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What Larry Ellison said about Cisco and Corporate Culture

Larry Ellison, CEO of OracleOne year ago, while Ellen McGirt was interviewing John Chambers for a Fast Company cover story, she asked John about Cisco’s uniquely collaborative culture, and whether leading executives from other companies could be successful here.

“Hypothetically, could (Oracle CEO) Larry Ellison be successful at Cisco, John?” Ellen asked.

John answered with words to the effect that yes, Larry could probably be successful at Cisco, but it might take a while for the company culture to evolve to suit Larry’s leadership style.

John’s answer illustrated a fascination contradiction: while many of Silicon Valley’s companies share the same entrepreneurial heritage, the cultures of Oracle, Cisco, Sun and Google et al are very different.

Google, for example, is known for its youthful entrepreneurial culture, characterized by encouraging employees to spend 10% of their work time on projects of their choosing.

Oracle is known for a hard-driving sales and marketing culture, epitomized by its track record of ambitious and sometimes aggressive acquisitions.

So is it the personalities of leaders such as Larry and John that shape the cultures and success of our respective companies, or something else?

At a meeting of Silicon Valley’s Churchill Club last night, Larry Ellison talked about Cisco and culture, and I had the opportunity to ask him how he would describe Oracle’s culture, and whether it could be replicated in a company where the same CEO (i.e. Larry) hadn’t been at the helm for 32 years.

“You know, customers don’t buy products from Oracle because we have a strong marketing or sales culture,” he countered.

“Our focus is on building the best products. We employ more Caltech and MIT graduates than any other company in the valley. We are an engineering company. The only thing that matters, that works, is the products.”

It wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but it’s hard to argue with the logic.

After all, would Cisco TelePresence sales be off-the-charts if we didn’t have the best product in the market? Our belief in the power of collaboration must help, but are customers buying from us simply because we share their vision?

Clearly, engineers count at least as much as culture.

Given John was able to express a viewpoint on Larry’s leadership; I was pleased Larry’s interviewer, Ed Zander, also asked Larry about Cisco last night.

In explaining the logic for Oracle’s pending acquisition of Sun, Larry offered this: “I’m trying to build a great systems company in the style of T J Watson’s IBM (not Lou Gerstner or Sam Palmisano’s IBM, he stressed). Customers shouldn’t have to assemble their own computer systems. Oracle is going to offer complete systems.”

And which company did Larry cite as a more recent model of such a company?

“Cisco. Cisco is a great example of a successful systems company.”

Whether our cultures differ or not, on that, I think we agree.

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