Leadership, Crisis and Culture: A Real-Life Simulation

In my last blog, I made the statement, "If what is being written about Cisco is accurate, it appears to stack up very well against the eight cultural characteristics that AMA and i4cp have recently identified as being associated with a positive corporate culture." These characteristics are as follows:
  • being collaborative and cooperative;
  • fostering trust throughout the organization;
  • responding quickly to needed changes;
  • bringing out the best performance in employees;
  • making decisions at all levels, not just top management;
  • having a culture aligned with the company's strategy;
  • encouraging innovation; and
  • reinforcing strategy execution.
By chance, I got to peer into the Cisco culture up close and personal on a recent vacation trip to Hawaii. John Chambers and team were confronted with a real crisis that brought to life some of the often stilted team survival simulations that many of us have participated in. In my case, I've also facilitated these over the years to help organizations with their team-building initiatives. One of my favorite simulations is called "Forest Fire."

It was a very windy yet sunny morning in Lana'i on November 18 when my husband and I took a van from our hotel in the center of town to the beach in front of the Four Seasons Lana'i at Manele Bay. We had been celebrating our 10th wedding anniversary and it was our last beach day before leaving to go back home. En route to the beach, we noticed a brush fire on one of the mountain sides. The police and fire officials were standing on the side of the road pointing at the fire and talking. The van driver commented that he heard that a generator had sparked a fire there.

The night before, the entire island was without power for about four hours - that is, everything but the Four Seasons Manele Bay where Cisco had bought out the hotel for a recognition trip honoring its top performers worldwide. The hotel had its own generator so while the rest of us used candles and flashlights, Cisco guests were not affected, at least not that night. Once on the beach, I laid in the sun reading while my husband snorkeled. I noticed that the clear blue sky was being penetrated by grey smoke. The wind gusts increased and the sand started to sting your skin, making staying on the beach uncomfortable. In a matter of 15 minutes, the sky over the hotel turned black and smoke covered the sun.

We left the beach to go back to our hotel and noticed a crowd gathering on the side of the property. As we got closer, it appeared that people had stopped whatever activity they were engaged in as the fire moved closer and were there to find out what was happening. Golfers and tennis players stood in their sports attire along with those of us in swimsuits and cover-ups. I recognized one of the golfers right away; it was Cisco's CEO, John Chambers. We were surprised to see that the entire hotel staff had congregated there as well and were huddled in group meetings.

Over a load speaker, a policeman announced that the hotel was in danger due to the fire which had now cut off the only road back to town. We were being evacuated. A Cisco team which included Chambers was going around speaking to various groups and asking them to get on vans that would take all of us to the harbor. We happened to get on the van with Chambers. Chambers addressed us all by thanking everyone for staying calm and then he introduced one of the members of the "advance team" to brief us on the situation. The young woman speaking stated that we would stay at the harbor to see if the conditions improved. If they didn't, contingency plans were being made to take everyone to Maui. Since no one at the hotel was allowed back into their rooms, she acknowledged that Cisco was aware that passports and needed prescription drugs had to be left behind. Resources were being put in place to help Cisco employees if these things needed to be replaced on Maui. Chambers stood on the van and answered any questions along with the rest of the team.

At the harbor, many put handkerchiefs or towels over their mouths to block out what they could of the smoke. Chambers went to the Cisco groups, which often included others like my husband and me that happened to be standing there. He was announcing that arrangements had been made for ferries and boats to take all of us to Maui. He reiterated that he was proud of how professional and calm we were staying. He also complimented the advance team for doing a great job staying on top of the situation.

About 15 minutes passed when the hotel manager got on a speaker and announced that the fire was such that we all needed to go to Maui. He assured us that there was enough transportation for all of us. We stood in line and wound up on a ferry that had mostly Cisco employees on it. Chambers continued to make the rounds, giving updates and explaining why we needed to leave. He and the advance team were modeling cooperation, building trust and were certainly responding quickly to a fast changing situation. As we waited to leave Lana'i, my husband, who is usually the model of calm, began to get edgy - "We could be trapped for days - we'll miss our flight tomorrow - we didn't take our cell phones, etc." I found myself absorbed in this "real-life simulation," fascinated by the chain of events.

We waited for the ferry to start moving. Chambers came on again and smiled at us as he said, "There's been a new development. It doesn't appear like the hotel is in danger any longer, so we'd like to go back. Obviously, it's not 100%, but I think it's the best decision. Does anyone have a concern about this?" He waited for a response, appearing genuinely open to any viewpoint that might arise. When no one said anything, he thanked us again and said how proud he was of us. The 100 or so people on the ferry applauded.

We were all bussed back to the hotel. Drinks were generously provided until we could all leave the area safely. All of us sat in the lobby or adjacent rooms and started talking about the experience. A PA system was set up in the lobby next to the bar. The hotel manager came on to thank us for our cooperation, and then various Cisco employees started to make announcements about changes in the meeting schedule for the evening. I found myself feeling an almost uncontrollable urge to take the mike and start "debriefing" the experience. My husband took my arm and said, "It's time to go."
Mary Key
Mary Key, Executive in Residence
Author, speaker, and leadership expert, Dr. Mary Key heads the leadership practice for The Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp) and helps our member organizations improve workforce productivity. Key started Key Associates, Inc., an organizational transformation company that helps leaders and organizations grow. Among others, Key’s clients have included: Ericsson, Nokia, Nissan, Infiniti, Baycare Health System, Baptist Health Care, Bausch & Lomb, Trane, Wyeth Nutrition, CitiFinancial Retail Services, Circuit City, Dorn Technology, Georgia-Pacific, Media General, Quarterdeck Select, Metal Industries, Incarnate Word Health Systems and Lore International. Key has authored several books including CEO Road Rules: Right Focus, Right People, Right Execution and The Entrepreneurial Cat: 13 Ways to Transform Your Work Life. Key received her Ph.D. from the University of Virginia and her BS from the University of Massachusetts. She has won numerous awards and most recently was selected as a finalist for 2007 Business Woman of the Year in Tampa Bay. Key belongs to the OD Network, Society for Organizational Learning (SOL), National Speakers Association, Searchnet, SHRM, ASTD, Berrett-Koehler Authors Co-op Board and the World Future Society. She has lives in Tampa with her husband Lewis and their two cats, Jazzie and Groucho.