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The essential playbooks — and when to use them

john_chambers

All great teams need to improvise under pressure, but underpinning this should be a set of tried-and-tested playbooks that let you orchestrate and replicate winning strategies. Cisco’s John Chambers created a library of living playbooks — covering culture, acquisitions, crises, and more — to astounding effect as he took Cisco from a small tech supplier to the most valuable company on the planet.

“I run a playbook again and again. I’ve made enough mistakes; I know how to do it pretty well. I can see those transitions coming because I’ve messed it up before and done some of them right as well.”

— John Chambers
About the guest:
john_chambers

John Chambers is founder and CEO of JC2 Ventures, where he focuses on helping start-ups from around the world grow and scale. He invests in companies across categories that are leading market transitions. Prior to founding JC2 Ventures in 2018, Chambers spent 25+ years with Cisco, serving as CEO, Chairman, and Executive Chairman. Chambers is the author of Connecting the Dots: Lessons for Leadership in a Startup World, where he shares lessons for lasting success in the Digital Age. Chambers is the Chairman of the U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) and the Global Ambassador of French Tech under French President Macron.

About the host:
reid_hoffman

Reid Hoffman is the host of Masters of Scale. A Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor, he’s known for his spot-on insights on how to scale a startup. He’s a partner at Greylock and co-founder of LinkedIn, and co-author of the best-selling Blitzscaling and The Startup of You.

Also featured in this episode:

Herm Edwards is a former NFL football player and head coach. Edwards played for 10 seasons in the NFL, most notably for the Philadelphia …

Callie Russell is a survivalist, scavenger-gatherer and nomad who appeared on Season 7 of the reality series, Alone. Callie is an artist and …

I believe you don’t just need one or two playbooks, you need a whole library. And unlike library books, playbooks are living documents. And you should be writing new ideas in the margins.

— Reid Hoffman
Transcript of Masters of Scale: The essential playbooks — and when to use them

CALLIE RUSSELL: I was tracking this porcupine every day, and I couldn’t find him. And I finally decided to crawl down into the porcupine den. It was during a blizzard, and I knew it was very risky because if I ran into any problems, nobody would be able to come to help me for days until the storm passed. 

REID HOFFMAN: That’s Callie Russell. In 2019, Callie was left to fend for herself in the middle of the Arctic as a contestant on the survivalist show Alone. Callie was starving and was in search of food anywhere she could find it. 

RUSSELL: I chose to climb down, and I was able to harvest this porcupine, and I was so happy hiking back to my shelter. I thought, “I’m going to get snowed in; this big storm’s rolling in, but I’m just going to sit in my shelter and eat this porcupine. It’s going to be the best, I’m going to have a party, a whole porcupine party.”

HOFFMAN: Callie’s isolation fed her desperation. Her emotions became pure, simple, and loud. She chose her plan, and with a protein-rich dinner in hand, she was on cloud nine. But in the blink of an eye, Callie went from elated to painfully disheartened. 

RUSSELL: And then I saw the porcupine had a spotted liver. And I knew from my experience that animals with spotted liver have a disease, and you shouldn’t eat them. 

HOFFMAN: Outside of the show, Callie has lived a nomadic lifestyle for over a decade. Living under trees, tarps, and in caves, Callie developed her playbooks for all aspects of wilderness survival. 

RUSSELL: Bears can have a disease called trichinosis, and you can still eat them. You just have to cook the meat very, very well. So I thought that’s maybe how I would get around this. I didn’t eat the liver, and I didn’t eat the kidneys, but I ate the rest of the animal just cooked well, and I think I’m okay.

HOFFMAN: Callie lasted 89 days in the Arctic and finished runner-up in her season of Alone. She narrowly missed out on the $1 million cash prize due to ill-timed frostbite that saw her pulled from the competition. 

RUSSELL: I had a strategy, and then as soon as I was dropped on location, I realized that the landscape wasn’t conducive for that strategy, and I just had to throw it out the window. I had to be willing to just throw my playbook on the fire, use it for tinder, and keep warm was the best use of it. 

HOFFMAN: I don’t normally advocate throwing playbooks in the fire. But special rules apply when you’re trying to keep warm. And fortunately, that wasn’t Callie’s only playbook at all. 

As leaders, we know that you’re better off abandoning an ill-fated plan and pivoting with speed. But when you abandon a plan, you don’t stop using your playbook. You need to be constantly updating your playbooks, plural.  

That’s why I believe you don’t just need one or two playbooks, you need a whole library. And unlike library books, playbooks are living documents. And you should be writing new ideas in the margins. 

[THEME MUSIC]

HOFFMAN: I’m Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, partner at Greylock, and your host. And I believe you don’t just need one or two playbooks, you need a whole library. And unlike library books, playbooks are living documents. And you should be writing new ideas in the margins. 

Imagine yourself staring at a faded health and safety instructional poster on the wall of a break room. Half of it is obscured by the coffee machine, and the CPR instructions are outdated. It was made in the era when the accepted remedy for stroke was a stiff drink and some smelling salts. This sad poster on the wall is, technically, a playbook for saving lives. But it’s the opposite of what you’d want for your company. 

The same is true for the metaphorical playbooks founders and leaders use to scale their business. You want living playbooks that are constantly evolving and refreshing.

I wanted to talk with John Chambers about this because as CEO of Cisco, he became a master of the multiple-playbook strategy, as he grew a modest tech firm specializing in routers into the most valuable company on the planet going into the new millennium. At one point, 80% of the internet flowed through Cisco routers. And this massive growth was due to John’s bold use of the playbook concept in everything from mergers and acquisitions to shepherding Cisco through multiple global crises.

In our discussion, John was kind enough to delve into some of his most valuable playbooks and how they evolved, which we’re sharing with you here today. 

JOHN CHAMBERS: I do run a playbook again and again. I’ve made enough mistakes; I know how to do it pretty well. I can see those transitions coming because I’ve messed it up before and done some of them right as well.

HOFFMAN: We’ll hear about five playbooks, covering everything from customers to mergers to company culture, as we move through John’s entrepreneurial journey. Let’s dig in with the first playbook from John’s library.

Number 1: The Customer Playbook

John’s playbook building began in his earliest days at Cisco.

CHAMBERS: I show up to work at Cisco, and they haven’t even got a desk for me. There were only 400 people. There wasn’t much organization. They gave me my office which was inside a closet that had a phone switching system behind it. 

HOFFMAN: John joined Cisco in 1991, while the company focused primarily on its successful router system used in offices across the country. But on John’s first day, he experienced an eye-opening initiation to the company’s unstructured customer service.

CHAMBERS: Somebody came to me and said, “We’ve got a customer that has a real problem.”

And so, I went down to the customer service group to figure out what they were doing wrong. And I had it immediately. 

HOFFMAN: What John witnessed when he entered the customer service office shocked him.

CHAMBERS: There was a penguin over to the side, a blow-up penguin, and there were 2-3 people there, and I said, “Where’s the customer service group?” And they said, “We’re it.” 

HOFFMAN: You heard correctly. If you were an executive in 1991 having trouble with your office network system, you’d have to call up three guys and an inflatable penguin.

CHAMBERS: So I had it. I knew what the problem was. I jumped into it immediately. They were driven by customers, but they didn’t understand customer success and how to keep your customers happy. We were very good very fast but very little structure.

HOFFMAN: It was as if John was searching through the library for the Customer Playbook, but instead finding the notes for an unpublished manuscript. He had the elements he needed, but it had to be assembled and codified.  

As John began mentally constructing his Customer Playbook, he settled on a few core principles: 

CHAMBERS: You never let down a customer. You make commitments to them. Even if it’s a bad financial decision, you deliver. And if you take care of them, they will take care of you. 

Customers are your balance. I go straight to the customers, and they tell me what I’m doing right, what I’m doing wrong.

HOFFMAN: The essential skill threaded throughout the playbook is listening.  

HOFFMAN: How do you listen to customers? The unskilled person, kind of, thinks: well, you just call them and ask them a couple questions. It’s actually listening to what their actual needs are, listening to what their situation and environment is, not just telling me what you want, right? 

CHAMBERS: It does start with really being committed to listen, not just because you’re supposed to. Don’t go in, “I’m here to sell you a product.” Really build the trust relationship.

You don’t learn very much when you speak. I learn from the questions you ask me, but not from my own speaking on it. And it’s a key part to forming that trust relationship.

HOFFMAN: If you’re not listening, you’re not learning. And learning from your customers is how you keep your product relevant. John kept adding pages to that playbook, even after he became CEO four years later. 

CHAMBERS: Meetings with customers. Love it. And I spent almost 50% of my time at Cisco with customers. 

HOFFMAN: 50% is a lot of time. But time is a true sign of commitment to your customers. Another addition to John’s playbook is to “keep existing customer relationships strong.” This means that even if the customer isn’t making new orders, the focus should still be on nurturing the relationship. John likes to say, “your track-record of how you treat people in the tough times speaks much louder than in the good times.” And especially after our experience in the pandemic era, I agree with him. 

Number 2: The Mergers & Acquisitions Playbook

Mergers and acquisitions are a recurring chapter in many scale stories — whether you’re on the board of a company considering a purchase, or an employee at a company on the verge of being sold. 

In Cisco’s case, they started writing their acquisitions playbook around one particular deal. At the time, they were all-in on router technology. But then, smaller competitors started developing a newer method of transferring data, called “switching.” While “routing” connects entire computing networks to each other, “switching” creates a single network made up of individual computers. Routing was more vast, but switches were faster. 

Cisco’s customers began calling John to ask about this new tech. In fact, one of their biggest customers, Boeing, wanted switching so badly through Cisco that they asked John to acquire a promising new switching developer called Crescendo. 

CHAMBERS: I looked at this small company and that amazing engineering team that they had, and I thought, “Let’s think about an acquisition.” But then I immediately went to the page playbook that there wasn’t a playbook.

HOFFMAN: That’s right. John went to the “A” section of his metaphorical playbook library, looking for something to guide him. And nothing was on the shelf. 

CHAMBERS: My board at the time said, “We know most acquisitions are going to fail. Don’t let this first one fail.” 

HOFFMAN: John was still very new to his CEO role, and M&A had not been a feature in Cisco’s scale journey up to this point. Jarred by the lack of an M&A playbook to lean on, John was once again compelled to form the playbook himself. And he leaned on the specific needs of this deal to get started. It included both principles on whether to move forward with a deal and guidelines on how to integrate an acquisition afterward. 

John decided to pursue Crescendo. He persuaded his board, and Cisco bought the switching startup. What no one at Cisco knew at the time, is that the Crescendo acquisition would go on to become a legendary win for the company in its journey to scale.  

CHAMBERS: That acquisition ended up being a company that had done 10 million in revenue and ended up generating 13 billion a year for us. 

HOFFMAN: The success of John’s first acquisition showed him the massive potential of Cisco’s M&A strategy. As CEO, John would go on to acquire 180 more companies. Nearly all of the acquisitions were processed using a variation on that original playbook devised for Crescendo. He learned and iterated on the M&A Playbook which became increasingly sophisticated over time.

CHAMBERS: Similarity of strategy and vision. Can you keep the people? Is it really customer-driven? Because if the customers don’t love it, you shouldn’t be doing it, et cetera. And, can it really make the difference of being one or two in a category?

Don’t combine the companies that have different cultures. It sounds basic to you and I, but most companies combine companies based upon the financial opportunity, and, can it be successful? Acquisitions that put together different cultures almost always feel loosened.

HOFFMAN: In the second half of the 1990s, Cisco scaled aggressively. By 2001, the company had grown from 400 employees to 48,000, and M&A continued to be at the heart of that immense scale. This M&A refinement leads us to our next playbook… 

Number 3: The Alignment Playbook

HOFFMAN: As you scale, the larger your library of playbooks needs to become. With scale comes more teams, new market opportunities, and the need for clearer communication across the company. Also, a decision can be absolutely wrong for one phase of growth, but right for the next. So this library of playbooks will not only need to grow in number, but also adapt to the different stages of scale.

HOFFMAN: What were some key elements out of the playbook, as you generated expertise in some of the really successful acquisitions?

CHAMBERS: You’ve got to get a process that allows you to move with speed, so you don’t make the same mistake again and again.

I got a call from the CEO of the NASDAQ and said, “John, many companies are going after this one company. It’s a perfect match for you, and you’re not in the running at all. What’s wrong with you?”

HOFFMAN: John asked for information about the company, made a call to their CEO, and arranged to meet him the following day.

CHAMBERS: We spent an hour together. And we had, by lunch, a handshake to do the acquisition for $3 billion. That was Thursday night when I got the lead; Friday midday, handshake. Got it through both boards of directors. And announced Monday morning.

HOFFMAN: This quick turnaround illustrates Cisco’s agility and its alignment. 

CHAMBERS: Speed only works if you have a replicable process behind it. Otherwise you’re drawing that play up in the sand — and drawing “you move this way, the other guy moves this way” — like we did when we were kids playing flag football.

HOFFMAN: Yep, and everyone’s bumping into each other because no one has actually practiced the play. 

CHAMBERS: You have to be able to run your plays like a professional sports team does where you say, “All right, hike 17,” that means that the fly pattern down the one side, the fake handoff, et cetera, everybody knows on the same book.

HOFFMAN: Right. A professional sports team is a great example of an organization that knows how to get everyone aligned for the same play. In fact, we spoke with someone who has a lot of experience with sports playbooks — including writing some legendary ones.

HERM EDWARDS: You always have a plan of what you want to do offensively, defensively, in special teams. There’s blocking schemes, there’s running plays, there’s passing plays. How do all of these players, 11 of them, orchestrate what you want done?

HOFFMAN: That’s veteran National Football League coach Herm Edwards. As a player, Herm was the heart and soul of the Philadelphia Eagles team that went to the Super Bowl in 1981. Two decades later, he became head coach of the New York Jets, then the Kansas City Chiefs. To a coach like Herm, a playbook isn’t a casual document. It’s a sprawling bible.  

EDWARDS: It was these big heavy playbooks that weighed about 5-10 pounds and you’re carrying this thing around. 

You give it to them, then you take them on the grass, and you walk through it very slowly. Then the third element is: now you go at a speed tempo where you do it in real life.

And life is about this: repetition. So after a while it becomes a part of: this is what we do.

HOFFMAN: These bulky tomes contained hundreds more plays than a team could run in a single game. That’s because the coaches, offensive coordinators, defense coordinators, and so on have spent months analyzing how the opposing team might react in one of a thousand different scenarios. 

The need for this kind of hyper-preparedness became clear in the 2003 postseason when Herm and the Jets faced off against hotshot quarterback Peyton Manning and his Indianapolis Colts. To win, Herm needed his team to learn their playbooks like the backs of their hands.

EDWARDS: Lo and behold, the game gets going, and all of a sudden, we make a couple plays, and we score.

You can see by the second quarter that it’s like, “uh-oh, we’re rolling right now,” and things just are going our way. 

HOFFMAN: But then it was halftime. And as the teams decamped to their locker rooms, Herm knew that this was usually the time to flip to a new page in the playbook. Because the Colts now had time to regroup and counter what the Jets had been running. Or, would they?

EDWARDS: Sometimes, your playbook is so big, you don’t want to run a successful play again because you have all these other plays. It’s not about the plays; it’s about the plays that actually work. If it’s working, make them stop you. “Well, I can’t do that again.” Why won’t you do that again? They haven’t stopped it. 

HOFFMAN: When they returned to the field, Herm stuck to the plays that worked so well in the first half. 

ANNOUNCER: Pennington throws, and it’s caught by Santana Moss!

ANNOUNCER: Pennington gets it to Moss. 

ANNOUNCER: And it’s a touchdown! Pennington wheels out and finds Santana Moss in the endzone. 

EDWARDS: The momentum of the game got going, and it’s almost like a landslide; you can’t stop it. I was trying to actually let off the gas. And he said, “Coach, I’m just trying to get off the field, and we just keep making first downs.”

HOFFMAN: The score ended 41-0. That freezing January evening marked the first time in history that the Jets had held an opponent to zero points in the playoffs.

EDWARDS: The playbook has to be versatile enough to allow the players to play. Paper doesn’t play. X’s and O’s don’t play. Real people play.

It’s easy to draw it up, but can you execute it? And then the question is: do you have the players that are good enough to execute it? You cannot ask a player to do something that he’s incapable of doing because then you put him in a position to fail. Your job is to make people successful. 

HOFFMAN: This game was an example of a playbook working as well as it possibly could and a team being as aligned as they possibly could. If Herm hadn’t filled the playbook with 10 times the amount of plays ever needed for a single game, he couldn’t have curated the perfect strategy for this particular opponent.

And what Herm says is just as relevant in business: you need to give all of your playbooks enough wiggle room that your team can use their individual skill set to best orchestrate the play. That’s why it’s important to share responsibility for significant actions within your company; experience is crucial to building confidence and developing as a member of the team. If John Chambers didn’t have every member of his team involved and aligned, Cisco wouldn’t have been able to process those acquisitions with such impressive speed. It’s one thing to write the playbook. It’s a whole other thing to go out on the grass and execute. 

[AD BREAK]

HOFFMAN: We’re back on creating a whole new library of playbooks, with John Chambers, former CEO of Cisco. If you’re enjoying this episode, deploy your playbook to share it with friends. Just hit the share button in your podcast app. 

And to hear my complete conversation with John, become a Masters of Scale Member at mastersofscale.com. There, you’ll hear some great moments we didn’t have time for in the episode, like how John learned to stay calm in a crisis by being thrown into dangerous rapids! And, you’ll hear how John grabbed winning strategies from working at a technology company that lost everything. You won’t want to miss it.

When we left off, John had scaled Cisco by creating successful playbooks on customer communication, bold acquisitions, and team alignment. But there’s another essential playbook John needed to write that would be critical to the company’s survival.

Number 4: The Crisis Management Playbook

Remember the dusty, faded “in case of choking” safety poster from the beginning of our episode? For all its flaws, it’s simple and always accessible. A playbook for crises needs to be both comprehensive, and clear enough to be implemented immediately. You don’t want to be thumbing through a 5,000-page manual when someone’s choking.

In Cisco’s case, John’s first 7 years at the helm created thousands of millionaires within the company. Cisco’s dominance appeared unshakeable. That is until the early millennium brought with it a rude awakening. 

CHAMBERS: I wish I were smart enough to have avoided 2001.

HOFFMAN: Like the rest of the tech industry, John’s confidence was sky-high. However, nearing the end of 2000, some warning signs began to appear.

CHAMBERS: We knew our order rates, our number of salespeople, every order in the world, and the numbers had never failed me.

So when I was growing at 70% the first week in December, I thought the market’s wrong, the stock market’s dropping, but we’re only forecasting 35% growth the next quarter. I’d never done less than 50, I’m fine. Next quarter was minus 45% on growth. 

Mathematically impossible. 25% of my customers didn’t stop ordering, they disappeared. All their orders got canceled. 

HOFFMAN: In short, John’s books looked healthy, but a large number of Cisco’s customers began to go out of business. When John checked with his customers, they all said, “We’re just pausing.” What John learned the hard way was that when you hear multiple sources say they’re taking a pause, alarm bells should ring. In 2001, the dotcom bubble burst, and Cisco was heavily wounded. 

CHAMBERS: I laid off 7,500-and-some people. The pain was unbelievable. And I should have been smart enough to know that when the market slowed, that we couldn’t be immune.

HOFFmAN: But even amid the devastation of the crash, John used these painful lessons to pull together the first pages of his crisis playbook.

CHAMBERS: I sit out on the roof of my house the night before I make the decision, second guessing, “Am I the right person to lead through this?” And then you’ve got to decide if you are, you’ve got to lead to it and move with tremendous speed.

HOFFMAN: Cisco tightened spending everywhere: pulling back on inventory, killing unnecessary projects. John decided he’d rather cut too much than risk having to cut again. 

CHAMBERS: If you have to make a change, do it once, do it deeper than you think you need to make, assume it’s going to last longer. It’s the hardest thing you do as a leader.

HOFFMAN: John also knew that the layoff component — the human factor — was the most momentous. 

CHAMBERS: Most important is how you treat the employees that you let go because, first, that’s your culture and your ethics. But it’s most important because that’s how the employees who stay are going to look at you.

HOFFMAN: There were three more key pages John added to his Crisis Playbook. The first was about communication: to be visible as CEO at every step of the journey. 

CHAMBERS: When you outline that you’re going to make changes, you have to say why you’re making them. You’ve got to deal with your employees, your shareholders, your customers, the media all at one time. And you’ve got to show them you really know how to navigate through this, and you execute on it. 

HOFFMAN: The second key principle that he learned in crisis was identifying the source of your troubles. 

CHAMBERS: You have to be candid about what’s self-inflicted versus external. 

HOFFMAN: Only by identifying your own missteps, as well as those things that might be unfairly tarnished by outside factors, do you know what really needs to change. 

Finally, John added a page about focusing on the future. Because he recognized that a crisis is also an opportunity to break away by identifying your own North Star on the other side. So while competitors were still reeling from the dotcom crash, John mobilized a plan to get the company back on track.

CHAMBERS: We outlined the plan. We made all of our changes in 52 days. Day 53, we started gaining share. You come out of the downturns. Great companies are built by near-death experiences. That’s when you break away from your peers. 

But you have to learn. If you’re going to get the company back out of it, then you’ve got to learn from it, and then you’ve got to focus entirely on the future and move forward. Learn from your mistake, but don’t spend a lot of time second guessing and waiting for it to occur. 

HOFFMAN: In the high emotion of a crisis, the faster you learn, the faster you can shift your energy to new ideas that could be right. That’s why it’s so important to embrace the ‘infinite learner’ mindset and get better at being wrong. Leverage every mistake into something that builds your expertise and adds further pages to your playbook.

And John did learn. When the country was on the brink of recession in 2007, John was ahead of the curve — thanks to his hard-earned playbook for economic downturns. 

CHAMBERS: My top financial institutions, especially in the U.S., suddenly slowed their ordering rate with us. And I called up the CEOs, and I said, “What’s going on?” They said, “John, we’re just a little bit cautious. We think everything’s fine.” I went 7 out of 7 cautious. There’s a problem coming. 

HOFFMAN: Remember when John didn’t think much of his customer’s pausing their orders in 2000? He now had the experience to recognize it as a glaring warning sign.  

CHAMBERS: So I shared it on my quarterly conference call that I felt there was something wrong with the economy. I said I’m seeing early indications in my order rates.

And of course no good deed goes unpunished. My stock got hammered. And they said, “Well, Cisco’s been doing well, but this is clearly something that the CEO is just wrong on.” But I stuck to my guns. 

HOFFMAN: It was a short-term hit for a long term gain. John knew he needed to be honest with the company about the grim future. If he wasn’t, the team wouldn’t be aligned to implement the playbook together. 

CHAMBERS: We got the company in line. And 9 months later, we were in the Great Recession.

HOFFMAN: In fact, the entire world was deep in the throes of recession. But unlike many businesses, Cisco was relatively stable. 

CHAMBERS: I was in great shape cash-wise. We had our expenses under control. We were very aggressive.

HOFFMAN: Because John had read the signs correctly, he was able to put Cisco in a position of strength. And then, they took calculated risks their competitors couldn’t.

CHAMBERS: We were the only company in the industry that would even ship equipment to automotive industry without having cash paid up front because they were my best customers. And they were in such trouble people thought they were going to go bankrupt. 

I issued trust and credit to everyone in the automotive industry. At the end of that two-year period, we were number one in every automotive company in the world. 

HOFFMAN: In John’s Crisis Playbook, he added a new postscript on taking the right risks, and it worked. Cisco was able to ride out the storm of 2008 and emerge with new advantages. John also reaped the benefits of a team that came together in a challenge. Building that sort of trust makes up yet another part of his leadership library.

A playbook on crises is vital to keep updating, even if you’re not currently in a crisis. It’s easy to forget the massive impact a crisis can have on your business. In fact, we have an entire episode just on the crisis playbook. It’s called “The Four Core Principles of Crisis Management” with Ellen Kullman, the former CEO of Dupont. You can find it in your podcast feed.

That brings us to our final playbook… 

Number 5: The Culture Playbook

A strong culture should be understood by everyone and built by everyone. So how do you articulate the culture? Observe it, then define it. Unlike some of the metaphorical playbooks we’ve discussed, this one I do believe should be written down. If you haven’t yet done the work of defining it, your culture might cement around ideas you never intended. Once the culture is put into words, you can teach it, cultivate it, and hire for it.

And if words fail you, try a different kind of noise. 

CHAMBERS: [Duck call noises].

HOFFMAN: This isn’t a live field recording from a wetland. John Chambers actually brought his trusty duck call instrument to our interview. 

CHAMBERS: My dad took me duck hunting. And so, it’s a passion.  

With the duck call, if I was sitting in my office and I felt things were tight, or occasionally I’d bring it into a meeting. I would just without any warning go [duck call noises]. That was three calls. It was the male mallard call, it was the female mallard call, and it was ducks feeding. 

HOFFMAN: Believe it or not, John’s duck calls are part of his personal cultural playbook for keeping the atmosphere light. This is a great reminder that while playbooks can be dense and detailed, not all of them have to be. They just have to work for you. A playbook can be both replicable and individual to you as a leader. Every playbook in the library should feature a “choose your own adventure” element.  

CHAMBERS: We’re all better in life when we’re relaxed. And under times of pressure, it can get very tense, and you’ve got to find a way to relax yourself. And if you see your team’s getting tight, you need to kind of break the ice.

[Duck call noises].

And it just relaxes people. And they know it’s my way of sending a message about not taking life too seriously or ourselves too serious.

HOFFMAN: Of course, duck calls don’t relax everyone. Each organization’s culture is different. Because people are different, and a culture that inspires one team might totally stifle another. But If you’re in any doubt about the power of the duck calls at Cisco, the company’s turnover rate was 5% compared to the industry average of 15%. So culturally, John was definitely doing something right. 

To build a great culture, share something personal, and show your human side. Which personal things you share is entirely up to you. Leaders can show their human side by giving personalized gifts, sharing their favorite movie, or in John’s case, channeling his inner Donald Duck. It’s a great way to illustrate human leadership on your own terms.

In fact, human leadership was a key element of Cisco’s culture. To this day, John is reminded of how Cisco’s culture of kindness impacted the employees. 

CHAMBERS: 6 months ago, I was flying, and I was sitting across the aisle from a young woman. She said, “You saved my husband’s life 20 years ago.”

HOFFMAN: Her husband, Scott, was a Cisco employee and got hit by a car while crossing the street outside of the company’s headquarters. The injuries Scott sustained were so severe that doctors thought he wasn’t going to make it.  

CHAMBERS: I knew Stanford Hospital backwards and forwards because I’d go see our employees there.

And we just kept helping in the hospital, and over time, he came back, but it was not sure if he could ever recover a lot of the skills that he had before. At that time, the young lady was just dating him for six months, and we were all concerned seeing this. There’s a very good chance that he may lose her because that’s awful hard, a big burden to put somebody under.

HOFFMAN: In a company with tens of thousands of employees, you might expect the CEO to send flowers to the hospital. John, however, was as present as possible for Scott’s family and used Cisco’s resources to ensure he had the best care. 

Eventually, Scott began to recover little-by-little. Soon, John invited him back to work.

CHAMBERS: Here it is 20 years later. She said, “We didn’t have kids at first because we weren’t sure how Scott was going to do, and we do now. All of them are amazing.” I said, “Can you give me Scott’s number?” And I called him and talked to him that night.

HOFFMAN: John’s investment in his employees went beyond mentorship and personal development; it was to see them happy and healthy. And his attention didn’t end when the term of employment did, or in fact even his own tenure at the company. 

A true culture of kindness is built by the personal sacrifice and selflessness of its leaders. But one person doesn’t make a culture, it’s the entire team. And as John says, it doesn’t matter what aspect of the culture it is, the most important thing is that the team is aligned – something Coach Herm Edwards would applaud. 

CHAMBERS: Once we decide everybody better get on the bus, you can’t sit on the side and say, “I might join you later.” And I do insist on that. I do have firm expectations of when we commit, you need to be all going in the same direction. 

HOFFMAN: After two decades as CEO of Cisco, John stepped down in 2015. When John took the CEO position in 1995, Cisco had over 50 networking competitors and was worth $70 million. By the time he stepped down, almost none of those competitors still existed, and Cisco had grown to become a $150 billion tech giant. 

CHAMBERS: We weren’t arrogant; we weren’t over confident. But when we went out in the playing field, we expected to win. And we motivated ourself to do the innovation, to break the glass, to take the risk that others would not take.

HOFFMAN: This is something that I’m sure Coach Edwards would agree with too: to reach the heights you want, you need to make bold moves, based on the state of play on the field. And when it’s time for you to move on, you help mentor your replacement. 

John remained on the board for a further 2 years to ease the cultural adjustment to a new CEO in Chuck Robbins. And in 2018, John founded JC2 Ventures, a venture firm that primarily partners with software start-ups in cybersecurity and AI. There, he’s sharing his playbooks with the next generation of leaders. Because as John knows, at the end of the day, you can’t hold onto your library books forever.  

By mentoring leaders across multiple sectors, John is amassing an even more extensive library of playbooks. To fully embrace the infinite learner mindset, I encourage all listeners to go in search of new playbooks. In fact, every Masters of Scale episode and course is its own form of a playbook. 

So, get in formation and prepare for the snap.

CHAMBERS: “All right, hike 17.”

HOFFMAN: I’m Reid Hoffman. Thanks for listening.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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