Pioneering leaders roll up their sleeves, create, and stay relevant.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a new MIT SMR series about how leadership is evolving in a digital world.

It was the kind of bluntness that silences a room. In 2017, John Chambers, then CEO of Cisco Systems, delivered a disquieting message to participants in Harvard Business School’s executive education program for CEOs. “A decade or two ago, CEOs could be in their offices with spreadsheets, executing on strategy,” he said. “Now, if you’re not out listening to the market and catching market transitions, … if you’re not understanding that you need to constantly reinvent yourself every three to five years, you as a CEO will not survive.”

During his 20-year tenure at Cisco Systems, Chambers had presided over an era of tremendous growth, during which revenue rose from approximately $1 billion a year to $49 billion.1 In his talk at HBS, he argued that the key to his success was his ability to evolve along with the market. Chambers cautioned the CEOs that all companies — even ones that aren’t principally in tech — are in fact digital and need versatile leaders who can see revolutions coming. “Out of my top 100 executives,” he said, “only one person has remained in a key functional position for more than five years. ... Everyone else had to be moved to different roles.”

One in a hundred. With those daunting odds, Chambers spoke to his audience’s fears of obsolescence: In a 2017 survey, leading executives confided that their skills were depreciating at twice the rate of only a decade earlier.2 But knowing that you have to stay relevant is not the same thing as knowing how. How can CEOs hone their skills? How should they focus their energy and attention? Chambers shared one of his own strategies: “I spend more time with startups than with any other segment of our customer base because startups are where the new, creative ideas come from. They think exponentially, as opposed to linearly.”3

Indeed, looking at how executives spend their time reveals what they consider essential to their role.

References

1. B. Groysberg, J.Y. Cheng, and A. Lobb, “CEO Succession at Cisco (A): From John Chambers to Chuck Robbins,” Harvard Business School case no. 417031 (Boston: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2016).

2. B. Groysberg, S. Abbott, and K. Connolly Baden, “Resolving to Stay Relevant in 2018,” The Official Board, January 2018, www.theofficialboard.com.

3. Quotes are from J. Chambers, class sessions and after-class interviews, Executive Education Sessions for CEOs, Harvard Business School, Boston, Feb. 1, 2017, and March 17, 2017.

4. O. Bandiera, L. Guiso, A. Prat, and R. Sadun, “What Do CEOs Do?” working paper 11-081, Harvard Business School, Boston, February 2011; and M.E. Porter and N. Nohria, “How CEOs Manage Time,” Harvard Business Review 96, no. 4 (July-August 2018): 42-51.

5. W. Isaacson, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs,” Harvard Business Review 90, no. 4 (April 2012): 92-100.

6. M. Weinberger, “The Rise of Bill Gates, From Harvard Dropout to Richest Man in the World,” Business Insider, Dec. 26, 2017, www.businessinsider.com.

7. B. Stone, “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon” (2013; repr., New York: Back Bay Books, 2014): 331.

8. S. Brin and L. Page, “The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine” (Computer Science Department, Stanford University, Stanford, California, 1999).

9. E. Islam and J. Zein, “Inventor CEOs” (presentation at the American Social Sciences Association 2018 General Meeting, Philadelphia, Jan. 5, 2018).

10. “Data Visualization Center: Your Window to the USPTO — Patents Dashboard,” United States Patent and Trademark Office, October 2018, www.uspto.gov.

11. A. Bryant, “Lisa Su on the Art of Setting Ambitious Goals,” The New York Times, May 20, 2017.

12. R.K. Cavin III, V.V. Zhirnov, and S.M. Webb, “SRC: Celebrating 30 Years,” Semiconductor Research Corp., 2012, www.src.org.

13. L.T. Su, “Architecting the Future Through Heterogeneous Computing,” in “2013 IEEE International Solid-State Circuits Conference Digest of Technical Papers” (San Francisco: IEEE, 2013); and L.T. Su, S. Naffziger, and M. Papermaster, “Multi-Chip Technologies to Unleash Computing Performance Gains Over the Next Decade,” in “2017 IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting” (San Francisco: IEEE, 2017).

14. For example, see W.A. Lee and J.C. Martin, “Perspectives on the Development of Acyclic Nucleotide Analogs as Antiviral Drugs,” Antiviral Research 71, no. 2-3 (2006): 254-259.

15. Quoted in Isaacson, “The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs”: 97.

16. Ibid.

17. Stone, “The Everything Store”: 195.

18. Ibid.: 327.

19. Quoted in M. Helft, “Google’s Larry Page: The Most Ambitious CEO in the Universe,” Fortune, Nov. 13, 2014, www.fortune.com.

20. L. Calonje, R. Carrillo, T.R. Dillion [sic], et al., “Mailing and Response Envelope and Method of Making the Same,” U.S. Patent 7,401,727B2, filed May 6, 2004 and issued July 22, 2008.

21. “Samsung SDI Names Memory Chip Veteran as New CEO,” Korea Herald, Feb. 28, 2017, www.koreaherald.com.