There are two titles afforded to Marc Benioff in his new book -Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change - that are both telling.
The first is when he describes his ‘proper’ job title as being CAO - Chief Answering Officer - for Salesforce, a nice turn of phrase that points to the importance of transparency and openness that is hardwired into the corporate DNA.
The second is activist CEO, a term he initially recoils from when it’s used to describe him at a tech industry conference, but which by the end of the book it’s clear he’s embraced - and with good reason.
Reviewing Trailblazer has been an interesting challenge. At the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the BBC World Service used to tap into the commentary of a group of people they dubbed ‘experienced Kremlin watchers’. It’s occurred to me over the years that journalists and analysts who closely follow sectors and companies over a sustained period of time are, to stretch the analogy, their own breed of ‘experienced Kremlin watchers’.
I’d put myself into that category when it comes to Salesforce. I can’t pinpoint the first time I met Marc Benioff, although I know our paths crossed a few times when he was at Oracle in the 1990s. But it was in the formative years of Salesforce that I got to know the man and the company. It’s been a long journey since then. Next month I’ll attend the 17th annual Dreamforce conference which will close down the center of San Francisco. And as ever I’ll cast a mind back to attending the very first Dreamforce with a thousand people in a hotel ballroom. Acorns and mighty oaks as the saying goes.
The reason I mention that longevity of observation and association is that inevitably there’s a lot in Trailblazer that is very familiar to me, but which I needed to remind myself won’t be to others who don’t track the tech sector as their day job. So the book covers off some important Salesforce staples - the concept of Ohana, the 1/1/1 philanthropy model, the importance of V2MOM etc. What’s V2MOM? Shhhh…spoilers! You’ll need to read the book to find that out.
But there are surprises and insights to be found in the narrative for even the hardened cloud commentator. The overall theme can be summed up in a by-now crucial Benioff mantra: values create value. But the story of how far Salesforce has travelled in pursuit of that idea - and how other companies can/should emulate it - is what Trailblazer is about.
The book is divided into two parts. The first is Benioff’s own story as co-founder and CEO of Salesforce; the second is intended to show “how businesses, leaders and employees can become a powerful platform for positive changes”.
For my part, the insight into whose influences have shaped Benioff as a leader was a highlight. There are some well-known mentors trotted out across the book - Oracle’s Larry Ellison, General Colin Powell, Steve Jobs, Einstein etc - but it's the familial influencers who are the most telling.
Back in the day the Benioff family were immigrants from Kiev who worked in the fur trade and came to the US in search of a better life. Benioff’s late father Russell had a clothing business and while he’s described as not “bursting with personality” and being like so many men of his age “emotionally introverted”, Benioff acknowledges a “profound influence” here, most notably in his father’s approach to business:
To him, all business decisions were black and white, right and wrong.
Benioff’s mother Joelle meanwhile is credited as being the person who when the teenage future CEO shuttered himself in the family basement to work on developing computer games:
…saw something in me that others didn’t and allowed me to pursue it.
(Joelle today is a VIP attendee at Dreamforce each year and can be found in the audience for her son’s keynotes, beaming with pride as only a mother can!)
But it’s Joelle’s father, Benioff’s maternal grandfather, Marvin Lewis, in whom many traits that we now recognise in the Salesforce CEO can be seen very clearly. Check out some of the descriptions of the man:
Larger than life…a blustery showman...most alive when all eyes were on him and it’s safe to say they usually were.
Lewis was a man dedicated to San Francisco, as his grandson has proven to be over the years. He’s best known in the city for his revolutionary idea for the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, but Benioff makes the point that this stemmed from his interest and concern for the citizens of San Francisco. He recalls occasions when his grandfather would come across a homeless person on the street and hand over $20, a large sum at the time. Today his grandson is a ferocious campaigner for the plight of the homeless in San Francisco.
I did chuckle at the story of Grandpa Lewis taking the boy Benioff to the de Young building in downtown San Francisco, which, when it opened in the 1890s, was the tallest building on the West Coast of the US. Flash forward to 2019 and the San Francisco skyline has been added to by the 61 storey high Salesforce Tower. With more towers appearing in cities around the world, Grandpa Lewis’ enthusiasm for tall buildings was clearly infectious…
Learning when things go wrong
This isn’t a history of Salesforce as such, but there are specific incidents and moments from the company’s history that are highlighted to make wider points about what the future of business needs to be. So, examples of how Salesforce has helped with the digital transformation of some big ticket logos are on show - Toyota, Home Depot and Adidas are all cited to good effect. Demonstrating customer success has been a standard Salesforce practice throughout its existence.
But it’s the times things went wrong that jumped out at me. The story of how Merrill Lynch, at the time Salesforce’s biggest customer, nearly threw the vendor out because staff hated using its tech, is a fascinating tale of how to turn around an unhappy customer by learning to ask questions and listen in a different way. It may have been “the Merrill debacle”, but the lessons from that crisis had a positive impact.
Then there’s the Twitter saga, when Benioff admits he had to ask himself a very tough question:
What if your instincts are wrong?
His instincts in this case were that it would be a good idea for Salesforce to buy Twitter. The problem was, hardly anyone else agreed with him. There’s a candid moment when Benioff falls flat on his face - literally - as he steps out of a car en route to a meeting with financial institutions to convince them to back the deal:
My feet were telling me what my brain would not.
In the event, Benioff pulled back from the Twitter takeover, a rare misstep that hasn’t been repeated as Salesforce has executed some major acquisitions in recent years. It was a time when he had to admit to being wrong, but admitting to shortcomings is an important part of the transparency culture that the firm seeks to build.
This can be seen again in the story of how Salesforce became committed to ensuring equal pay for men and women across the organization after Benioff was persuaded by two of his seniors female execs that there was a problem, a situation he admits that he initially did not believe could be the case in his company.
Equality and diversity matter within Salesforce so much that the firm today has its own Chief Equality Officer in the shape of Tony Prophet. But the importance of these values was brought home in other ways, most notably in the stance taken against discriminatory anti-LGBTQ legislation rolled out by Mike Pence, now Vice President of the US, but at the time the Governor of Indiana.
Told by employees that they were fearful of being discriminated against in Indiana - where Salesforce had a significant presence - Benioff took a stand and the activist CEO was born. Threatening to pull out of the state and cancel a major conference in Indianapolis, Benioff went head-to-head with Pence on social media and won the day. He admits in the book that this was a course of action that made him nervous to begin with, but he recognised that it was essential to take a stand. When other CEOs, such as Apple’s Tim Cook, began to speak up as well, it was a big turning point for the tech sector and business leadership in general.
But CEO activism doesn’t come without its costs and one such cost is that you’re going to be held to high account as Benioff found out when employees protested the signing of a contract with US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) at a time when the Trump administration was splitting up families and putting small children in cages in giant warehouses.
Salesforce employees had been encouraged to air their gripes over the years. The firm had used its own Chatter collaboration tool to facilitate internal communication and inevitably this led to complaints being surfaced, something which Benioff says made him “giddy” with delight on the basis that problems and grievances shouldn’t be left to fester. He wanted to hear from his team.
But when staffers called for stopping working with the Customs and Border Protection agency in an open letter, Benioff was offline at the time and the crisis escalated in his absence to the extent that the question was asked by disgruntled employees:
Can we trust Salesforce?
Benioff says he was “literally stunned into silence” that such a question could ever be asked, but accepts that his inadvertent absence had made the situation more problematic:
When a company has an outspoken leader, there’s an expectation in both good times and bad that people are going to hear his or her voice. Now the company I founded was in turmoil. People began asking, “Why is Marc silent?’.
For the activist CEO, with power comes responsibility and there is a sense in Trailblazer that this is being embraced by a wider constituency of leaders. That said, the response from some of this peers to Benioff’s call at the World Economic Forum in 2018 for more government regulation of the tech industry indicates there’s a long way to go yet before we get to the point where:
…in the future, the highest form of business value will be the kind guided by the highest human values.
That’s sort of the mission statement for Trailblazer - tapping into Salesforce’s past and present for exemplars and best practices to help others to realize that future. This isn’t a business book built around self-help to-do checklists. It’s the story of a journey of a company built on foundational values that has grown and evolved, with the occasional stumble from which it has learned.
It’s also inevitably about Marc Benioff. When I finished the book, I asked myself if I had heard the voice of the man I’ve known for the past two decades in what I’d just read. And the answer is, yes. This is authentic Benioff - which is pretty much what I’d expected going in. At one point, he writes about Marvin Lewis:
Recalling my walks through the city as a boy with Grandpa…I’m pretty sure he would have approved.
I rather think he would.
Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, co-authored by Monica Langley, is published today.