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Early Days at Cisco – Shock absorbers required!

It was my first day at Cisco supporting John Chambers, Senior Vice President of World-Wide Sales and I was nervous and excited all at the same time. I had high hopes of really making an impression and a difference for my new executive and to learn all there was to know about him and the company as quickly as I could.

My first shock…he proceeded to let me know that he would be leaving the very next day for two weeks of international travel to get to know his global team. “Oh, you don’t have to worry about my travel itinerary this time as I already have it in hand – just get a copy from Sylvia and make yourself at home and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks”!

Getting to know John, his business priorities and make a good impression just got a bit harder!

Day two and John was now on international travel. I retrieved a copy of his travel itinerary and got my second shock.   His schedule was full of meetings morning, noon and night and all taking place in 4 different countries!  That equated to almost a country every other a day!

I asked myself what executive could possibly manage all of that? Wait…what executive assistant could possibly manage all that?

I realized that would be me.  Gulp!

I noted the schedule and the time zones as well as who he was meeting with and kept an eye on the phone – the “only” thing on my desk so far. The computer had not arrived yet and no calls from John. It was a weird feeling to have on my second day on the job.

Time to make a plan and get to know some of the other executive assistants and inquire about my computer – I was going to get one, right??

I introduced myself to other executive assistants along the cube row including some of the executives.  A few barely took a minute to smile at me while others welcomed me warmly.  Luckily for me, I made a good friend that second day.  Her name was Rose Mary and as it turned out, she had only been at Cisco for two weeks!   She literally took me under her wing to show me ‘what ropes” she already knew, who was who in the zoo and she became one of my dearest friends to this day.

Without a computer I decided that I needed a plan of action (or go crazy).

I was determined to learn all about John even if it had to be “virtually”!

Remembering his exact words to me before he left … “Debbie, I trust you completely unless you prove otherwise so my office and everything in it is yours” I began examining his files and everything else on his desk including notes, phone messages and miscellaneous bits of paper.

My third shock! The exploration was like walking in to a jungle without a guide!

John’s desk looked like a bomb had exploded right there! In fact, there were casualties.  Empty and half-empty Coca-Cola cans, a bag of half-eaten popcorn (his two favorite habits which I learned about later), and ‘cryptic’ notes that appeared to have been written by an alien hand on various pieces of paper.

There was a ‘stack’ of manila file folders with no labels laying on one corner of the desk and absolutely NO other folders or files in his desk drawer or filing cabinet.

I took a deep breath and decided to “dive in” and see what I could do to sift through, clean up and organize this seemingly very busy executive.   I read every phone message making mental notes of who and what and adding them to my contacts list.  I studied the cryptic notes to try and make some sense of the subjects, putting them into various piles according to what I thought would be the topic.  I brought in new file folders, typing new labels and placing them in his desk file drawer and cleaned everything up.  I even brought in a silk plant to give the office that ‘homey’ feel.

I stood back when I finally finished to survey my work and patted myself on the back!

Everything in neat little rows and completely organized including a file drawer with files! The bonus was that I was just a bit more knowledgeable now about John and his business.

Little did I know then that I had just barely scratched the surface.

It was the start of my third week at Cisco, my computer had finally arrived and I was feeling a bit more at home when I got my fourth shock.

John was back in the office looking a bit weary from what was a grueling two weeks on the road and sat down at his desk and immediately picked up the phone to start a conference call.   What? No “Hi Debbie, how are you?”  I waited with baited breath for him to finish and acknowledge me.

When the call was completed he asked me to come in to his office and I was ready to hear “Wow…what a great job you did in here while I was gone!?

That did not happen.

He began to give me a long list of action items and meetings and phone calls he needed scheduled.   Once he had finished I just had to ask “did you notice anything different in your office?”  He looked at me blankly and said “no should I have?” as he looked around.  Needless to say, I was a bit disappointed.

He laughed and said “Debbie…you will learn that I am not good at noticing the little things, I am a Big Picture guy… just ask my former executive assistant who literally brought in a couch and coffee table to decorate my last office and I didn’t notice that for weeks!” 

“Great job of pointing it out – thanks”!  And off he went down the hall to update the CEO on his trip.

Then I got my fifth shock…all the neat and organized rows of folders and messages on his desk were once again scattered to the winds hit by what I soon fondly termed the “Chambers tornado”!

That would be the beginning of the “norm” for me.

Lessons learned:

  1. Being new to the company, I took the initiative to introduce myself to others including executives rather than wait for someone to do it for me. I gained an invaluable mentor and friend for life in doing so!
  2. Even though my executive was not around for my first two weeks at Cisco, I was determined to get proactive and learn about him in a different way through review of his files, notes and messages. I was learning ‘his’ business.
  3. I realized that being disappointed because he hadn’t commented or noticed me or what I had done for his office while he was away was a wasted reaction. It wasn’t personal, it was John. I just needed to more time to learn about John and his personal traits.
  4. It was the beginning of my developing a ‘roll- with- it” attitude when various shocks and surprises hit me – (and there would be many in my career with John)

Make Each Day A Journey Into Knowing

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Debbie Gross

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