Salesforce gets a new CEO as the battle for equality steps up a notch

SUMMARY:

Salesforce’s decision to appoint a Chief Equality Officer is to be commended, but there are some interesting questions that need to be addressed as the new role kicks in.

Benioff and Prophet
Benioff and Prophet

With two weeks to go until its Dreamforce annual conference, Salesforce has appointed a new CEO.

That’s Chief Equality Officer, of course, not Chief Executive Officer. Marc Benioff’s going nowhere.

But he is taking Salesforce’s crusading equality commitment to its next level with the appointment of an executive officer, reporting directly into him, to focus on gender, LGBTQ and racial equality issues within – and without of – Salesforce.

The person chosen to fill this new role is Tony Prophet, most recently Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President of Education Marketing and the Co-Executive Sponsor of Blacks at Microsoft. He also founded BlackLight, an organization empowering black marketers at Microsoft.

Over the past couple of years, Benioff has taken a highly-active role in equality issues, most notably engaging in a highly-public stand-off around gay and transgender rights in states such as Indiana, where he went head-to-head with former Governor Mike Pence and forced him to retreat on the introduction of discriminatory legislation.

Salesforce has also been on a drive to address the imbalance between men and women in its own organization, both in terms of representation at senior management level – around 80% of senior execs worldwide are men – but also in terms of simply ensuring that both sexes are paid the same amount of money for doing their jobs.

Prophet is an excellent choice for this new role. He’s got an established personal and professional relationship with Benioff from work on Bay Area projects, such as the UCSF Children’s Hospital, which is going to be essential in shaping this new position within Salesforce.

Salesforce’s battle with the likes of former Governor Pence and others clearly strikes a chord with Prophet as well. He told USA Today that he had written a note to Benioff following the death of a mutual acquaintance in which he congratulated the Salesforce CEO on taking a role model lead, telling him:

You will never know the impact you are having on tens millions of people. Let me tell you one: That’s my son. My son is LGBTQ transgender. You are opening doors for my son who’s this year going to college and as a transgender person had to stand up on the dorm floor and had to tell everyone on the floor: I need those bathrooms to change because I don’t feel comfortable using either one of them. You opened those doors for my son.

For his part, Benioff gave some indication of why he sees this new role as important when he spoke at the Disrupt conference earlier this week and explained why Prophet will report directly to him as Chief Executive:

To own these issues, so that, on a day-to-day basis, this is in my mind and I know I haven’t just delegated it down.

This is a corporate-wide, cultural issue, one that has be hardwired into the organizational DNA, he added:

Your women employees have to stand up, your male employees have to stand up, and people have to say,’I fight for equality’. If you’re going to fight against inequality, then you have to fight for equality.

The situation could get worse in the US, Benioff warned. Indiana’s former governor is now, of course, Donald Trump’s running mate and the Vice Presidential candidate for the Republican party, which led Benioff to state bluntly:

It doesn’t seem possible because here we are in San Francisco, the city of love. But it is. There’s a lot of sh*t going on out there. You’ve got a set of people who have a lot of hate in their hearts. The people need to take a stand. If you don’t take a stand, then I will tell you, there are a lot of people in this country, Mike Pence and others, who are going to do some very bad things to the people that we love.

My take

This is a very, very important appointment – and one that will be watched carefully throughout the tech industry.

This isn’t just about diversity or inclusion. Both of those are vitally important, of course, and both lead to the ultimate goal here, which is equality. That’s equality between genders, religions, sexualities, races. It’s about equal rights, equal opportunities, equal pay.

I have some questions about how this is going to work in practice. Prophet’s answering directly into Benioff,  which is essential, but I am curious about how he – and any team he has around him – will work with the existing HR structure. Both will need to collaborate closely in order for policy execution to be successful.

Then there’s the global implications at ground level. Prophet is an American. Salesforce is a US company that has direct and indirect presence around the world in a number of different countries with varying cultural, societal, moral and legislative norms.

It’s the case that even within the US, cultural and religious biases and bigotries can be seen in action depending on geography. During the ‘bathroom battles’ with Indiana and other states, Benioff was accused of trying to impose an alien set of liberal values onto other states. It’s a meme that many on the right in US politics are happy to perpetuate – the West Coast liberals v the ‘Real America’ [(c) Sarah Palin]. North Carolina Lt. Gov. Dan Forest called Benioff a “corporate bully”, for instance.

Now expand that out globally. Clearly in countries such as the UK, there should be little that’s problematic for anyone. The UK has strong equality legislation in place to cover sex, religion, race etc. It has gay marriage. It recognizes transgender rights. There’s still work to be done towards absolute equality, of course, and always room for improvement, but there’s theoretically no major conflict looming here for a firm dedicated to equality.

But what about Germany, where, for example, gay marriage is not recognised and where Chancellor Angela Merkel is completely and publicly opposed to the idea? Or Ireland, where Salesforce has a significant investment in Dublin and where women’s reproductive rights are most definitely not equal to other parts of the European Union?

My question then becomes – will Prophet’s appointment as global Equality Officer be matched by local appointments to support him? Will there be a CEO Germany, CEO UK, CEO Ireland or even a CEO EMEA? My prediction is that there needs to be at least one in-region Equality Officer as the localized specific issues aren’t, with the best will in the world, something I can see being managed to maximum effect from San Francisco.

There’s also the question of where the equality champion remit ends. By his actions, Benioff has put his head above the parapet when it comes to equality matters. For that, he is only to be commended, particularly when taking firm stands on controversial moral issues risks alienating a large section of your customers or potential customers.

But while he’s set a great example for the rest of the tech industry and beyond, there’s a day job to be done as well. But his critics, such as Pence, then accuse him and Salesforce of hypocrisy if they don’t take a public stand everywhere. The firm has a presence in India, for example. How does that square with not tolerating lack of LGBTQ equality? Why ‘pick on’ Indiana, but not India? Or what about Singapore’s track record? Maybe we don’t want to look too closely at that.

To my mind, the answer here is that Benioff can’t be expected to fight every battle or to tackle every offence or injustice, real or presumed.

My personal belief – and I’d look forward to hearing Prophet’s view on this once in situ – is that where there is a direct corporate presence that involves the rights of Salesforce employees or the rights of Salesforce customers interacting with the company, such as in the case of the Connections marketing conference in Atlanta, then Salesforce now has a equality responsibility to take a stand and to take action. That’s the stall it’s set out for itself.

So that includes the UK and France and Germany – and I’m afraid it also means taking a long hard look at Ireland on a few matters. In all of those countries, Salesforce is bringing important inward investment to the local economies, so, just as with Indiana and Georgia, it has the clout to influence change.

Compare those two US states with the ongoing defiantly anti-LGBTQ stance of Mississippi, where the economic stick isn’t there with which to beat the bigots – that’s where it gets trickier. Consider, India. There’s investment, yes, but not of the same kind. And yet there are absolutely issues and injustices of the same kind. Are they not to be tackled?

My personal suggestion would be that Salesforce should consider extending the same sort of offer to equality activists in such regions as it does to third sector and philanthropic organizations. In other words, provide them – free of charge – with the most up-to-date marketing and comms solutions to enable them to campaign for their own rights more effectively. That sends a message and makes a positive stand, but doesn’t commit Salesforce to the same level of direct involvement as was seen in Indiana and other locations.

Overall, the appointment of a Chief Equality Officer is a terrific idea and a much-needed move –  and Prophet’s credentials for the role are impeccable. Inevitably, this is going to be a work in progress in terms of how it evolves in the coming months and years, but it’s an important step by Salesforce.

At diginomica, we have an absolute commitment to diversity, inclusion and equality – as explained in Phil’s excellent ‘mission statement’ here. With that in mind, we can only commend Benioff and Salesforce for taking this lead and wait for others to follow.

Image credit - Marc Benioff

Disclosure - At time of writing, Salesforce is a premier partner of diginomica.