When revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness.

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This past month I posted my lessons learned at Cisco.  The most common questions and responses came from the difficult lessons of when you don’t trust your boss, and the comment that “revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness.  In case you missed it, here is the posting again. Enjoy.


I remember with pride the years I spent at Cisco Systems. The logo when I started:

John Chambers, now the Chairman, was the new CEO when I started. At one point, I had a role of notifying managers about Chamber’s quarterly lunch meetings, exclusively for managers.  I’ve never seen an executive with more impact.  You’d feel like he was talking directly to you and that you were the most important person in the room.  I watched his non-verbal communication, and he would at some point make eye contact with every single person.  One time, Chambers walked up to a manager in one of these meetings and asked:

 “What are the values of Cisco?
What are our strategic priorities? What is our mission?”

 The manager stumbled, causing everyone in the room to squirm, afraid they were going to be asked next.  Chambers was serious, but with his folksy laugh, he allowed the manager to save face, suggesting that most likely other managers in the room could not answer correctly.  He then did something I’ll never forget. He told the managers that at his next quarter meeting, he would ask the same questions again, and if you could not answer correctly, you had no business leading at Cisco.

Chambers was a phenomenal communicator, and he was even better at holding people accountable.  He often said:

 “I encourage our executive team to debate, disagree, and discuss our differences. But once we agree on a decision,
I expect every leader to leave this room with one voice and not undermine that decision.”

Cisco had a way of creating “stretch goals” that seemed impossible, but in the late 1990s, they consistently exceeded goals. I remember in March 2000, during the height of the dot com boom, Cisco passed up Microsoft as the most valuable company in the world, based on market capitalization.  Combine that with stock options that split five times in four years, I assure you I was a very proud Cisco disciple. One day I recall looking at our website home page to see our stock price at $101 per share. I left my office and walked ten minutes over to see my boss, only to see his computer screen where the stock price was now $120.  Exciting times.

“And then, all of the sudden….”  My high school son told me that this should be the title of a chapter in my book.

And then, all of the sudden, things changed at Cisco.  On April 19, 2001, exactly one month after the birth of my son, I was notified by my Vice President, along with 5000 others, that my job was being eliminated. I was a manager in Human Resources at the time, and although I was heavily involved in helping my client group execute on their group’s own job eliminations, I was caught off guard when notified that I, too, was “on the list”.  It was one of the most painful days in my life.  The dot com boom had become a bust, as Cisco’s enterprise customers abruptly stopped buying.  Now, the market cap value had dropped to only a fourth of its previous value.

There are ten lessons I learned at Cisco, five I’ll classify as POSITIVE, and five as PAINFUL.  Today, I share the FIVE POSITIVE LESSONS.  Next week, I will share the FIVE PAINFUL ones, which you won’t want to miss.


Give people what they need, and get out of their way.

Leaders really set the tone and can drive people to achieve greatness.

It is possible to collaborate and compete at the same time.

A company really can change the world.

Invest in your people, and they will move mountains for you.


When they call you a cowboy in Amsterdam, it’s no compliment.

If you don’t trust your boss, you still need to communicate.

Revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness.

You see your true culture when things get difficult.

We all have uncouscious biases, and we must challenge our assumptions. 


Give people what they need, and get out of their way.
This was one of Chamber’s key expectations of leaders. Cisco had to hire people that were often more knowledgeable than their managers about technology. Cisco provided disruptive technology that most people did not understand. This was the first place I’d ever worked where the employee – not the manager – drafted their key goals and objectives.  You did that the first week of your employment.  You were empowered to drive your own career.  Managers were expected to be more “hands off” and it really did create a feel of empowerment.  When you go from 8900 to almost 40,000 employees in four years, you have no choice but to delegate and grow leaders.

Leaders really set the tone and can drive people to achieve greatness.
Chambers set the tone and we trusted him. He not only made you feel you were the most important person in the room, he would be very clear about what he expected of you. You believed him, and you would willingly follow.  Where many executives get compliance, Chambers and other managers often got commitment.  You could feel that Cisco had an intentionally strong culture.

It is possible to collaborate and compete at the same time.
Cisco had a motto, “No Technology Religion”.  The company realized that if you are more focused on your own technology and are not willing to embrace that others might have a better solution, you would do so at your own peril. This created an amazing acquisition strategy where Cisco purchased many companies.  However, Cisco competed with other technology companies, but at other times, had to collaborate to get things done.  We learned as managers that as long as you created win-win agreements with clear expectations and deliverables, you could effectively collaborate with those who might be competitors in other areas.

A company really can change the world.
Cisco’s vision statement was, “Changing the way we live, work, play, and learn.”  This we really believed, as we were truly “empowering the internet generation. Right now, you are reading my blog, most likely on a wireless devise. Sixteen years ago you would not likely be able to do that.  Cisco’s technology allowed that to happen, but even more, the employees it hired and the relentless focus that they demonstrated shifted how we go about our daily work.  When a company does everything with purpose and direction, some amazing things can happen.

Invest in your people, and they will move mountains for you.
When a corporation invests in its people, and the people are aligned to the vision and direction of the company, great things will happen. This is not just about stock options, which Cisco truly was generous with.  People were rewarded when they reached and exceeded goals, and it was amazing to see what people would do when they felt valued.  It was an exciting time for me.  There was personal change for me, as during that time I got married, had two kids, and bought my first house.  Professionally, I got my master’s degree, got an international assignment in Europe, and taught leaders all over the world.  I was doing what I loved and grew as a professional as my bosses believed in me.

And then, all of the sudden….
The more difficult lessons I learned.



When they call you a cowboy in Amsterdam, it’s not a compliment.

I’m originally from West Texas, and I grew up a Dallas Cowboy fan. So while living in Amsterdam, a couple of European leaders called me a cowboy.  I naturally assumed it was a compliment.  Later that day, the local executive enlightened me that it was not.  He shared how Americans would often come in with answers, but ask few questions.  I learned that to be successful in another culture, it was important to seek to understand first.  I could not do things unilaterally.  Even though I was a leader “over there”, I would benefit myself and my company by giving less advice and less direction.  Sure, that rugged individualism has shaped our wonderful country, but when in Rome…

If you don’t trust your boss, you still need to communicate.

Over the course of my career, I’ve had bosses I’ve trusted, and a few I did not.  A couple of my bosses ended up in prison, and I was not surprised.  While at Cisco, I reported to eight different people.  At one point, I decided to go to work for one whom I did not trust, but it seemed like a good “career decision”.  This leader was stretched pretty thin, and I felt it best to do my job and stay scarce; if the boss needed to communicate, let the boss initiate it, or so I thought.  This was a big mistake.  I learned that it is always important to communicate rather than avoid.  You don’t want to be naïve, so you have to communicate with caution around those you don’t trust.  But if this person is in a more powerful position, you need to understand where the political winds are blowing and stay attuned to their views on things.  If you avoid necessary communication, you do so at your own peril.

Revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness.

I remember the bitterness I felt toward the boss I did not trust, and who seemed to do me wrong.  Looking back, I realize I left my own trail of damage.  My feeling of vengeance felt good in the short term, but one day I looked around and realized I was the only one still carrying hard feelings.  In fact, the unproductive behaviors that resulted from my emotional responses actually decreased my influence.  It seems true that revenge is a more powerful motivator than forgiveness  In “Power of 2:  How to Make the Most of Your Partnerships at Work and In Life”, authors Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller share Gallup’s research on what makes great partnerships at work.  They identify eight elements, one being forgiveness.  Wagner and Muller state, “Without forgiveness, the natural revenge motives that stem from friend-or-foe instincts will overpower all the reasons to continue a partnership, and it will dissolve.”  I felt quite a bit better when I let go of that sack of rocks.  At some point, you’ve got to forgive and let it go, and recognize that how we handle adversity impacts how others perceive us.

You see your true culture when things get difficult.  

Cisco survived and continues to thrive. Yet, during those tumultuous years after the dot com bust, the culture changed drastically in many areas.  During the 1990s, Cisco taught principle centered leadership, with programs such as Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Suddenly, with regime change in Human Resources, things got really bad.  The prevailing attitude was that the talk about culture and the “Lovey Dovey Covey” stuff was no longer necessary.  The level of trust began to plummet and productivity decreased.  Eventually, the ship seemed to move in the right direction, toxic leaders moved on, and Cisco seemed to refocus on some of its core values and culture.

We all have unconscious biases, and we must challenge our assumptions.

In the 1990s, Cisco was at the forefront of appreciating diversity, certainly in the Bay Area, hiring the brightest engineers from all over the world.  Once I was asked to look at the demographics and diversity of the departments I supported in San Jose.  I recall two of my favorite vice-presidents.  One was from India, and he had about 100 engineers, 90% from India.  The other leader was from China, with 90% of his employees from China or Singapore.  Since our HR department talked so much about diversity, it seemed like a reasonable topic to discuss, so I challenged them on my observations.  One of them asked me about the demographics of Human Resources group.  One said, “From what I observe, I see few people of color in your HR Group.”  Touché.  It ended up being a fruitful discussion about how we all make hiring decisions, and we all agreed to challenge each other on possible unconscious biases.  For a very recent article on unconscious bias, see Marilyn O’Hearne’s article at.


It has been sixteen years since I was employed at Cisco.  I look back at how it was a truly remarkable time.   Personally, it was a time when I got married, we bought our first house, and brought two children into the world.  Professionally, Cisco invested in me, paid for my master’s degree, provided me with an international assignment in Europe, and sent me to train leaders in ten different countries.  I worked with very talented people and saw a company grow tremendously.  A couple years ago, I was even given the opportunity to do some consulting work back at Cisco, and clearly, they still have remarkable people from all over the world.

Thanks for allowing me the journey down memory lane.

Coach Rodney

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