I played the hand that I saw in front of me.
It’s a pragmatic stance for any business leader to take. That said, when Salesforce’s Chief Revenue Officer Gavin Patterson contemplated the hand he’d been dealt, it’s fair to say that it didn’t factor in the onset of a global pandemic that would disrupt and transform the entire way the world does business.
Nearly two years on from his arrival, Patterson has been attending this week’s Dreamforce event in San Francisco where he spoke to diginomica in an exclusive interview.
He joined the cloud firm having been a customer in his former role as CEO of UK telco BT and knowing Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff for a number of years from meeting at events such as the World Economic Forum’s Davos gathering.
Having left BT, Patterson was taking some downtime when Benioff made him an offer - come and help set up a European Advisory Board for Salesforce:
Marc called me and said, 'I'd like to work together. Will you help me set up this Advisory Board? You can work a day, a month or you can work five days a week or anything in between, it’s up to you’. I wanted a bit of time to reflect on what to do next. I wasn't sure I wanted another executive role, but as I was working more and more with the company, I was enjoying the work. It's a fantastic team, it's a really interesting business, I was enjoying learning a new technology and a new role and I found myself being rejuvenated by it. I was feeling pretty tired and a touch disillusioned to be perfectly honest. The last two years, and particularly the last 18 months, as I've gone 'in-house' if you like and become a [Salesforce] executive, I feel completely replenished and rejuvenated.
After initially taking on the role of CEO International, Patterson was appointed Chief Revenue Officer in May 2020, in which guise he is responsible for worldwide sales and distribution of Salesforce products and services. As someone who doesn’t have a software industry background - he trained as a chemical engineer - Patterson is clear what he brings to the mix:
I know how to run a big organization, I have a strong operational focus. I've worked in different sectors, so I know manufacturing and knew consumer goods and retail and telecoms and content, so I brought customer expertise in that respect. I also brought CEO expertise. What the [Salesforce] sales organization was lacking was having the relationships at a CEO level, having C-suite connections, being able to frame a conversation and frame a benefits case in a way that a CEO would buy as opposed to an IT director.
The accepted narrative across the tech sector since the COVID crisis kicked in is that CEO and C-Suite engagement in digital decision-making has both increased and accelerated. It’s a narrative that Patterson finds familiar:
What I noticed was that conversations with CEOs became much more frequent. I could characterize it that digital transformation pre-pandemic was an IT Director discussion or sometimes a Chief Digital Officer discussion. What it soon quickly became was a CEO discussion, a board conversation. What I heard from customers was if you didn't have a digital strategy, you didn't have a strategy. It became that important and that's why CEOs got involved. Cyber and culture and digital, these are the themes that became top of mind for the border during this period.
Urgency and time-to-value became critical, largely because those are watchwords that CEOs have top of mind all the time. But at the same time, the limitations of their business model, if it wasn't completely digitalized, were very stark to companies. If they hadn't been investing at the rate that they should have been investing, if they'd been procrastinating on some of these decisions, the consequences became very real immediately. So that gave an impetus and decisions that traditionally took months were being made in weeks and sometimes even days.
That said, what will be interesting as the Vaccine Economy takes shape is whether that momentum stays in place as part of the mooted ‘new normal’ or whether it was buoyed up by a basic survival instinct? Patterson argues that it will:
I think the survival thing lasted maybe a quarter, no more, and then companies quickly pivoted into, 'OK, there's a new game here, a new environment, potentially a new competitive set. We need to move quickly into a growth mindset to make sure we're well positioned'. I don't know any company that was predicting that 18 months later we would be still getting through this, but I think the decisions that were taken [then] were decisions that were right, whether we were going to come out of it in a year or two or three years. It's do you have a customer 360 relationship and is your business digital end-to-end, that's what it's all about.
Two years, Patterson clearly has no regrets about joining Salesforce:
It's a completely different business than I was in, certainly in telco. I'm not saying one is better than the other, they're just juggling different challenges. Salesforce is all about growth. It's more fun being in a business that's growing 20% a year, there's no question about that. But it has challenges in finding enough of the right people, being able to scale the organization, the culture, making sure that you're not knocked off your perch. These are big challenges and I like to think I'm able to step up to them, but it's not a walk in the park.
I had different challenges at BT in markets that were ex-growth, heavily regulated, pensions, cost transformation. You play the hand you've got in front of you. What I've learned is that Salesforce has maintained its growth rates because it's still running like a small business - it's very agile, it's able to adapt to customer needs, it's easy to get things done in the business. It's remained hungry and that's the key. And it's focused on its customer and it's not complacent. I think there's plenty of growth ahead of it.