Cisco CEO doesn’t hide problems with dyslexia

Cisco CEO doesn’t hide problems with dyslexia

James Bagnall / CanWest News Service
Saturday, October 20, 2007

OTTAWA
– What drives John Chambers? After serving for more than a decade as
CEO of Cisco Systems, he is wealthy beyond his wildest dreams and has
presided over several waves of technology transformation. Yet his
enthusiasm for the job ahead remains unusually high.

During an
interview Friday with CanWest News Service, Chambers, 58, said he had
recently agreed to stay on as CEO for the next "three to five years."

He
said Cisco’s board of directors insisted on this commitment because
Chambers has spent half-a-decade developing a game plan that will take
years to pay dividends. Who better than Chambers to lead the fight?

There was another, more subtle clue to Chambers’ motivation.

The
native of West Virginia spoke for nearly an hour Friday morning before
an audience of more than 500 at Ottawa’s National Arts Centre. He had
no notes and scarcely glanced at the slide shows that lit up the giant
screen behind him.

To be sure, Chambers has delivered his stump
speech many times in the past few months. But his ability to speak
without notes is a necessary skill.

Chambers suffers from
dyslexia — a reading disorder in which people mix up letters in words.
While dyslexic children often are teased mercilessly about their low
scores on conventional tests, the condition has nothing to do with
intelligence.

Indeed, like many other high-achieving CEOs such as
Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and cellular industry entrepreneur
Craig McCaw, Chambers has consistently demonstrated an ability to
anticipate his industry’s trends.

"I can’t explain why, but I
just approach problems differently," he told Fortune magazine five
years ago. "I picture a chess game on a multiple-layer dimensional
cycle and almost play it out in my mind."

It is how Chambers
moved Cisco from being a unidimensional maker of routers (the
Internet’s basic plumbing) to becoming a multi-faceted developer of
electronic gear, software and services.

Chambers cannot read
sentences, which is why the slides he uses in his presentations include
only a couple of words which alert him to the general topic he wants to
talk about. "I’m very good at seeing something and memorizing the whole
concept," he says.

Chambers was very adept at hiding his
dyslexia. It wasn’t until the late 1990s — several years after he had
been appointed CEO — that he came clean. The occasion was a company
"take your child to work" day. Before a crowd of hundreds of parents
and children, Chambers had called on a young girl to answer a question.
But the girl struggled, saying that she had a learning disability.

Chambers came to her rescue by acknowledging — for the first time in public — that he, too, had a learning disability.

He
still has trouble with written directions and he prefers voice mail to
e-mail. Now, through Cisco’s products, he is in a position to make his
own world and those of other dyslexics somewhat easier.

One reason: Cisco is playing a leading role in creating the video-enabled web.

"Everything
and everyone will be connected," he said, adding the web 2.0 (as it’s
known) will mean profound changes for how we work.

Chambers
offered his own schedule as an example. A year ago, he spent two weeks
visiting customers and clients on three continents. He slept badly and
arrived home exhausted. More recently, he had meetings with a similar
number of people on the same continents — this time using Cisco’s
videoconferencing gear. Total elapsed time: three hours.

Chambers
added the new technologies are helping him speed up many aspects of
Cisco’s business. The company in March acquired California-based WebEx
for $3.2 billion in which the required due diligence by company
engineers, lawyers and financial experts required only eight days.

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