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.