Chuck Robbins sets Cisco up to take off

A look back at what Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins accomplished during his first year leading the company

It’s been about a year since Chuck Robbins took over as CEO of Cisco. Following in the footsteps of John Chambers certainly could not have been easy. Chambers was perhaps the most visible, thought-leading CEO in all of technology. Also, he had been at the post for about 20 years, something rare in business today, and had reached quasi celebrity status.

When Robbins took the helm, many customers, analysts and investors asked me whether I thought Robbins would maintain the status quo or shake things up. I didn’t know Robbins all that well when he took the job. But Cisco had tremendous success during the Chambers tenure, so the natural assumption was Robbins wouldn’t do anything to disrupt what was already working. I thought he might make a few tweaks here and there, but I wasn’t expecting big changes.

In hindsight, I was certainly wrong. The first 11 months of Robbins’ tenure was anything but status quo. Robbins has indeed shaken things up, and his thumbprint is clearly on the company. Let’s take a look back at the past year and see how Cisco got here.

Technology Partnerships

Cisco has always had a large number of technology partners. Recently, however, the company has taken partnering to a much deeper level. For example, Cisco and Apple recently announced deep integration between the two companies. In late 2015, Cisco and Ericsson announced a technology partnership to build “networks of the future.” Another example is Cisco’s $100M investment in Inspur.

I’ve talked to Robbins about the partnerships, and his thesis is that in a world where speed will determine the winners and losers, sometimes partnering allows both companies to move quickly without having to go through the process of a large merger. I fully expect to see more technology partnerships that drive more value for customers.


One of the hallmarks of the Chambers-led Cisco was its ability to innovate and grow through acquisitions. Partnerships work, but sometimes buying the technology is the right thing to do. Robbins has embraced this and has been extremely active with M&A. Below is a list of the acquisitions Cisco has made since Robbins became CEO:

  • Tropo (Collaboration, Cloud, Programmability)
  • Piston (Cloud)
  • Open DNS (Cloud, Security)
  • Maintenance Net (Business Model)
  • Pawaa (Software)
  • Portcullis (Security)
  • ParStream (Analytics)
  • Lancope (Security)
  • 1 Mainstream (Cloud video)
  • Acano (Collaboration)
  • Jasper (IoT)
  • CliQr (Cloud)
  • Leaba (Core)
  • Syanata (Collaboration)
  • CloudLock (Cloud, Security)

It’s interesting to note that almost all of the acquisitions are in the areas of software, cloud or security, giving Cisco new capabilities to grow in the digital era.

Go to market

Cisco has alinged itself with the digital age. In May, the company launched a new brand campaign urging its customers to embrace the concept of digital transformation. Cisco’s message to the world is that there’s never been a better time to transform the business. Do it now before the competition does and gets a leg up on you. To help customers, Cisco unveiled its Digital Network Architecture (DNA), which helps companies use the network to evolve into a digital organization.

The company’s recent Tetration product supports digital organizations by providing an unparalleled level of visibility into the network and analytics to gain new insights with the data provided.

Also, Robbins has made a concerted effort to focus more on software and subscription services. While hardware remains Cisco’s “secret sauce,” the value is being delivered through software. A software-first approach supported by the hardware lets Cisco be more agile and move with digital speeds while being more profitable—a win for customers, resellers and investors of Cisco.

Organizational changes

The Robbins tenure started off with big news with respect to Cisco leadership. On June 1, he issued this blog post, Leadership Transitions for the Digital Age, stating he wanted to position Cisco to better compete in an increasingly digital world. To accomplish that, he would be creating a flatter leadership team that could move with speed.

As part of this transition, he announced that Gary Moore (president and COO) and Rob Lloyd (president of sales and development) would be leaving Cisco. Shortly after, Cisco announced the following executives would also be leaving: Padmasree Warrior (CTO), Wim Elfrink (executive vice president for industry solutions and chief globalization officer) and Edzard Overbeek (senior vice president for services).

Since then, a handful of other Cisco leaders have exited, including Pankaj Patel (executive vice president and chief development officer) and Hanh Tu (president of Cisco China). I’m sure I’ve missed a few that happened over the past year, but its clear the leadership has changed and Robbins now has the team he wants.

In March of 2016, Robbins re-tooled the engineering organization. As part of the reshuffling of the deck chairs, 18-year Cisco veteran Kelly Ahuja left, and Yvette Kanouff is now the lead on service provider. Zorawar Biri Singh, who is also the company’s CTO, now heads up cloud services and platforms. Also, Rowan Trollope was named senior vice president and general manager of IoT and applications, and David Goekler, senior vice president of security, was recently handed the reigns of all network with the departure of the famed MPLS group.

I have spent extensive time with both Goeckler and Trollope and have had some interactions with Singh and Kanouff. Customers should feel comfortable that Cisco engineering, which has been the hallmark of the company for decades, has never been in better hands.

The new leadership team is now composed of the following:

  • Kevin Bandy, senior vice president, chief digital officer
  • Ruba Borno, vice president, growth initiatives, and chief of staff to CEO
  • Chris Dedicoat, executive vice president, worldwide sales
  • Mark Chandler, senior vice president and general counsel, chief compliance officer
  • Joe Cozzolino, senior vice president, services
  • David Goeckeler, senior vice president and general manager, networking and security business
  • Rebecca Jacoby, senior vice president, operations
  • Francine Katsoudas, senior vice president and chief people officer
  • Kelly A. Kramer, executive vice president and chief financial officer
  • Pankaj Patel, executive vice president and chief development officer (currently on the executive team but announced he will leave the second half of 2016)
  • Hilton Romanski, senior vice president, chief strategy officer
  • Zorawar Biri Singh, chief technology officer and senior vice president, cloud services and platforms
  • Rowan Trollope, senior vice president and general manager, IoT and collaboration technology group
  • Karen Walker, senior vice president and chief marketing officer

In the past year, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with Robbins on several occasions. I find him to be very direct and to the point. He’s crystal clear that Cisco needs to needs to be more streamlined, and he wants accelerate the speed at which the company operates.

At Cisco’s size, becoming lean and agile may seem like a daunting task. Robbins spent time retooling the company. He has his team in place, the products are set, and partnerships have been made. Now it’s time to step on the gas and break away from the competition.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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