'Know What You Don't Know'

Article excerpt

Byline: Richard M. Smith

The CEO of Cisco Systems on the future of leadership.

Cisco Systems Inc. was once best known as the plumber of the Internet, for building the infrastructure and networking equipment that allows worldwide information sharing. But under CEO John Chambers, the company has made a push into leisure products, including its Flip Video camcorders, and such business products as its TelePresence System. As part of NEWSWEEK's partnership with Kaplan University, NEWSWEEK chairman Richard M. Smith spoke with Chambers via TelePresence. Excerpts:

Some other people call it teleconferencing. Why do you call it TelePresence?

Well, it really speaks to a virtual presence between people. I'll regularly meet with nine or 10 people around the world at nine or 10 different locations, and it's as though you're at the same table.

You've moved into an area that's very new for Cisco, and that's consumer products. Did you have to teach your team to dance a little differently to anticipate the needs of this new market?

I had to learn to dance differently. You might think we just recently did this, but we make our decisions three to four to five years before it's obvious to anyone we're going into a market. Our move into video as an architecture combining data, voice, and video started in 1997. The first move we made was acquiring Scientific Atlanta, a set-top-box maker. Then we acquired Linxus, a wireless-technology box in the home. As we moved further, we acquired Flip. It's the No. 1 camcorder. But it also has the ability to capture something and be able to move it anywhere on the network that you want--plug it in the PC today, wireless in the future, or combine it with a TelePresence session. Then we add the capability to interpret what you say in voice in the video. So as your students or business leaders have a video session, you can later search keywords. The architecture was put in place over 10 to 15 years, but only recently did you begin to see all the pieces come together.

How are you a different CEO today than you were in 1995, when you first moved into the corner office?

When I started, I viewed my job as three main areas: vision and strategy of the company, development and recruitment of the team to implement that vision and strategy, and the need to communicate all of the above. …