First and foremost, it’s not about one technology or capability—it’s about your customer. Chamber’s shared that determining “when to make the jump [into new markets] frequently comes from our customers. That’s been true in nearly every market transition” (Chambers). In this regard, he reminded me that companies don’t exist to endlessly pursue better or different solutions. Instead, it emphasizes that the most fundamental shifts come from serving the needs of customers in new ways—ways that they are ready to adopt. Chambers even emphasized that outpacing your customers can bring you to market “too early” to be successful too.
The second tenet that I took from Chamber’s advice was simply to take bold action. This is all the more important if you’re uncertain. He unscored here that “By the time it’s obvious you need to change, it’s usually too late” (Chambers). Whether it’s through acquisition, spin-ins, or tactical directions of the enterprise, if you’re too late to the market transition it’s hard to recover. This reminds me of Microsoft’s struggle to reassert itself in the mobile phone industry, and Amazon’s as well. The fact that both Amazon and Microsoft can struggle due to late entry underscores Chamber’s point further that “even great companies are imperiled if they miss a market transition” (Chambers).
Lastly, and most difficult for many organizations, is the ability to embrace self-obsolesce. It is counter-intuitive, but he emphasizes that the best thing you can do to future-proof your position is to continuously disrupt your own cash-cows. Here, Chamber’s highlighted that “When you’re a large company with significant market share, it’s tempting to view market disruptions as a threat” but instead, if one can act boldly by leading the transition, it can lift a company above the competitive battle for market points, and instead create an opportunity for dramatic market restructuring.
In total, reading Chamber’s approach and success in leading one the great IT companies in the world, unseated my bias for how technical strength is a prerequisite to effect technical leadership. Instead, an emphasis on listening, bold action, and self-sacrifice can bring about true leaders in business, strategy, and technology.
Chambers, John. "Cisco's CEO on Staying Ahead of Technology Shifts." Harvard Business Review (2015): 35-38.