I learned a lot from my friend and Cisco’s former CEO, John Chambers, and he would always tell me: “You learn the most about people when they are under pressure.”

It’s a fascinating personal and professional development question:  how will you react to pressure, pressure so intense it makes your heart race and your forehead drip?

If you work in sales at Cisco, many days can feel like a pressure cooker.  Customer expectations are high; the competition is fierce; and Cisco expects to win.

How do you prepare a salesperson for intense, in-the-moment pressure that feels authentic and real?

At Cisco’s recent annual global sales meeting (GSX), sellers received their best chance to do so in “The Elevator Pitch” – where they had sixty seconds to tell the Cisco story on one of four randomly selected topics focused on Cisco’s product and technology strategies. To add to the pressure participants had to perform on camera, under hot lights with hundreds of their colleagues watching, and three judges offering critiques and scoring you live.

Is your heart racing yet?  But, like most times when enduring pressure, it was all worth it.

Every score would be posted and ranked with the top ten scores having a chance to sit with CEO Chuck Robbins in a VIP suite for the Chainsmokers and New Republic concert closing the meeting.

This was the pressure cooker, otherwise known as “The Elevator Pitch.”

I was lucky to serve as a judge for one of the Elevator Pitch sessions.  I was nervous for every individual who stepped into the “elevator” – hundreds of people were watching, including many senior Cisco executives.

“I present all the time and I didn’t expect to be nervous, but the timer added so much pressure,” said Amy Gerrie, one of the top 10 finishers.  “I found myself getting hyped.”

Anne Robotti, another top finisher, said, “It was intimidating and scary.”

I will confess that during my entire time as a judge I was thinking:  What if someone challenges me to go into the elevator?  I realized I shared Amy and Anne’s sentiment – it was an intimidating challenge!

As an introvert, I started to do what all introverts do:  I started to prepare – “just in case.”  I’m pretty sure it didn’t affect my judging, but the “Elevator Pitch” concept is a great reminder to introverts and extroverts alike that pressure can overwhelm someone in the moment, but it doesn’t have to – in fact, pressure moments can turn into what we at Cisco call “moments that matter.”

I walked away from watching and judging the Elevator Pitch with five lessons on how to be “ready” for a pressure-cooker moment.

  1. Get perspective from others. “I’ve never been truly judged,” said Amy.  “Getting a little perspective and constructive feedback is something we could all use.”
  2. Watch yourself on video. Multiple participants mentioned it was the first time they were seeing themselves on video; and how valuable it was to hear feedback and to see
  3. Practice helps you know yourself. Some participants jumped into the elevator as many as ten times.  I enjoyed watching people try to understand their most authentic communication style.
  4. Your Cisco peers are rooting for you.  “I told myself:  don’t be afraid, everyone wants you to succeed,” Anne said. “Culturally here everyone wants you to be successful.”
  5. Build a personal formula for when the pressure arrives. Amy said it best, “Own your time – hit the big items, convey a feeling, never be desperate.”

For all of us, whether that’s at Cisco or beyond, it’s a great professional development exercise to ask yourself, “What’s my formula for dealing with pressure?”

In my experience, pressure has a way of showing up when you least expect it.  In my career I’ve certainly had those moments, like on the days where I was asked to lead Cisco’s communications response to the September 11th and Hurricane Katrina tragedies. I had to think quickly, adjust accordingly, hit key points, and convey how our company felt in the wake of events that rattled our nation and global community

Because I had my formula in place, I had a course of action – and was prepared (as best as I could be) for the pressure.

With the arrival of 2019, now is a great time to develop your formula for the pressure cooker. Is your “Elevator Pitch” ready? Let us know how you respond to pressure in the comments below!

Want to join us at Cisco? You can. We’re hiring.


Ron Ricci

Vice President, Customer Experience Services, Cisco Systems

Sales Enablement