will learn more about your character than they’d ever understood about your character if you got this job.”
In 1997, soon after you left Cisco when the dot-com bubble exploded, the business was walloped. Have you ever thought the company was fundamentally unhealthy?
It was a situation that had never been resolved by the company. We had clients who stopped being there, and our company fell off a cliff. Yet I think what’s now clear is that what we’ve been doing has longevity, so it’s been very successful.
We had to make a layoff for the first time. And most of us didn’t have any idea how to make a layoff. I had to teach and tell these people how to speak to them. It’s been terrible. I knew that our execution didn’t necessarily bring it on. But for these folks, it still didn’t make it any easier. It was a dark time.
“What should I let go of, what should I keep, and then what should I do differently now?
When did the company recover from this crisis?
When you got to grips with the fact that we came out of it, then it felt like, well, we’re going to start a real business now. I remember John Chambers[ Cisco’s C.E.O. at the time] said at one of our off-sites that Jack Welch had told him, “You’re not a great company until you knock on your ass and get up.” I’ll always remember that. We’ve been knocked on our butt. And then, we became a long-term viability venture.
How did you figure out how bigger teams can be led?
Whenever you get promoted, you need to think deeply about what makes you suitable in that role and ask yourself, “What do I need to let go of, what do I need to hold, and then what do I need to do differently now?”
I still assumed you had to invert the org chart as members. It’s easy to think that they all work for me when you look at the org chart. But you have to believe you’re working for the company. Your job is to remove obstacles and help them to accomplish what they want.
Which had to be done differently when you progressed into senior management roles?
I had to know how to be a manager. Through executive presence, some people overdo it, as opposed to balancing executive presence with being a human being. Some people are very rehearsed, and there is no emotional side to come out. It’s a very robotic type of management approach.
How did you begin to think about your ability to use your position as a social change leader?
We had a meeting of all administrators in Florida, and it was one of the years when hurricanes had pounded them. We had a block of time for team building on a Wednesday afternoon as we were planning the agenda, and my immediate thought was, “We’re going to play golf, right?” Then a few ladies who worked for me said, “How are we going to come up with some ideas, and we’re going to come back to you?” And they came back and said, “Take the whole team and give back something, do something philanthropic.”
And we went out to a Y.M.C.A. that a storm had just nearly destroyed, and we spent five hours painting and cleaning. Once we got back that night, the consensus was that it was the best exercise they had ever done to build a team.
So when I became C.E.O., I stepped back and said, “Alright, how is it that a child living on a dirt road in Georgia has become a major tech company’s C.E.O.?” And I just realized we’ve got to run a good business, but it’s more. We must take advantage of the power given to us.