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Why Cisco’s succession plan shouldn’t be surprising

May 5, 2015, 1:55 PM UTC

Long-time CEO John Chambers signaled his retirement timeline three years ago but the company’s introduction of sales veteran Chuck Robbins as his successor early Monday seemed to catch many off-guard. After all, the odds-on favorite was Cisco President Rob Lloyd.

I sensed something was up several weeks ago. That’s when my upcoming phone interview with Robbins—with whom I was scheduled to chat about Cisco’s evolving sales strategy—was suddenly and mysteriously postponed. The official reason for the delay was the networking giant’s upcoming earnings on May 13. But my radar went up, especially since Cisco initiated the interview in the first place.

I’ve actually known Robbins for more than a dozen years, primarily because of his role as the lead executive for Cisco’s U.S. sales partner program. In that position, he earned deep respect as a leader who demanded execution but was extremely accessible and fair. “Chuck has a warmth and connection with people that is rarely seen at the CEO level of companies like this,” one reseller told trade publication CRN, which has followed Robbins’ rise closely.

When it comes to using indirect sales partners to reach new corporate accounts successfully—and build market share—Cisco’s track record and history of innovation is rivaled only by Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard. Robbins is a big part of that, mainly because of his listening skills and seemingly endless energy.

Apparently, the Cisco board was incredibly thorough—and very data-driven—in its selection. Every director interviewed every internal candidate. Their “straw poll” decision to pick Robbins was unanimous. “Chuck embodies all the characteristics and traits we had outlined initially for the ideal Cisco CEO,” the board wrote in its blog about its process. “Taken together, his authentic leadership, cultural fit, technical acumen, and vision for Cisco, set Chuck apart from the balance of the candidates, both externally and internally.”

During a call Monday to discuss the appointment, Chambers said what he likes most about Robbins is that he is a fast learner. “You know what you know, and you know what you don’t know,” he said. Chambers, 65, is sticking around as executive chairman and coach.

I just read Re/code’s thoughtful analysis of the four things Robbins should concentrate on first when he takes over on July 26. The suggestions aren’t all that surprising, and I agree with all of them. But the one that resonates most is the call for simplification.

Several years ago, I helped Cisco’s channel marketing team with some research and communications strategy. At the time—and I have no reason to believe things are all that different today—every employee wore an ID badge listing the company’s top corporate priorities on the back. There were close to 30 for them to remember. Way too many. Robbins needs to help Cisco prioritize.

What I remember most from my own interactions with Robbins, 49, are his ready, genuine smile along with the traces of a southern drawl cultivated during his North Carolina childhood. I always felt he was as candid as possible during interviews. Thoughtful, yet decisive.

From one Southern gentleman to another. What a fitting way for John Chambers to pass the baton.

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