Cisco CEO John Chambers is retiring? I honestly never thought this was a possibility.

The first time I interviewed Chambers back in 1994 he was a lowly vice-president. Then in 1995 he became CEO and he’s been there ever since.

I have interviewed Chambers about 30 times in my career and in the last five or six years I haven’t once brought up succession planning because I did not believe he was ever interested in leaving the CEO’s office willingly. If there is a comparable to Chambers I could only think of the legendary wrestler Ric Flair, who is still wrestling into his sixties. Flair has repeatedly said that he would never retire; even after a much publicized retirement ceremony about four years ago. In fact both Flair and Chambers are 63.

In the past I have asked Chambers about bowing out and he never, ever would bite on that question. I learned from insiders approximately 10 years ago that the heir-apparent to Chambers was James Richardson, the Canadian born executive who ran marketing and sales for Cisco.

Richardson was a hot shot executive during his time at the networking giant. When he ran North America for Cisco he grew that business an astounding 300 per cent. He was promoted to run EMEA and in four years at the helm there increased revenues by more than 400 per cent.

But he too stepped away from the limelight. Then came Rick Justice. He was the next heir-apparent. And, he just might have been but in 2009 he stepped down for personal reasons. Justice was battling prostate cancer. I’ve been told that he still advises Chambers from time-to-time.

Other high profile executives like Charlie Giancarlo and Mike Volpi left Cisco to pursue leadership opportunities elsewhere.

There have always been whispers, rumours and flat out speculation at Cisco conferences and events about when Chambers would step down and who would replace him. In the Bloomberg interview with Chambers I was shocked that he openly discussed his career plans. He said that within two to four years expect him to retire. He even went as far as to name potential successors including Canadian executive Rob Lloyd, who replaced Justice back in 2009 as executive VP of worldwide operations. Chambers also mentioned Chuck Robbins, senior VP for the Americas and little-known Edzard Overbeek, the senior VP of global services.

I have interviewed Lloyd many times and Robbins a few times as well and I like both. Lloyd in my estimation would be the front runner. He made his bones by battling HP and winning with UCS offering. That was a stake your career and reputation moment. He also ran Canada and Europe and has been by Chambers’ side for a long time. Robbins is a very funny, personable guy. The former North Carolina collegiate basketball player ran channels for Cisco in U.S. and Canada. Overbeek, quite frankly it would surprise me if he got the job. What was also surprising was that COO Gary Moore wasn’t mention, nor was Padmasree Warrior, the CTO mentioned.

Chambers did say that if he was ever to be forced out of the CEO position; he would be replaced by Moore.

The fact that Chambers was even open to the discussion of succession means to me that he is serious about retiring and putting Cisco, the business, employees and channel partners in a good position as he exits.

The next few years will make for interesting times at Cisco and I expect Chambers to be peppered about retirement each and every time he addresses the media.

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