Being Bret Taylor - Marc, mentors and making it work as a co-CEO
- Bret Taylor is now co-CEO of Salesforce. How do he and Marc Benioff make this leadership model work when many other companies have failed?
I didn’t expect to be in this seat.
An interesting comment from Bret Taylor, co-CEO of Salesforce, a man who arrived at the company as a result of the acquisition of his start-up, Quip.
Rather than doing the usual industry thing of waiting around for his options to vest and then heading off, he’s stayed with the company, rising to become co-CEO alongside Marc Benioff late last year. It’s down to a number of factors, he tells me:
I think the company's values, the company's culture, and then for me personally, my relationship with Marc are the reasons why I'm here. The fact that Salesforce is a values-driven company is differentiated. Especially for younger employees, but I think also for founders, you want to know why do you come to work every day? Building a product is not very differentiated - you can write code anywhere - but going to a company that has purpose is quite differentiated.
Values create value, he says, noting that the kick-off for this week’s Dreamforce conference took place at a middle school in San Francisco where he and Benioff announced a $25 million education grant:
We opened a tech conference not with a technology announcement, but with a philanthropic announcement. It's really a statement to our community and also to our employees about what we stand for as a company.
This week’s Dreamforce has publicly showcased the dynamic between the two company leaders perhaps as never before, dividing up the keynote between them, bantering with one another, messing around with bunny ears and so on.
I’ve known Benioff for over two decades. Taylor is a much less known quantity, but seeing the two in action this week suggests a highly complementary pairing with their own skill sets. Taylor affirms:
We're very different and I think we embrace each other's differences. We're not competing with each other. It's a real partnership. I think hopefully you see it. We like to joke with each other a lot. We're friends, and I think that's why it's so unique. Why it works so well is that we are very complementary.
Salesforce has had this co-CEO model before, when Keith Block held the role. Other firms have also tried the same idea with considerably less success. (That’s you we’re looking at, SAP!). Taylor is conscious of this:
I’m totally aware of the precedents and it’s not lost on me.
That said, he’s clearly confident that it works for Salesforce:
It is not a common model. It works because of trust. Marc and I have known each other for a very long time. He's my mentor, we are friends, and we are colleagues and co-CEOs. I think that's really important because I think a partnership is defined by the quality of the relationship and the level of trust in that relationship.
Marc and I have developed that trust over a decade, which is, I think, unique and why it works. If you look at, for example, Atlassian, which has a co-CEO model, these are co-founders who've known each other for years. Where it does work, it's because it's a friendship and a trusted relationship and not just a professional relationship. That's what works for Marc and me.
Inevitably, questions are going to be asked about division of responsibilities. A recent leaked document purported to show how the organizational reporting lines now operate. Salesforce isn’t about to comment on that, but Taylor says that there’s no ‘staying in swim lane’ between the two:
We try not to have boundaries in the partnership. That's important to us because both of us have opinions on a lot of things and and I don't think it would work if we tried to draw a line between what we do. It gives Marc a lot of freedom to do what he wants to do and it gives me a trusted mentor.
Mentoring is a big deal in Salesforce. Benioff has always cited Oracle’s Larry Ellison, his former boss, as his mentor. At 42, Taylor has achieved an enormous amount in his career, but Benioff still has 15 years over him. That’s terrific, says Taylor:
I'm a relatively young CEO of such a large company and I have one of the world's greatest business people as a mentor. How amazing is that? I have someone to phone when I have a question. I consider it a privilege.
All told, Taylor reckons he’s been very fortunate in his career to date when it comes to having mentors:
I feel very lucky to be honest with you. I've had really good mentors and managers through my career. Marissa Meyer, who became the CEO of Yahoo, was my first boss. At the age of 23, she enabled me to build Google Maps and I'm not sure why. But she saw something in me and put trust in me and then obviously, [Meta founder] Mark Zuckerberg and now Marc Benioff.
All of this inspires Taylor to contemplate the meaning of mentorship and leadership and what he can pay forward:
One thing I'm thinking about is just recognizing that I've worked hard, but I've also had a lot of luck and had a lot of privilege to have great mentors and leaders. I just love being in the technology industry. What a privilege it is to build the future. There was a great quote from a computer scientist who said the best way to predict the future is to invent it. That's my mantra in life.
I love being in an industry that is always thinking about what the future holds and inventing it. So I'm excited, I'm energized by being in this industry, and being at this company that's helping so many organizations around the world re-invent themselves.
I like to code on the weekends.
It’s been evident for many years, since the Quip acquisition, the respect that Benioff has for Taylor. The ascension to the co-CEO role is the ultimate recognition of that.
I may be overthinking this, but I found it interesting to note this week that on presentation slides, the duo are listed simply as ‘co-CEOs Marc and Bret’, a first name familiarity that perhaps says a lot about how this double act operates.
Whatever the case, it’s a pairing that has enormous potential for the years ahead.
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