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Why Salesforce's diversity prophet doesn't need to preach to the Ohana

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan May 22, 2017
It's nearly eight months since I last sat down with Salesforce's Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet. Since then he's toured the world meeting employees, done his first product demo and seen the US political climate change. Meanwhile the 'day job' values remain unchanged across the Ohana.

The honeymoon’s over, but I’m still in love!

When I last sat  down with Tony Prophet it was only a few weeks after he had been unveiled as Salesforce’s first Chief Equality Officer.

A testament to the company’s commitment to equality and diversity across religion, race, gender and sexuality, this was a newly-created position and as such its remit was at that stage essentially theoretical.

Flash forward to last week in London and I had a chance to catch up with Prophet and find out (a) how the role has evolved in the interim and (b) what learnings have been encountered en route.

The first thing that’s immediately evident is that Prophet has lost none of his enthusiasm for the job now that the honeymoon period is over:

It’s been fabulous and exceeded all my expectations in every dimension. We’ve been moving fast and learning a lot. It’s all about the culture of Ohana that [Salesforce CEO] Marc [Benioff] creates and insists upon.

For the uninitiated, Ohana is a Hawaiian term meaning extended family and built around the idea that members of that family need to co-operate, respect and remember one another. It’s a personal value of CEO Marc Benioff that has become a rock-solid foundation of the corporate DNA at Salesforce.

As a case in point, the night before I sit down with Prophet, he’s attended a CEO dinner hosted on the eve of the London leg of the Salesforce World Tour and found that the request from senior management is that the topic for discussion should be equality. Given that such occasions are more normally networking events to warm up potential sales prospects to part with their cash, that’s unusual in itself. Prophet says:

What I’ve found is that all of the leaders around the company have a real sense of a mission, It’s about the culture leaning in. Here’s an gathering of CEOs from the UK and Ireland in the main and what I’m asked is to give a talk on equality, not on Einstein [Salesforce’s AI offering]. I’m asked to talk about one of our core values as a company and why that is so important to us. Then that topic is carried on into the dinner conversation around the table. We had some amazing conversations.

It's an anecdote that suggests that equality and diversity are now recognised as board-level agenda items. For this particular prophet, there's no need to preach:

Naturally you would assume that the head of HR or the leader of diversity inclusion would be interested in a dialog, but it’s increasingly the CEO and this is a board-level issue. It’s something that is core to your comany and a key to the brand of the company. It’s harder and harder just to stand on the sidelines and not have a position on equality. Employees want to work for a values-based company and it’s really important for attracting and retaining customers.

Bottom-up Ohana

It’s not just at management level within Salesforce that the message is getting through, he adds. In the months since being appointed to the Equality Officer role, Prophet has travelled to meet with many Salesforce employees, both in the US and around the world:

It’s a good litmus test. Along the way, at every stop, we’ve had a town hall meeting and met with employees to ge the message out of what equality means. We have an evangelical tour where we go around to every site that we can. I was in the London office yestrday, talking to about our equality message to about 100 people.

What that means in part is reaching beyond specific categories and out into the wider Salesforce ‘Ohana’ to create a supportive equal culture that transcends boundaries. So, for example, it’s not a case that you need to be gay in order to attend events hosted by Salesforce’s LGBTQ special interest group, Outforce. In fact, if you’re not gay, you’re positively encouraged to come along and support your LGBTQ colleagues.

There’s no shortage of such groups within Salesforce to choose from, including Abilityforce for ability inclusion, Boldforce for the black community, Latinoforce for the Latinx community, SouthAsiaForce for the Southern Asian community and the Women’s Network for gender equality. Prophet says there is an enduring call to action in place here:

You don’t have to be black to participate in Boldforce, you won’t have to be LGBTQ to be in Outforce. If we truly are a family, then these are your siblings.

Watching from the outside, one thing that has surprised - and pleased - me was that rather than the Equality Officer role being defined as one specific ‘special interest’ role, Prophet has been pushed front-and-centre as a corporate ambassador for Salesforce and its products as well as its ethical message. This, I sense, is something that Prophet had perhaps not entirely expected, but which he’s clearly embraced:

In addition to be working on the assigned task, I’ve been on World Tour events. I did the keynote in Amsterdam which was great - as the Chief Equality Officer to be out there talking about the company and the products. In New York, I just did my first product demo, which in this case was around Einstein and IBM’s Watson. It’s a unique hallmark of this company that I’ve been given the chance to do that, to get deep into the products.

Political climate

One thing that has changed since my last meeting with Prophet has been the US political climate. Back in October, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton appeared on track to take the White House. In the event, Republican Donald Trump won the day, complete with a Vice-President in the form of Mike Pence. Pence was formerly Governor in Indiana, in which capacity he engaged in a highly-public stand-off with Benioff and Salesforce over his support for so-called Religious Freedom legislation.

In that case, Pence backed down as Salesforce rallied more and more firms to threaten a commercial boycott of the state, but Religious Freedom remains a hot topic and not just at state level. President Trump recently signed an Executive Order on that very subject, which didn’t turn out to be the far-reaching revocation of LGBTQ rights that many had feared, but which was seized upon by opponents of those rights.

The potential for future conflict with the Trump administration’s values is clearly present, not to mention the problems that may ensue at state level. Currently under consideration in Texas, for example, are multiple anti-LGBTQ bills, ranging from refusing adoption services to gay couples through denying marriage licenses to the old ‘favorite’ of banning transgender individuals from using the public bathroom of their choice. All of these are anathema to the Salesforce culture.

It’s a complicated world picture for any commercial company selling in America in 2017, (let alone one that had a public spat with the Vice-President!). I suspect 'squaring the circle' could end up taking up quite a bit of time for Salesforce over the next few years. Pragmatism towards the greater good will play its part. For example, Benioff has been to the White House, alongside Ivanka Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to promote the importance of workforce development and a goal of creating 5 million apprenticeships over five years.

Just this past weekend, the CEO was in Indiana to open the latest Salesforce Tower and commit to hiring 800 new staff in the state over the next five years, as well as training up 500 apprentices over the next three years, bi-partisan objectives that cross the political aisle. But along with this largesse came a timely reminder, in a blog for the IndyStar, of the previous equality and diversity battle:

Any form of discrimination not only denies individuals their inherent dignity; it hurts companies and communities — it restricts growth — by not drawing on the incredible talents of all our people. We are stronger and more prosperous when women receive equal pay for equal work and when all people are treated equally, regardless of religious affiliation, gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Can that be read as a subtle warning shot? Perhaps - and if so, good. Salesforce took a hugely courageous stand against bigotry two years ago and became a poster child for tolerance in so doing.

For his part, Prophet argues that in recent months there’s been a concerted effort within Salesforce to keep a clear vision:

The company has worked hard internally to ensure that our values aren’t changing. We have core values of trust, growth, innovation and equality and those values are immutable. They won’t be changed by economic or political events. We have been resolute and we remain vigilant, across all 50 states and across the world. If we see something that we think isn’t alligned with our values, we will make our view known.

Meanwhile, it’s business as usual. Prophet cites the example of a recent operating review meeting between senior management and Benioff at which the first agenda item was culture - and the most important aspect of that culture was equality:

It was a case of, ‘We want to make sure we get to this’, so it’s the first thing on the agenda, the most important thing to think about. There really is a willingness to learn on the the part of the executive teams. I didn’t really know what to expect, but the spirit is willing. What we’re doing now is getting each of the executives personally engaged and involved. For example, we’re coming up to [LGBTQ] Pride season. so we’re encouraging all of the executives to pick a Pride event and go and walk and march with their Ohana.

That’s the kind of idea that, when translated into action, takes forward the corporate cause of equality and diversity beyond mission statements and gesture politics and into deliverable results. Prophet says there’s no turning back now for Salesforce or for the wider tech industry watching on. He adds that the willingness is there to make sure that remains the case:

I’m an optimist. I’m a great believer in human nature. Here I am, super-late in my career, doing something I never thought I would be doing. I see well-intentioned people of good faith around me. The spirit is very willing.

My take

A prophet is usually said to be without honour in his own land and among his own family. That's far from the case here.

Here at diginomica, we’ve made our position on diversity and equality crystal-clear. I still can’t articulate it any better than Phil Wainewright, whose commentary in Why does a tech media site have a focus on diversity? explains our values as a company. We’ve been unashamed supporters of Salesforce’s battles for equality in the likes of Indiana and Georgia and will continue to be so in the inevitable struggles ahead.

I mentioned the current slew of bigoted legislation currently being stirred up in Texas, encouraged it seems by the current political climate in the US. As I was completing this article, the following tweet appeared in my timeline, posted by Prophet and retweeted by Benioff.


To which my only reaction is - good! Hold the line. Salesforce and other champions of equality and diversity in the wider tech industry Ohana are on the right side of history.

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