Meeting I Never Miss: Cisco's Birthday Breakfast
Who: John T. Chambers, President and CEO, Cisco Systems
Players: 80 to 100 Cisco employees
Frequency: Monthly, 9 a.m. to 10 a.m.
Purpose: To give everyone in the company a chance to voice an opinion about where we're headed.
Why I Never Miss It: I learn a lot about what's really going on. The employees ask tough questions, and by the time you've heard something a couple of times, you know that you've got a problem - or an opportunity.
Cisco Systems is reinventing the power breakfast. At the $6 billion networking giant, the most important meal of the day isn't just for high-profile influence-brokers anymore. In fact, it's strictly for the rank and file. Every year during their birthday month, the 7000-plus employees at Cisco's headquarters in San Jose receive an email invitation to a "birthday breakfast" with CEO John Chambers. Several dozen employees show up each month to put their toughest questions directly to the CEO. Chambers submits to bruising queries about partnering strategy and stark assessments of managerial failings. It's not always pleasant, but for Chambers, it's an indispensible hour of unmediated interaction. "I'm not there for the cake," he says.
"Personal interaction and open communication. This is especially important when you're growing at the rate we are. The birthday breakfast is the most effective vehicle for getting candid feedback from employees and for discovering potential problems."
"I never hide behind a podium. Any question is fair game. And I strongly discourage directors and vice presidents from attending."
"Very basic. A continental breakfast."
"Informal. If I'm seeing customers that day, I'll wear a tie but no jacket."
"I work my way through the room, taking questions. I get between 20 and 50 questions at each breakfast - everything from 'Aren't you concerned that Microsoft's record on partnering isn't very good?' to 'Are you aware that we're losing good people in a certain area of the company?' "
"If there's a gap between what the leadership says it's doing and what's actually happening, I'll find out about it at the birthday breakfast. We have a policy of having potential hires interview with at least five Cisco employees. During a rapid phase of hiring a couple years ago, I asked 500 managers at our quarterly meeting how many required five interviews? Everyone raised a hand. I said, "I have a problem, because at the past three birthday breakfasts, I asked the new hires how many had interviewed that way, and only half raised their hands. You've got to fix it."
Matt Goldberg firstname.lastname@example.org is editorial director of Tripod in Print.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.