From Foes to Friends: 6 Comparisons Between Cisco CEOs Chambers And Robbins

Passing The Torch

Cisco CEO John Chambers and his incoming successor Chuck Robbins have recently shared words of admiration and respect for one another, and they share many similarities, including strong sales backgrounds and dynamic, approachable personalities. But there was a time when the two competed head to head with each other.

As Robbins prepares to succeed Chambers as CEO July 26 and Chambers moves into the executive chairman role, CRN looks at some of the similarities (and differences) between Cisco's leaders.

Robbins vs. Chambers: Brother Against Brother?

Chambers jokingly referred to Robbins as his "brother" during a media conference at Cisco Partner Summit 2015, but in the 1990s the two were battling it out to win the routing market.

Robbins began his sales career with routing company Wellfleet Communications in 1992 when the company was competing against Cisco, where Chambers served as senior vice president of worldwide sales and operations.

Wellfleet acquired computer network vendor SynOptics Communications in 1994 in a stock swap valued at $1 billion at the time and formed Bay Networks to better compete with Cisco, which was winning the North American routing market, according to The New York Times.

Robbins stayed with Bay Networks, which was later acquired by Nortel, until 1996 and joined Cisco the following year.

Path To The Top

It has taken Robbins more than four times longer to rise to the top position at Cisco after joining the company compared with Chambers. It took Chambers merely four years before he received the nod to become CEO and president in 1995, while it took Robbins 17 years to climb through the ranks. Of course, Chambers came in as a senior vice president so his road to the top was much shorter.

Robbins started as an account manager when he joined Cisco in 1997. He quickly rose through the sales ranks and became the operations director of U.S. channels sales in 1999. He later became senior vice president of The Americas and was named one of the top Channel Chiefs by CRN in 2008.

Chambers began his sales career in 1976 with a six-year stint at IBM followed by eight years at computer hardware company Wang Laboratories. He received a top role when he joined Cisco in 1991 as senior vice president of worldwide sales and operations -- similar to Robbins' current role as senior vice president of worldwide field operations. The secret to landing the CEO gig at Cisco seems to be sales.

Math Vs. Business

Although both were raised in the American South – Robbins hailing from North Carolina and Chambers from West Virginia -- the two focused on different study areas after high school.

Chambers holds a Bachelor of Science/Bachelor of Arts degree in business, a law degree from West Virginia University and a Master of Business Administration degree in finance and management from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business.

Robbins attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, earning a Bachelor's degree in mathematics with a computer science concentration.

Southern Roots

Both Chambers and Robbins speak with a Southern twang. Chambers drew attention to their accents during a press conference at this year's Cisco Partner Summit prior to Robbins getting the CEO nod: "As you can probably tell, Chuck and I almost talk alike," he said to the audience of international journalists.

Blue Devils vs. Tar Heels

The two have shared friendly banter about their favorite college men's basketball teams, the Duke Blue Devils and University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Chambers briefly attended Duke University in the late 1960s.

"[Chuck's] from Carolina, he's a UNC fan and I'm a Dukie fan," said Chambers, during a media conference as Cisco Partner Summit, as he was jokingly outlining comparisons between the two.

The college basketball connection runs a little deeper with Robbins, as he played junior varsity basketball for the Tar Heels. Robbins was able to scrimmage against NBA legend Michael Jordan as he was rising to stardom in the 1980s.

The Numbers Game

At 65 years old, Chambers is 16 years the elder of 49-year-old Robbins.

Robbins joined Cisco when he was 32; Chambers was hired at the age of 42. Chambers became CEO of Cisco at the age of 46, three years shy of Robbins.

Political Arena

Chambers is a frequent donor to the GOP and its candidates, according to data provided by the Federal Election Commission. During a media conference call on May 4 to discuss Robbins' ascension to the CEO seat, Chambers joked to a Fox News reporter that, "You and I probably agree on our political party."

Most notably, Chambers served as co-chairman in John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign against President Barack Obama as well as publicly endorsing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney.

Although Chambers said during the May conference call that he "probably would not get involved" in the political arena in the future, he said he will likely continue to support people running for office.

Meanwhile, Robbins has been comparatively quiet on his political viewpoint but has made a handful of donations in support of Republicans.