Thoughts on Chuck Robbins’ ascension and the channel

Incoming Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins

Incoming Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins

Last week’s Cisco Partner Summit in Montreal will be John Chambers’ last as CEO of the networking giant. Cisco, as the company announced this week that its 16-month search for a new CEO is over, and that effective July 26, Chuck Robbins will take over as chief executive while Chambers will move into the role of executive chairman.

In hindsight, it’s a move that last week’s event in Montreal foreshadowed. Over the last few years, it’s been Rob Lloyd, the company’s president of development and sales, who’s accompanied Chambers in his meetings with press and analysts at events like Partner Summit and Cisco Live, leading to speculation among press and analysts that Lloyd was perhaps the top contender to replace Chambers, who had signaled some time ago that he would hand over the big chair when the right time came. So Robbins taking that spot at Chambers’ side at Partner Summit didn’t go completely unnoticed.

And with Robbins’ ascension now a fact, other details of those meetings last week in Montreal provided some clues that, at the very least, point to how CEO Robbins will address his partners, and likely provided some hints that Monday’s change at the top was in the cards.

Those who’ve seen Chambers present or talk to channel partners or the press and analysts that cover the channel space know the script by now. At some point in the conversation, Chambers will get retrospective and point out how turning Cisco from a direct-selling machine into a partner-centric company was the first thing he did when he took over as CEO 20 years ago, and the biggest ingredient in building the Cisco of today. It’s as inevitable as his name-dropping world leaders or stopping in front of some poor audience member who’s just trying to keep up with his rapid-fire Southern drawl to say “… and you know where I’m gong with this….” before continuing on.

And we all get it. First of all, it’s an accurate assessment of the history. And secondly, it establishes (and re-establishes) Chambers’ “channel cred.”

And in Montreal, Chambers provided the man who was clearly by then his heir apparent an opportunity to do the same. Chambers talked a bit about his own history in the channel, then talked about how the next generation of leaders at Cisco would follow his direction, using Robbins’ own experience as an example.

Robbins’ thirteen-year history at Cisco includes five years as the company’s U.S. channel chief. The point Chambers and Robbins’ were making was clear – the new CEO not only gets the value of the channel, he lived it day-to-day for over one third of hits tenure with the company.

Robbins, in turn, talked about how he feels the company’s traditional channel community is a huge competitive advantage for Cisco, but then went on to say that the expansion of that community into a broader ecosystem with different types of organizations was going to be critical to the company’s future.

Translation: Not only is Robbins’ background in the channel, but he gets the transformation underway in the company’s partner base. Of course, we didn’t know at the time the thoughts were coming from the man who would less than a week later be named the individual responsible for overseeing that transformation, but in hindsight, it was clear Cisco was deftly setting up that message last week in Montreal.

One last thought on Robbins’ promotion: I’ve heard it said numerous times – most often when discussing the short reigns of many channel chiefs – that you just don’t see the channel chief getting promoted to CEO. The logic being that the channel chief has to quickly move into another role or risk being pigeon-holed as a “channel guy” and not really eligible to move further up the corporate ladder.

Sure, there have been some exceptions to that rule, mostly by channel chiefs looking outside their company and moving to become CEO of a new company – former Microsoft channel chief Jon Roskill going to cloud-based ERP vendor Acumatica as CEO comes to mind – but Robbins is fairly unique as a former channel chief – and a regional one at that – who has now climbed the ladder of his organization to become CEO. If he’s successful in his new role, it could go a long way to dispel this nonsense cliché that that channel chief can’t eventually run the show. I, along with many solution providers and vendor channel executives, will be watching with great interest.