John Chambers recently retired as chief executive of Cisco Systems (CSCO) , but he’s hardly the retiring type. He remains Cisco’s executive chairman, he’s still traveling the globe meeting leaders of government and Cisco’s customers, and he retains his skill for articulating better than most of his peers where the technology world is going.
Chambers is an eternal optimist. A salesman by trade and a manager for decades, he’s adept at seeing the proverbial cup half full. That’s why it was notable Monday afternoon at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco to hear Chambers warning as much about risks as trumpeting opportunities. He sees the trend toward “digitization”—the injection of digital technologies into every type of business—as presenting a mortal threat to even the most powerful technology companies. “Forty percent of the companies in this room will not be around in a meaningful way in 10 years,” he told an audience chock full of CEOs from around the world.
Cisco isn’t exempt from its chairman’s warnings. He cited statistics for how the switch and router maker has radically changed out its salesforce, not because of weak talent but because of a need for new skills.
As comfortable in the halls of power as the executive suite, Chambers is a believer in the power of government. He praised the leadership of Prime Minister Modi in India and President Hollande in France for promoting business-friendly policies. Closer to home, the only politician Chambers, a Republican, had any kind words for was Bill Clinton, whose administration saw unprecedented economic growth. (He dodged a suggestion that he is positioning himself for a cabinet post in a Hillary Clinton presidency.)
Chambers also addressed the direction of the global economy, and his statement totally startled me. “For the first time in my life I have no opinion as to which way it is going to go,” he said.
John Chambers having no opinion on the direction of the global economy? That’s the very definition of uncertainty.
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