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The next generation of leaders are more than just tech-savvy; they are brave and curious and hungry for new ideas. They’re too impatient to stand still. I’ve talked to a lot of teenagers over my career and I’ve never met one who is satisfied with the present. They’re all about the future and it can’t come fast enough for them. They want to do things differently from the people who are currently in charge. In fact, it’s their job to disrupt. Teenagers don’t seek incremental change. They want to turn the world upside down and make it their own. They’ll shake things up while juggling a dozen other things: doing homework, listening to music, texting friends, eating over their computer (even though you’ve told them not to), posting a video on YouTube, and then finding something funny to share while they’re at it. In a teenager, such instincts can be reckless and impulsive at times. Leaders can channel that mindset into a more structured framework and it can become a powerful predictor of success. If you’re looking for signs of disruption and change, you’re more likely to find them. If you want to tackle big problems, you have to take big risks and accept that there will be setbacks along the way.
It doesn’t matter how old you are. In fact, the first person who comes to mind when I think of a boundless curiosity and impatient mindset is the late Israeli leader Shimon Peres. He was inspiring, fearless, and even brash about solving big problems. He was also well into his 70s when we first met at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, 18 years ago. I thought he wandered into my session by mistake. I was used to seeing global leaders onstage, not in the audience. He was there to learn about new technologies and came up after the session to introduce himself and ask more questions. After we talked, he didn’t just move on to the next session. He wanted to follow up and start working together on a plan to bring the internet to every person in Israel. I couldn’t believe he was serious. Normally, these issues are discussed at the 30,000-foot level, especially in a place like Davos. Here was a man who liked what he heard and wanted to act on it as soon as possible. I came to realize that this was typical behavior for Shimon Peres: No matter how senior the position or how sensitive the topic, he always had an incredible thirst to learn, enthusiasm for what’s next, and a willingness to take risks. I think that’s why he was so good at sensing shifts in technologies and markets as well as in the public mood around key issues. It’s why Shimon Peres was a man who not only reinvented himself throughout his career but also played a key role in reinventing Israel. As he put it, “Through creativity and innovation, we transformed barren deserts into flourishing fields and pioneered new frontiers in science and technology.” In short, he transformed Israel into a startup nation. He taught me that the wisdom of experience and a teenage mindset are not mutually exclusive. Together, they can be incredibly powerful in driving and scaling innovation. We developed a friendship and a partnership that would last right up to his death at the age of 93.
I’ll never forget the night that Shimon came to dinner at my home in Palo Alto. (He never let me address him by anything other than his first name.) It was 2012 and he was the president of Israel. There had been an outbreak of violence along the Gaza Strip around that time, as well as speculation that Israel might attack a nuclear facility in Iran. So you can imagine the security concerns around having the Israeli president attend a dinner with CEOs, startup founders, venture capitalists, and other tech leaders at a home on the edge of a 1,400-acre public park. One evening a few days before his visit, Elaine and I looked out the window of our kitchen to see the foothills behind our house come alive with multiple lights going every which way. It was like a scene from E.T., complete with UFOs and military officials with flashlights, scouring the land for signs of life. Earlier, we had spotted a man jog past a clump of trees in short shorts and sneakers. I knew he had to be Israeli security. Nobody in Palo Alto would dress like that to go jogging at night. And yet if anyone felt tense at the sight of SWAT teams—not to mention security personnel from the state, local, and national governments of two countries—surrounding my property and snipers sitting on my roof, Shimon’s enthusiasm brushed that away. At 88, he was like a kid in a candy store, hungry to learn about new technologies and thrilled to be in Silicon Valley, which he described as “the brain of our time.” Within five minutes, every person at the table was taking notes.
When Shimon learned that I had an electric car, he immediately asked if he could drive it. I said yes, of course, though I mentioned to him that his security team had told me to keep him in one area of the house. Shimon’s response: “John, I’m the president and I want to drive the car.” As a group of us headed down to the garage to see the car, one of his aides came up and quietly informed me that he didn’t have a driver’s license. I immediately laughed and thought, well, this is really going to be interesting. And it was. Of all the threat scenarios that the Israeli secret service had prepared for, watching their president drive my electric car wasn’t one of them. For Shimon Peres, a man driven by curiosity and immune to fear, the real risk would have been to pass up a chance to be part of the future and to dream together with many of the current and future leaders of Silicon Valley.
This wasn’t a leader who was nostalgic about the past or worried about protecting what he’d built in the present. Shimon Peres was a dreamer who helped build Israel and devoted his life to promoting peace and prosperity throughout the Middle East. He once took me to visit upper Nazareth and lower Nazareth in a single day, meeting with Jews, Arabs, and Christians in each of these communities to talk about how technology could be an equalizer in life. People of all religions loved this man and, at times, disliked him for taking a bold stance. He had this baritone voice and easy humor that made him a memorable speaker, yet the thing that made him so compelling wasn’t how he communicated but what he communicated. He never missed an opportunity to bring people back to the big picture, to remind them of a bold ambition or a vision that was bigger than themselves. He once told me that leadership was lonely and he was right. When you’re willing to make big bets, play by different rules, and talk about dreams that seem unlikely to come true, you’re acting like a teenager. You could fall on your face. If you can then make those predictions come true, though, you have a chance to make history.
My empathy for the teenage mindset that Shimon embodied so well may stem from the fact that I consume data in a similar way, though for a very different reason. Growing up in the 1950s, it was clear early on that my brain was wired a little differently from other kids’ brains. I didn’t digest information in a linear way; I took in everything at once. I could go from A to B to Z with incredible speed, but going from A to B to C to D to E…to Z was almost painful. That became obvious when I was learning to read. I’d scroll through a page in reverse order, from right to left. I’d transpose letters and lose my place midway through a paragraph. I’d often mispronounce words. It didn’t matter that I was good at math or strong in sports. It didn’t matter how many evenings I spent reading with my mom and dad, or how many days I spent memorizing lines in class. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get it.
Sixty years later, my hands still sweat when I think about what it was like to sit there in second or third grade as we went around the class, taking turns at reading aloud. When my turn came, I’d inevitably stumble and a few kids would laugh. I was a pretty good sport so I tried not to show how much it stung. But the memory stuck with me. Maybe that’s why some people consider me to be one of the “nice guys” in Silicon Valley. While I’ve been known to tease close friends, I don’t ridicule people. It doesn’t matter if they’re my fiercest competitor or my closest friend. No one deserves to be mocked or have negative things said about them. I remember the pain of feeling ridiculed. For a while, I even questioned my ability to learn. When I was diagnosed with a learning disability (later diagnosed as dyslexia), one teacher warned my parents that I might not make it through high school, let alone go to college. Luckily, my mom and dad didn’t share that bleak outlook. The message they gave me was that I was a bright kid who just needed to learn a different way. Even so, I understood that this was a disability I had to fight to overcome. In a linear environment, going from A to B to Z would hold you back.
It was only later that I recognized the unique strengths that came with being wired this way. While I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years—and I’ll talk about some of them in this book—I’ve had a good track record at spotting the big trends in technology. Sometimes, I’ve moved too early. Sometimes, I’ve tried to do too much. At Cisco, I was able to navigate multiple market shifts that killed our competitors because we sensed shifts in markets and technologies long before our competitors. Those aren’t my words. That’s what Bronwyn Fryer and Thomas A. Stewart wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2008. The same piece described me as having a “nearly uncanny ability to survive downturns, see long-term trends, and identify market transitions.” Hey, I’ll take that! (Let’s just say that I’ve been called worse!) What I learned—that anyone can learn—is how to gather lots of data, step back, and connect the dots to see trends. In short, there is an advantage to a dyslexic way of thinking, which tends to make you think less in words than in pictures and graphs that take all the information in at once.
I’ve always had a knack for spotting patterns and then figuring out what’s likely to come next. I also happen to enjoy it. I love making bets. Just ask anyone who’s lost a dollar to me in Liar’s Poker or by betting on which elevator comes next. (I’m not invincible. Those elevators can be unpredictable!) The little bets are for fun: a toss of the coin or a dare to get the juices flowing. The big bets can make or break a company, reshape an economy, define a career. We made a lot of big bets at Cisco. You don’t acquire 180 companies and go from selling one product to 18 different product lines if you don’t have an appetite for risk. The difference with the Cisco bets is that I never felt I was defying the odds. In fact, it was just the opposite: In every move, I had a clear sense of where the market was going, what our competitors were doing, and what our customers wanted. Everyone else on my team did, too. What might have looked like a shot in the dark or an illogical move to others soon became a well-lit path for us. It’s not because we hired only dyslexics into leadership roles.
What differentiated Cisco’s approach was certainly a level of experience and maturity, though we sometimes hid that well. The bigger difference was that we had a shared mindset, a shared process if you will. More specifically, we developed a replicable innovation process that helped us find new ideas, try new things, move fast, and even break some glass—and then we synthesized that data to generate insights that helped us make smarter decisions. To be clear, this is about cultivating the right mindset and risk appetite for success. The No. 1 driver in how we developed products and grew our business was—and always should be—our customers. If we didn’t give them what they wanted or needed, plenty of competitors would have happily stepped in to serve their needs instead. I can share a lot of stories about how we developed products and talent and disrupted industries by working with customers in different ways, but our successes all hinged on trying to understand where the market was going and working with our customers to get there. You compete against market transitions, not against other companies. If you don’t stay focused on figuring out what’s happening in the market, it doesn’t matter if you win a few battles here or there. A new technology or business model will come along, and you’ll be left behind. Disruption can quickly lead to self-destruction if you misread the market and end up fighting the current.
The first step is to make sure that you’re truly taking a wide-angle view, collecting data from multiple players, and connecting those disparate data points to get a picture of how the market is shifting. Without really being aware of it, I’ve been crowdsourcing, pattern thinking, and beta testing my whole life. I seek insights and feedback from everyone, especially customers. I don’t pretend to be an expert in figuring out tomorrow’s needs in aviation and city design and food production but I know where to find them. I coach new leaders to collect data from customers, study competitors, seek out disrupters, and look at pertinent factors to get a sense of the big picture. Then, I zoom in on a few points to see what’s really moving the needle, pick some options to explore, and check in with customers again. It’s like a map. As more data comes in—customer feedback, engineering data, sales, the arrival of new players—the connections and trends become clearer. Once you understand how the market is changing, you can develop the right product and strategy for where the world’s going to be. That’s not a bet but a way to turn pattern thinking into a playbook. The facts are usually all there to let you figure out the big picture, if you know the right places to look. The issue is that people don’t always like what they see and feel threatened by it or even try to deny it.
I was ridiculed in 1997 for predicting that “voice will be free.” Not only were telephone calls the main source of profits and revenue for telecom companies—many of whom were my key customers—but government regulation and the amount of capital you’d needed to build a telecom infrastructure made it hard for any startup to compete. I wasn’t really looking at that space, however, because I felt the real competition was elsewhere: the internet. In the mid-1990s, it became possible to break down voice signals and transfer them like any other data from one computer to another. To me, this challenged the fundamental business model of every telecom company on the planet. Why use copper telephone wires if you could use Voice over Internet Protocol, aka VoIP? The technology was sure to improve and the cost difference was, to say the least, compelling. On the web, it costs about the same to send data across the street as it does to send it across the planet. Frankly, the same could be said of phone lines, too. Much like the internet, phone lines are a fixed cost. Whether you make a single call or 100 calls doesn’t really matter. The cost to the phone company is the same. There wasn’t really a technical reason to charge as much as a few dollars a minute for long-distance calls. Phone companies had been charging such prices because they could. There had been no meaningful alternative. With the internet, that was no longer true. To me, it was inevitable that voice calls would move to the web and be treated like any other form of data. As technology evolved, networks expanded, and consumer behavior changed, the trend became clear. The business model of long-distance carriers was about to be disrupted. The question was only how soon it would happen, and how the carriers would respond to losing their main source of profits and revenues.
These lessons are just as true at the government level as they are in business. The same process helped me to see a path for Emmanuel Macron to become the president of France long before he announced his run in late 2016. Most people considered him a long shot. The first time I met him, when he was economy minister for President Fran?ois Hollande, I called up Elaine to say that I’d just met a future president of France. (By the way, he won the election, 65 percent to 35 percent.) My instincts had nothing to do with French party politics: Macron was, in my opinion, an economic and social reformer in a socialist government who ran as an independent. I was struck by what I was seeing in communities across France: a hunger for the kind of innovation that Macron had helped to stoke under Hollande, business leaders talking about inclusive growth, entrepreneurs lobbying to compete with the rest of the world instead of turning away from it, and media pundits arguing for the need to create inclusive wealth, not redistribute it. The people I met were dissatisfied with the status quo, but not in a way that made them fearful of outsiders or nostalgic for some romanticized view of the past. Macron was speaking the language of entrepreneurship and innovation in a nation that was becoming more entrepreneurial. If you only saw the restlessness, the threat of a nationalist victory might loom large. When you connected it to what people were saying and doing across France, it was hard for me to imagine a victory for anyone but Macron.
I don’t want to diminish the challenges. What the Harvard editors identified as one of my greatest strengths grew out of a weakness that I’ve struggled with my whole life. As I mentioned before, I was diagnosed with a learning disability at the age of eight. While researchers were starting to pay more attention to learning disabilities and how they affected kids’ brains in the 1950s, they didn’t understand dyslexia the way they do now. There was no support system in my public school to help me. Instead, my parents hired a “reading coach” named Lorene Anderson who worked with me after school for a couple of years to teach me new strategies. I owe a lot to Mrs. Anderson. In addition to being amazingly patient, she helped me identify my own learning style and develop strategies to compensate for my weaknesses. Like my parents, she made sure I knew that dyslexia had nothing to do with my intelligence or capacity to learn. I just had to tackle the information differently. She taught me to treat how I process letters as a curve ball that breaks the same way every time. Along with demystifying the problem, Mrs. Anderson found solutions that played to my strengths. Once I recognized the pattern, I could map out a strategy to use again and again.
Even so, it was a slow and painstaking process. There was no magic pill that could change the way my brain worked. I read backward and in reverse order. I had to figure out other ways to learn and find ways to work around the areas in which I was weak. I’ve learned to become a more active listener and more adept at communicating verbally, using voice, video, and texts to get my ideas across. When giving speeches, I don’t use notes. I accept that there are some things I will never be good at, which has made me a world-class delegator (and talent scout!) when it comes to tasks like preparing written material and translating concepts into a detailed step-by-step process. If I hadn’t learned to accept my weaknesses and complement my strengths early on, I would not have gone very far.
While I learned to deal with my dyslexia, I rarely talked about it. How many CEOs really want to admit that they struggle to read? I certainly didn’t view it as a strength. That changed about two decades ago when I spoke at an event for Cisco’s Take Your Children to Work Day. One little girl raised her hand to ask me a question but was unable to get out the words. As I listened to her struggle to make herself understood, I was immediately transported back to that classroom in West Virginia. My heart went out to her. When she tearfully stammered that she had a learning disability, I told her that I did, too. I walked her through all the things that Mrs. Anderson had taught me: slow down, take your time, don’t worry about what anyone else is thinking, just sound it out and focus on the concepts, realize that everyone else in the room has strengths and weaknesses, too. As I talked about my own strategies, I could see that I was helping her relax. Then I notice that the room was oddly silent. I paused for a second, realizing I’d just shared an intimate and little-known detail about my own life in front of 500 employees and their kids. Now, it was me who felt a bit nervous and embarrassed. I continued taking questions but, inside, I wondered if I might have shared too much.
When I got home that evening, there were several dozen messages from employees. Many just wanted to thank me for talking about my dyslexia. Some were employees who’d struggled with it themselves but had never shared that fact with their colleagues. Others were parents, trying to figure out what they could do to help a child. A lot of them were people who might have otherwise felt too intimidated to reach out to the CEO of Cisco. Here I was worried that my colleagues might think less of me for having a learning disability, and instead I found that they were complimenting me for my courage and my candor. I realized then the power of admitting my vulnerabilities and sharing my own story. Among other things, it demonstrated the power of surrounding yourself with a team that balances your weaknesses and complements your strengths.
As I grew more comfortable with talking about my dyslexic way of thinking, it became clear that the way I processed data had actually helped me as a business leader. My brain is naturally wired to visualize vast amounts of data and draw connections at a fast pace. I can absorb the details of what’s going on around me—the chatter, the personalities, the activity on the sidelines—and still remain focused on the task at hand. I’m constantly asking questions to fill in gaps and find out more. It’s more like plotting a graph than plotting a story. The concept of “information overload” is something I’ve never experienced. What I see kids buy in Silicon Valley might bring to mind what a political leader told me in Jordan a month earlier, and one of our sales leaders reinforced. Each anecdote becomes a point of comparison in the broader landscape, creating a visual map. When I came across research that suggests dyslexics are often better able to detect patterns in complex sets of data, it didn’t surprise me. I’d always been good at connecting the dots and at the same time very aware of my weaknesses.
After years of encouraging people to develop expertise in a particular subject, we’re starting to recognize the benefits of teaching people to be agile learners who can connect the dots. It’s a particularly important trait to develop if you aspire to leadership. The impact of trends and technologies is a puzzle that’s hard for anyone to figure out. An ability to grasp the big picture and see how different trends intersect is a key skill in picking the right path to pursue. Maybe that’s why more than a fifth of CEOs are dyslexic. To create brands like Virgin, Charles Schwab, JetBlue, Ikea, CNN, Ford, or The Body Shop, you need to spot opportunities that others don’t see, pay attention to what’s around you, and think outside of the box.
It’s hard to connect the dots if you don’t know where to look or whom to trust. The first step is to focus on the big picture and the possible end result. Instead of trying to synthesize facts and organize your argument like you’re going to present it in a written report, try to visualize everything as pictures or a graph. Where are the clusters? Are common themes emerging? What matters is the trend and the links that you find. Pay attention to broader shifts in the market, especially where two or more are related, and seek out data or experts to fill in the gaps. As new information comes in, step back and try to put it in the context of the bigger picture.
The challenge is to figure out what matters. The volume of data at our disposal is already dizzying and, as more things get connected to the internet, that flow of information could become a flood. You have to learn to distinguish between what Nate Silver calls the signal and the noise. He’s the statistician who famously predicted the results of the 2008 presidential election in all but one state. Silver said he just looked at the data and the answers were right there. It probably helped that, unlike some pollsters, he wasn’t invested in the outcome. All of us can come up with examples of the age-old art of lying with statistics. It’s easy to find facts that tell a story that isn’t true. It doesn’t have to be deliberate; data can be deceiving, especially when you’re looking for “proof” that supports your point of view or protects your business model.
I learned early on that people can see the same events differently, especially during a crisis. When I was around 11, I saw a girl fall off the 10-foot diving board at our community pool. I just happened to be looking as she slipped and grabbed the right side of the handrail with her right hand, which made her body swing under the board as she lost her footing and landed on her back with her feet facing the pool. I remember those details like it was yesterday, in part because I was alone in recalling them. I listened to at least a dozen other people explain what happened, and none of them saw it the same way. One witness said she slid through the steps, which seemed physically impossible. Another remembered her falling to the ground and then rolling in pain underneath the diving board. Everyone was talking over each other to explain what had happened, and none of it sounded like what I’d seen, or even possible. You can’t slide through the steps of a diving board. She couldn’t have hit her head from the angle that she fell. When I turned to my dad to complain that everyone else had it wrong, he said I was probably right because I was in a good spot to see everything and wasn’t caught up in the emotion of the moment. “That’s why you’ve got to stay calm in a crisis.”
It’s also why you want to seek multiple perspectives, especially from customers, and cross-reference them as new facts come in. The best filter for judging is to look at the source. I always put a premium on data that I get from customers because they’re on the front lines and are critical partners in deciding where to place our bets. Of the 180 acquisitions we did at Cisco and the dozen startups and young CEOs that I’m investing in and mentoring now, I can tell you what one or two customers said that convinced me to make the decisions I made.
That’s why the second component of thinking like a dyslexic is to be curious. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? A lot of leaders would say they’re curious. I can tell you from personal experience that most leaders are not. They don’t ask a lot of questions, rarely challenge conventional wisdom, stick with what they know, and often turn to sources that reinforce their existing point of view. Maybe that’s why I notice the people who are genuinely curious about the world around them. This isn’t some rare trait that you either possess or you don’t. Everyone is capable of cultivating their curiosity. We all used to be curious. As kids, we’re brimming with curiosity. We explore new places, get lost, try new things, climb trees, fall down, accept dares. It never stops. We ask questions and we don’t always care who gives us the answer. We just want to know it, then we file it away, and go off to do something else.
As we get older, though, curiosity starts to diminish. All of a sudden, we’re the ones who are supposed to have the answers. We worry about looking dumb or ill-informed. We don’t want to offend people or step on any toes. We seek expertise in a form that feels familiar to us and are taught to impress each other rather than learn from each other. Sometimes, we don’t even want to know what someone else thinks in case we don’t like what they’ll say. We’re not seeking feedback. We’re looking for reinforcement. You don’t become enlightened that way, and you miss most new opportunities.
I encourage all types of leaders—CEOs of multinational corporations, young entrepreneurs starting their first company, or global government leaders—to ask customers and citizens how they feel about their products or platform but also to go one step further. Get to know customers as people and find out what’s on their minds. What are they keeping an eye on? Where are they investing their time and resources? Who’s on their radar and why? What keeps them up at night? Talk to colleagues and friends and even people you meet on the street. Listen. If you can’t think of a follow-up question, then there’s a good chance that you weren’t listening. Have an agenda. When I’m in other countries, I’m often curious to see how people are using technology and what kinds of businesses they’re starting. I constantly ask people for advice on what I can be doing better. One question I ask of the leaders I meet is what’s the most important lesson they’ve learned during their career. For Shimon Peres, who was one of the most optimistic and social leaders I’ve ever met, it was realizing that leadership is lonely, especially in tough times. You have to have the courage to stand alone.
Look at the data. While customers are usually your best sources for understanding what’s happening, don’t just rely on your gut or go with what everyone is telling you to do. Analyze the data. We collect and analyze data across different markets and industries to look for patterns and aberrations that might suggest something is going on. The more you can standardize the process, the more you can cross-reference what you find and make accurate comparisons. Data might not tell you why something is happening, but it does tell you what’s going on. When Cisco was knocked flat by the dot-com crash, the first warning signal came from the data. Within days, orders suddenly dried up. At the same time, though, the data had been telling us that everything was okay just weeks before. The reason was that our customers had been acting like everything was okay, placing orders and making projections that were at odds with the reality of what was going on.
That’s why you can never use data alone in making decisions. You need to run it by the experts who see this stuff and live it every day. They use the equipment. They know what’s normal and what’s not. If you want a broad view on what it all means, bring in people with broader cross-functional roles, perspectives, and networks. While they might not have specific subject expertise, they often have an edge in finding insights because it’s their job to look at the big picture. If you want a reality check on what you’re seeing, though, go with the experts: your customers.
Let me give you two examples that have nothing to do with business. The first comes from Paul Guzzi, a former colleague at Wang Laboratories and a strong Democrat who’d spent the first part of his career in Massachusetts state politics, including four years as Secretary of the Commonwealth. During the 1988 presidential election, Paul and I were at a customer meeting in Chicago and started talking with a hotel doorman about the various candidates. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis had a double-digit lead in the polls at that point, but the doorman told the two of us that he planned to vote for George Bush. As we were leaving, Paul turned to me and said, “Bush is going to win.” It seemed like a bold prediction to make off a sample size of one. But Paul viewed this man as what I’d consider to be a subject expert: a lifelong Democrat who clearly cared about the issues that were the foundation of Dukakis’s campaign. The doorman was also African American, and black voters traditionally vote overwhelmingly for Democrats. If he felt that the governor was not effective on those policies, the odds were high that many of his peers felt the same way. For Paul, who had probably talked to thousands of voters over his career, the doorman’s comments were telling and signaled a profound shift in the big picture. He’d been seeing other data that suggested a pattern of vulnerability for Dukakis and this clinched it. While the early polls may have considered Dukakis a shoo-in, Bush won. While the doorman might or might not have predicted Bush’s win, Paul did. He connected the dots and knew what to look for.
Many years later, Elaine and I were in a limousine and started talking politics with our driver, who was African American. Donald Trump had recently become the Republican candidate and I was curious to know what the driver thought of him. It turned out he was planning to vote for Trump. He knew about Trump’s record on race relations and wasn’t sure if Trump’s policies were as likely to hurt him as help, but he was fed up with the establishment in Washington and was willing to take a risk. Much like the doorman in Massachusetts, his support was a powerful data point that conventional wisdom might turn out to be wrong. As I talked to more people on my travels, it became clear to me that Trump was winning support across party lines, which was not yet showing up in the polls. So when former Bloomberg TV anchor Cory Johnson asked me to pick the likely winner at a summit in May 2016, I said, “If you had to bet on momentum right now, candidly it’s going to be Trump.” Hillary Clinton was leading in most polls and I ended up breaking my own record as a Republican to vote for her on election night, but I could see that the pattern pointed to a victory for Trump. Whether that would be good for the country was beside the point. This was the reality of what was going on, and many people didn’t see it coming.
You might think that it’s easier to spot data and connect the patterns today. After all, we have a world of information and artificial intelligence at our fingertips. I think it’s actually becoming much more difficult. Greater access to content has made it easier for people to seek out news that reinforces their existing point of view. Instead of using technology to connect with other cultures, we increasingly connect with people who remind us of ourselves and reinforce what we already know. We filter the world through our “friends” and lose faith in our institutions. It’s easy to see why. Elections that could be more transparent and democratic in the digital age instead seem more vulnerable to manipulation and even hacking. Journalists can be as partisan as the people they cover and, even when they’re not, get accused of peddling unreliable news. Leaders whose countries could be hubs of innovation instead give in to fear and resentment, worsening the problems they promised to fix. More information doesn’t make us more informed.
That’s why it’s so important to get outside your comfort zone and talk to people who don’t cross your path every day—at the end of the day, we all need to remain as curious as we were as teenagers. That might sound like strange advice in a business book but I can tell you that my curiosity about things I don’t understand has been a critical factor in my success as a leader. It’s easier to spot opportunities and changes when you’re on the outside. That’s why teenagers can be so effective at spotting the next big thing. They have very limited power so they’re more inclined to look beyond the people in charge. Your product looks different through the eyes of different consumers. Sometimes, you get the best advice from people who aren’t your friends and, in fact, might actually be your rivals. I always listen to my critics and pay attention to the people who are trying to disrupt my industry. If you never feel uncomfortable or out of your element, you’re not likely to innovate in a meaningful way. There has to be some discomfort to be creative.
Being dyslexic probably gave me a head start. I was not comfortable in school. In fact, I found it to be really tough in the early years. Learning to cope with a learning disability is hard work. Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking otherwise. I graduated from high school toward the top of my class, but it wasn’t because the words looked less jumbled on a page. I had to work through it and around it to learn what I needed to know. I was lucky to have my parents and Mrs. Anderson in my corner. Even so, I faced hours and hours of frustration, trying different techniques until something stuck. I love Mrs. Anderson but I do not look back on those years of tutoring with fondness. I hated going to those sessions. They were hard, but they did help me to develop a work ethic that’s stuck with me to this day. If you read about others who’ve reached their goals with dyslexia, whether it’s Virgin founder Richard Branson or Charles Schwab, you see that same drive and willingness to put in the hours. Once you’ve faced dyslexia, conquering other challenges can seem more manageable. You learn that you can achieve tough goals if you persevere. You understand your own limitations and learn to tap the talents of others to complement the areas in which you’re weak. That kind of persistence can come from having to overcome any number of challenges in life. What it does is make you realize that there are no easy answers. When one customer tells me that they like a company, it’s one data point to consider. If I rushed out to buy the company based on one recommendation, I’d probably be a fool. Sometimes you have to dig and be patient and go back again and again to get the right result.
When you visualize networks in your head, you often end up creating similar networks on the ground. If you can make sense of seemingly chaotic data points to create understanding, you will be rewarded. The network is more powerful than any one part. At Cisco, we created open platforms and networks of products that we organized into “architectures” to help people achieve certain solutions. We had networks of suppliers to build and take those products to customers, as well as networks of partners to achieve common goals that we couldn’t reach alone.
The power of your network is not just the number of people or devices connected to it, but also the strength that you create and derive from that network that gives you all those data points in a way that lets you make better decisions. A lot of what you see on LinkedIn or Facebook are fragile networks in which many of the connections are between relative strangers. Convincing hundreds of people to accept your LinkedIn request doesn’t indicate a deep network, and neither does the number of Twitter followers, especially now that we know that kind of volume can be bought. You can really only see the strength of a network when it’s put to the test. Do people come through on requests? Can you mobilize the network to take action on a shared goal? Are there multiple links between people within the network or are they all linked through you? The most resilient networks are bound together by a tremendous sense of trust. When I go to talk about a new product concept to a major customer in the Middle East and he cuts me short to say, “John, I believe in your vision because I believe in you,” that’s trust. When a stranger asks to connect on LinkedIn or someone adds you as their 4,743rd “friend” on Facebook, I suspect the bond is very loose, if it even exists at all.
How do you walk into an unfamiliar situation and connect the dots? The short answer is that you prepare. I’ve been very lucky in my career and I’ve found that the more prepared I am, the luckier I seem to get. The more I know about the people I’m about to meet, the better questions I’m able to ask and the better the products we’re able to build or buy. I use the same strategy for every trip, every event, and every customer meeting that I’ve done over the last 25 years. It’s based on a playbook developed by my assistant Debbie Gross, which is another reason I couldn’t have run the company without her. She or another member of the communications team created a briefing book organized to follow the flow of each day and each event or meeting. It contained bios of every person I was scheduled to meet, data on what Cisco was doing for that client or their community, background clips related to our presence in that community, and observations from the local team, as well as a summary of our objectives for every meeting, and any other context I might need. To this day, if I’m going to speak, my briefing notes are in the playbook, too. It’s organized in such a way that I can dive into the specifics of each person and event while tying that data back to the big-picture objectives. Think of it as a replicable innovation playbook for meetings that’s enabled me to get dramatically more value out of each interaction. What it does is allow me to better tailor my insights to connect with whomever I’m talking with.
I hadn’t realized how ingrained that habit had become until Elaine pointed it out. She’s not just my wife but also my most trusted friend and my toughest critic, so when she gives me a compliment, I rarely forget it. After one dinner several years ago, she remarked on how much effort I had put into finding an area of interest to connect with each person at the dinner that night. She was right. I wanted to arrive, armed with stories and contacts and strategies to connect with everyone I was about to meet. Not only did it make for a better evening, but I also walked away with new ideas and connections I’ve maintained to this day.
One final thought I’d offer if you want to really learn to look at the world like a dyslexic is to let down your guard and be humble. As a general rule, leaders are not a humble bunch. It takes confidence to lead people and a certain degree of cockiness to make tough decisions when there are smarter people in the room who disagree. (Believe me, there almost always are.) You have to connect with them on an emotional level. You don’t do that by dazzling them with your talents. You share a part of who you are. Talking about dyslexia made me more relatable for a lot of people, as did my willingness to make fun of myself—whether it was being the brunt of my own jokes onstage or a voice of comfort in a crisis.
As a leader, you might not think that you’re intimidating to people. Believe me, to many out there, you are. You might be intimidating to the people you hire, or to the ones who hired you. If you’re young, you may be intimidating to older people and vice versa. You can intimidate people because of your gender, your skin color, your accent, your clothing, your title, and any number of other factors that might seem ridiculous. That doesn’t mean you have to change who you are. But it does means you need to connect on more than just a superficial level if you want to get honest answers. You must be willing to emotionally connect with people—to really listen to their challenges and share your stories, too. If you only ask questions and don’t give any answers, you’re not enriching the other person.
One of the leaders who really convinced me of the importance of letting down my guard was Sheryl Sandberg. We were at a conference, shortly after she had written her groundbreaking book Lean In. As chief operating officer at Facebook, Sheryl could have written several books on her successes. Instead, she wrote about the roadblocks she faced as a woman trying to build a career while having a family. At Cisco, we’d done a very good job, especially versus our peers, on promoting gender equality in our workforce, senior management team, and board of directors. However, Lean In reminded me that we could do so much more. I required everyone on our leadership team (our top 3,000 leaders) to read the book before having Sheryl come over to speak. Our challenge was getting the men to lean in, not the women. It’s easy to talk about diversity in the abstract. Once you bring it down to a personal level, attitudes change, and it has to start at the top. In 2015, Sheryl’s husband, Dave Goldberg, died suddenly while they were on vacation. She could have retreated into her grief but instead opened up about the impact of Dave’s death on her and their two young children, once again helping many others facing similar tragedies in their lives.
It reinforced the power of sharing our stories, strategies, challenges, and fears and in recognizing how our own behavior is influenced by our life experience. Will that ultimately make it easier to get the kinds of insights to see where the world’s going and connect on both an intellectual and emotional level with your team? I believe the answer is absolutely yes, and great cultures create healthy conversations on strategic issues for your company and the world.
LESSONS/REPLICABLE INNOVATION PLAYBOOK
Focus on the big picture. Pay attention to broader shifts in technology and the market, especially when they occur at the same time. As you learn to connect the dots, pattern recognition becomes easier.
Be curious. Look for ways to data-mine across multiple industries and people. Seek out reliable sources for what’s happening in different markets and adjacent industries.
Get outside your comfort zone. Think like a teenager. Your goal is to shake things up and see what others have missed. Try to shed preconceived notions that lead you to familiar conclusions.
Treat every customer and every encounter as an opportunity to gather data and learn. Where are they investing and what are they worried about?
Look for industry disruptors to understand the market gaps they’ve identified, the threats that are emerging, and the opportunities to disrupt in other areas.
Compare and contrast. Are common themes bubbling up? Align what you’re hearing with the data that you see and then make a bold bet.
Have the courage to share your concerns and have healthy debates. Open up to your team on both a business and a personal emotional level.
Chapter Three (#ue5c6b010-8e15-5506-b57b-e98a32b1d2d4)
DREAM BIG AND BE BOLD…FOCUS ON THE OUTCOME (#ue5c6b010-8e15-5506-b57b-e98a32b1d2d4)
(Play out the Entire Chess Game Before You Make the First Move) (#ue5c6b010-8e15-5506-b57b-e98a32b1d2d4)
I’ve been criticized at numerous times in my career for being too big a dreamer, moving too fast, or being too ambitious in describing what could be achieved. I would argue the opposite. Almost every mistake I’ve made was because I didn’t move fast enough or dream big enough. I have zero regrets about my bold moves, even the ones that failed. My only wish is that I’d made even more and bolder bets, which is what I’m doing now in working with startups and helping their leaders to grow and scale their businesses. As Carlos Dominguez, my former colleague and president of Sprinklr once put it: “You can’t dip your toe in the water with John. You either jump in or you stay out.” He’s right. I don’t believe in half measures. That’s not how you win. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in business is that they don’t dare to imagine a bold outcome and understand what they need to do to achieve it. Whether you run a coal mine in West Virginia or own a taxicab in New York, you do not get ahead of disruption by making a few iterative moves. You start by disrupting yourself. You establish a bold and inspiring outcome and both anticipate and maximize the conditions to achieve that outcome. It’s a process that I still use today, whether I’m betting on robotic cricket farming to create a versatile mass-market protein to help solve world hunger or investing in technology that provides perimeter protection from drones and other unmanned vehicles.
The ability to imagine a bold outcome and set audacious goals to achieve it is not so much a personality trait as a mind-set. Two of the most visionary thinkers I know are John Doerr and Marc Andreessen. Both are legendary venture capitalists: John was an early investor in Amazon and Google, while Marc took a bet on startups likes Facebook and Instagram. Their personalities are quite different. Among other things, Marc is a technologist at heart while John tends to focus more on business outcomes. However, both are big-picture thinkers who want to empower innovators and change the world. They care about issues bigger than their own interests and constantly play out the long-term impact of current trends to figure out what matters most right now—and why.
I’ve had an opportunity to watch both of them in action over the years. I started working with John more than 20 years ago when we jointly founded TechNet as a national, bipartisan network of tech leaders to promote policies and initiatives that foster innovation. Both of us realized that Silicon Valley was disorganized when it came to dealing with Washington, which meant we were punching below our weight in terms of having a voice there. Flying in once a year to complain about the various ways in which government is screwing up was not a winning strategy. We needed to engage on a more meaningful long-term level. It’s how John operates with all his portfolio managers, helping them to stay focused on the audacious and achievable goals.
Marc takes a similar approach. He is a bold visionary who is not afraid to take on conventional wisdom and even rattle people from time to time. He reached out many years ago during the early days of Netscape. Cisco actually owned the trademark Netscape name at that point, and I gave it to them for free. We had no use for it, and I believe in being generous when I can. Among other things, generosity might one day open the door to a deeper relationship, which it did. (We also owned the iPhone and IOS trademark names but I didn’t just give those away to Steve Jobs at Apple, in part because we were already using them.)
I’m now working with both John and Marc through JC2 Ventures, where I can tap their expertise as investors, and they have asked me to help in coaching their CEOs. The goal isn’t to help them set more achievable goals but instead to dream bigger—and then make it happen.
Mario Mazzola, one of the greatest entrepreneurs and engineering leaders I have ever known, likes to tease me sometimes by leaning over and, in his baritone Sicilian accent, solemnly offering up a piece of wisdom like, “You know, John, vision and strategy are for the amateurs. Execution is for the professionals.”
He’s kidding, of course, or at least half kidding. Mario is one of the most visionary thinkers I’ve met, not to mention one of the most effective in bringing that vision to life. He illustrates what I’m talking about. Not only does Mario think 5 or 10 years ahead when it comes to developing products, he takes a similar long-term view when hiring and managing people. Any time Mario has come to me with a game-changing product idea, he’s already mapped out the resources and timeline needed to get it done, a plan for how to launch and scale it, and an often prescient assessment of the impact it will have on not just the company but the industry as a whole. He’s part of a team that has generated unprecedented innovation for Cisco, creating eight product families across multiple business lines that each generate more than $1 billion in revenue a year. Crescendo Communications, the company that he cofounded with fellow engineers Prem Jain and Luca Cafiero, was Cisco’s first acquisition in 1993. It took the company from selling a single product, the router, into a new line of network devices called switches that became Cisco’s largest business and transformed how we sold to customers. Mario, Prem, Luca, and a brilliant engineer and marketer named Soni Jiandani collectively became known simply as “MPLS”—a play on their first names and a popular networking technique that we helped to develop.
The team became legendary for its ability to attract Silicon Valley’s top talent to work on projects that disrupted and then dominated an industry segment. In terms of speed, disruption, and the ability to transform audacious goals into profitable products, MPLS was unbeatable. To compare them to NBA champions is to do them a disservice. When you create products that become market leaders in areas as diverse as switching, storage, servers, and software-defined networking, that’s more like moving between the NBA, NFL, NHL, and Major League Baseball without missing a beat. If we had not acquired Crescendo in 1993, Cisco might not have become the world’s leading network and internet company. We passed up a chance to merge with a bigger, stronger, and better-known company and instead agreed to pay almost $95 million for one that was barely selling $10 million a year. It was a bold bet. Cisco stock took a hit. Many of the board members didn’t like it, either, and I put my job on the line to make it happen. If the deal had fallen through, as it nearly did, I almost certainly would not have stayed on to become Cisco’s next CEO, as planned.
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