To grow a company successfully, you need to be an expert at building connections with nearly everyone you meet. John Chambers knows this better than anyone. 

In his 20-year tenure as CEO of tech giant Cisco Systems, Chambers took the company from $70 million in annual revenue to $47 billion. Under his watch,10,000 employees became millionaires. Today he's founder of JC2 Ventures where he invests in startups and provides mentorship to innovative young entrepreneurs.

During a recent appearance in front of 200 startup CEOs at a Battery Ventures VC conference in New York, Chambers revealed a process he's been using for every meeting for the past 25 years. It's a strategy meant to create an instant connection with everyone he meets.

Chambers doesn't attend meetings blind. He has a playbook--and an objective.

Before meeting with anyone, Chambers makes sure he's well informed. He has an assistant or publicist create a 1-inch-thick binder--a playbook--for the day's meetings, presentations, sales calls, or press interviews. It contains bios of every person he's scheduled to meet, data on what his company is doing for that person or community, background clips, a summary of objectives for every meeting, and speaking notes for presentations. 

Chambers has used the same strategy for every trip, every event, and every customer meeting, and he's done so for more than two decades.

"I'm the best prepared at every meeting, almost without exception," Chambers told the CEOs at the Battery Ventures conference. After the conference, his next stop would be a guest appearance on CNBC. He was prepared for that interview, too. "When I meet with CNBC later today, I not only know the three announcers, I know exactly what's going on in the market... I go into meetings very well-prepared."

I was on the receiving end of the playbook earlier this year when I sat down to interview Chambers at his home in Palo Alto. He had just written a new book, Connecting the Dots. A black binder sitting on a nearby table contained my bio, my background, and some articles I had written. Within minutes of meeting Chambers for the first time, he made me feel like we had known each other for years. He builds instant rapport. And rapport, he says, leads to trust. "Trust is everything. Your currency today is your track record, your relationships, and your trust," he says.

He finds common areas of interest.

Whether Chambers is meeting a writer or a potential customer or partner for the first time, he makes an effort to find an area of interest to connect with that person--a mutual acquaintance, a story, a shared background or experience. "Think of it as a replicable innovation playbook for meetings that's enabled me to get dramatically more value out of each interaction."

In his office, I saw four giant books on display. Inside, page after page contained signed letters of gratitude from U.S. presidents, heads of state, kings and queens. Each of those relationships was built on trust. 

Although Chambers has a network of contacts around the world, he says the power of your network is not in how many contacts you have or how many followers you attract on social media. It's in the quality and strength of those relationships. And when it comes to building relationships, "The more prepared I am, the luckier I seem to get," says Chambers. 

Published on: Aug 21, 2019
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