Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers sat down with a couple of Gartner analysts for a “mastermind” discussion at Gartner Symposium 2012 on Tuesday and touched on topics ranging from IT complexity to Cisco’s fat profit margins. Herewith are a few highlights.

For many of its networking products, Cisco has gross margins of 60% or more. I’m not sure it was wise to admit that to a room that included probably hundreds of CIOs.

A missing talent in many executives is the ability to combine business and IT expertise, a topic we’ve been talking about seemingly forever. Internally Cisco tries to avoid such disconnects by requiring execs to move frequently among different business groups. “Learning how to lead across silos, while having multiple silos reporting to you, is a requirement for every leader at Cisco,” he said. “If people can’t adjust, they probably won’t be leading at Cisco.” It took Chambers about a year to convince the current CIO, who was a “process person” to take the job, he noted.

Along the same lines, CIOs need to talk the same language as business leaders, he said. Don’t talk about big data, cloud, and the Internet of everything. Rather, talk about how to grow revenues and profits, beat startups, align with partners more effectively and achieve business goals.

Early on during his tenure at Cisco, Chambers was mentored by former Oracle president Ray Lane. When Chambers asked him many years later why he took the time to do it, he said Lane explained, “Because it’s the Silicon Valley way.”  Now Chambers says he does the same for other up and comers, including execs from Cisco competitors.

Complexity is an inhibitor to IT growth. IT capabilities have to be embedded deep within processes such that they are “CEO idiot-proof,” Chamber said. It has to be one button to push for telepresence, Jabber or whatever. “Complexity will slow us all down,” he said. It’s better to give users fewer choices but make the product easier to use than the reverse. He gives Cisco just fair marks on addressing the complexity issue in its own products.

Asked whether customers can be a drag on innovation (a rather strange question), Chambers was quick to answer: “No, it’s the reverse of that. Any company that sees its customers as a problem is already messed up.” That got a good laugh from the crowd.

The patent process is hopelessly broken. Given his druthers, Chambers said he’d “throw out everything and start from the beginning.” When IT vendors are suing each other it’s a huge cost on everybody, hurts the ability to innovate and slows down the industry. Hard to argue with that, but how do you throw out all existing patents?

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