Openness and Engagement: Dean’s Speaker Series Presenter Chuck Robbins Talks About His Success

Thursday, May 2, 2019

On the afternoon of Thursday, April 25, an at-capacity crowd gathered at the Kenan Center in Chapel Hill for a fireside chat with Chuck Robbins (B.S. ’87), chairman and CEO of networking giant Cisco. The event was a fitting wrap-up to the 2018-19 Dean Speaker’s Series hosted by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise.

UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School Dean Doug Shackelford led the discussion with Robbins, which covered a wide array of topics from the current trade wars between the U.S. and China to advice for graduating Kenan-Flagler students.

One of Robbins’s recurring themes was open, transparent communication. He is known for his authenticity and candor with Cisco employees, and he encourages them to be just as open with him. Robbins instituted a monthly, live, no-holds-barred Q&A broadcast with employees. He said the discussions have “dealt with the Muslim ban and immigration. We’ve dealt with bathroom bills. We’ve dealt with trade issues…diversity…”and more.

Another key aspect of Robbins’s leadership strategy is corporate social responsibility. Initially reticent about touting Cisco’s involvement in social issues, Robbins said he now realizes the value of that participation to the company’s stakeholders. “All of our constituents, our employees, our shareholders, our customers, our partners and our future employees…care about what we stand for. They want to know what we believe in, so we have begun to get very loud about what we believe in,” he said.

Cisco’s culture of openness and engagement with both employees and the larger community has been recently recognized. When Robbins became CEO in 2015, the company was No. 87 on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Places to Work in the U.S. In 2019, they were ranked No. 6.

Robbins also shared some early-career advice with the business students in the room. He encouraged them to “let destiny happen” and not try to control their careers. “Work hard and take the opportunities that people believe you’re ready for,” he said. “And if you want to move forward, be willing to take the risks when they believe in you.”

With respect to his legacy as Cisco CEO, Robbins said he once told a reporter that the company’s best-kept secret is the compassionate spirit of its employees. “If you really understood the hearts of our employees, you wouldn’t believe it,” he said, “Unleashing those hearts is probably the thing that I most want to leave behind.”

To learn more about the Dean’s Speaker Series, visit the webpage.