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A Conversation With Business Legend John Chambers On Brand Leadership In Times Of Crisis – Forbes


Amidst the COVID-19 worldwide catastrophe, brands and their leadership have been left reeling in the wake of never before seen levels of anxiety and fear. As a result, many themes that emerged as critical before the crisis only continue to rise in importance as the world continues to find the mettle and courage to push forward. 

If customer experience was the new battle ground before the pandemic, it is even more acutely the case now with companies needing to figure out how to strike the right tone with consumers and employees alike, in ways that advocate for their every need in today’s extraordinary times. If CMOs, and the new class of marketing executives we have seen crop up in recent months ranging from CXOs to CGOs to CROs, needed to work more closely with CEOs to take more overall responsibility for the enterprise before the coronavirus crisis, that notion will only continue to prove more true in the weeks and months ahead.

With all that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to talk to a business icon who is regarded as one of the greatest CEOs of all time, and has weathered more than his fair share of crises. For my latest column, I had the privilege of speaking with John Chambers, current CEO and founder of JC2 Ventures, former CEO of Cisco, author of the recent book Connecting the Dots, and counselor to some of the world’s leading companies, big and small. We spoke about everything from the importance of not losing sight of customer experience in times of crisis, to best practices senior leadership should keep in mind while doing their best to navigate the choppy waters ahead. Following is a recap of our conversation:

Billee Howard: John, such a pleasure to speak to you during these difficult times. One of the things you talk about in your book is how setbacks can only make us stronger. I’d love to start the conversation with the number one piece of advice for senior leadership that you can share amidst the COVID-19 crisis.

John Chambers: My number one piece of advice is to have a replicable crisis management playbook that has been effective before and that you can adjust to your current strategy. Within that replicable playbook, the first step should always be don’t hide – be visible, be transparent. Do not be afraid when you have to say, “I don’t know,” if you don’t know something. This is where your credibility is so important. You’ve got to know what you know and know what you don’t know. 

The second step is to be realistic. You have to be able to honestly assess how much damage was created by the market and how much was created by your own company. A number of companies had bumps going into this issue that they already needed to fix, and this crisis clearly compounded them. The big question should be how much was internally created and how much was external? The majority will be external this time around. 

Number three would be outlining the three, five, seven major programs or platforms you’re going to use to get through this crisis. The best leaders will paint a picture of what the company looks like twelve or eighteen months out and map out a plan of how to get people to that North Star. 

Howard:  That’s super helpful and not surprisingly, you set up many of the other questions that I have for you. Everyone is rightfully focused now on supply chain issues. However, the reality is that customer experience was the ultimate battleground before COVID-19 and, whether it’s through the lens of consumers or employees, it’s still going to need to be very, very important as the crisis plays out. How should people be viewing CX right now? 

Chambers: Crisis management on the one hand actually allows you to get closer to your customers, but more often than not, it pushes you further away from them and does damage to the relationship. If you watch what is on the CEO’s mind about where they’re going to invest right now, and that means in time, energy and resources, it’s a reverse order compared to what we saw just two months ago. Two months ago, the CEO was focused on growth, innovation and then probably cost savings. Today, it’s cost savings, it is sustaining revenue streams via renewals and existing customers. Innovation in most situations is going to get pushed back. 

The thing about customer experience is it’s got to be front and center, no matter what. I have four startups in this area and all four of them are doing remarkably well, at least so far. They may or may not make the numbers this year that they could have achieved six months ago, but so far, our customers are not only hanging in with them, they’re staying very committed and turning to them for guidance with their own businesses. 

What this means is, even though every company is slamming on the brakes, cutting expenses and freezing key opportunities, CX is an area that is still very hot, and I think it will continue to be throughout the crisis and onward. 

Howard: Another area I’d love to explore is before the crisis, CMOs and the new class of marketing executives like CXOs, CGO’s and CRO’s, were all being tasked with more responsibility and working more closely with the CEO than ever before. How should that approach and that alignment play out now? 

Chambers: Boy, that’s a great question. I think what you’re going to see is that companies that were running effectively as a team before will continue to do so. That said, the CEO will likely become even more of the team leader because decisions must be made so fast. You can’t wait for consensus from the entire team anymore. It’s probably too late by the time you get every person on board with every single decision. As the CEO, you’ve got to discuss it as a team but ultimately be the one making the calls. You also have to outline what each person in your group is going to do and how the team is going to work together toward the common goals. I would encourage people to actually write those ideas down. 

Marketing can play a huge role here. Now might be the time to consolidate your marketing platforms and simplify them in terms of the overall approach. For marketers, I would focus the interface on the idea of how you can help the CEO save costs. How can you help them protect existing revenue streams? How do you help minimize churn and how do you help them grow with existing customers? That’s where the logical growth will occur. While most CEOs are saying “I’d like to think about growth right now,” what they are really thinking about is survival assessment – and that starts with insulating existing customers. 

CEOs will also lean more on marketing leaders, as crises tee up a chance to establish a brand that is a leader. If you look at what Cisco did during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, most high-tech companies pulled out of the region but we did the reverse. We doubled down and sent one of our best sales leaders into the region. As a result, a year later, we were number one in brand and in market share in every major Asian country. Marketing has to be front and center in all these crisis management decisions, while also playing a key role in running communications with your employees, your customers, your partners and the media. 

Howard: Thank you, John, for that terrific guidance. Another thing that you mentioned in your book, which I’m very passionate about, is the whole idea of purpose, not product. Purpose has been something that has been very top of mind for the last several years, but now more than ever, it seems that purpose needs to be done through a greater lens of authenticity. Leadership really needs to step up and figure out the right path forward around it. What are your thoughts? 

Chambers: The ability to sell outcomes during a downturn is huge. So, if you’re selling a product, a faster box, or a really cool software, you’re going to have trouble during this downturn, at least for a while. No matter how innovative it is, if you’re not selling outcomes – cost savings, making employees more effective, or helping the world through the crisis somehow – you’re much less likely to be successful. 

I hope that corporate social responsibility, where the responsibility to get a financial return for your shareholders and to do good for society are both top priorities, continues to be strong and actually gets stronger in the wake of this crisis. One of my startups, BloomEnergy, is a great example of how this can work. They’re using this time period to actually utilize their manufacturing line to refurbish ventilators for the state of California and to really make a difference. In short, I hope the answer is business leaders will actually become even more focused on the full benefits they can bring society. I tend to worry, however, having seen this movie so many times before, that when you start to deal with survival, unfortunately, sometimes the benefit to society and corporate social responsibility don’t emerge as top of mind as we might like them to. I hope on I’m wrong on that, but most people go in saying “we want to do good for society,” but when it becomes survival mode, it’s interesting how goals change. 

Howard: Thanks for your candor on that topic. I think we’re going to move from non-stop talk about transformation to a dialogue around hope for broader reinvention, after things settle down a bit. What does the path to reinvention look like from your POV?

Chambers: CEOs will reverse, as we talked about earlier, going from growth and innovation, to cost and protecting existing revenue streams. Innovation in many companies will be pushed further down the line.  I do think there’ll be companies that are the exception, maybe ten percent, who will say, “I’m going to innovate now and break away.” They may be companies that were airlines, or hotels, or transportation, or others that you may not have expected. I don’t think that will be the majority of companies, however. 

It hasn’t changed. I think companies who lead in good times and bad focus on market transitions. The create disruptive business models, and they combine that with innovation and new technology. That’s where you see true leadership. I think, unfortunately, if your company primarily provides innovation to companies right now and the benefit is two, three or four years out, your sales are going to take a real challenging hit over the next couple of quarters. It doesn’t mean that you won’t come out of it, but it’s not going to be easy. Customer-driven listening will always be the best path to uncovering what you should and should not do, and I think brands need to get closer to their customers now, more than ever, to hear what they’re saying. The best roads to reinvention will be found in listening and serving customers. 



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