Dreamforce16 - Salesforce's new Chief Equality Officer and a principled stand

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan October 4, 2016
Salesforce's new Chief Equality Officer has a big job to do. It looks like it's in safe hands though.

Benioff and Prophet

Last month it was announced that Salesforce was taking a major step forwards in its ongoing campaigns around diversity and equality with the appointment of its first CEO - Chief Equality Officer - in the form of former Microsoft exec Tony Prophet.

Here at diginomica, we welcomed the creation of the new role, reporting directly into CEO Marc Benioff, as an important and hopefully trend-setting development, but had a few questions about how it would work out in practical terms.

So I was very pleased when Prophet made time at Dreamforce to sit down with me to discuss some of those points.

This being a whole seven days into his new role, I didn’t get answers to all of them - which is hardly surprising - but I did get a powerful sense of the convictions that are going that are going to shape some of the decisions that will be taken in the months to come.

Prophet referenced the Salesforce culture of V2MOM as something set to be a critical aspect of future developments as he shapes his strategy.

V2MOM is a Marc Benioff organizational process, an acronym standing for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles and Measures. It’s the way that Salesforce shapes and sets out its organizational goals and operational plans, updated and communicated regularly. Prophet says:

The first step for me is listening and learning. Salesforce already has a very disciplined culture around V2MOM. That’s refreshed around February, so we’ll be spending the first few months pulling that together.

At other companies, when you start talking about culture, people look at you askance, but at Salesforce they actually have a word for the company culture - Ohana [Hawaiian for family].  How many other companies have that sort of word? So it’s about looking at ways of where that can be supportive.

There is, Prophet points out, a good foundation within Salesforce upon which to build, with thousands of staffers already part of the various Employee Resource Groups. These are groupings of people who identify with particular interests of identities, ranging from Latinos through women's networking and LGBTQ to Black and African Americans.

When we meet, Prophet has an impressive collection of pin badges attached to his Dreamforce lanyard, drawn from a cross section of these ERGs which he talks me through. Their existence is an asset, he explains:

These are mature and well-developed groups. So Day One, 9am at Salesforce headquarters, I said I wanted to meet with all the ERG leaders and for them to talk to me and tell what’s going on. The ERGs are going to be an integral part of my learning and assessing what works and what might need improving.

Personal stakes

There’s a personal backstory to Prophet’s decision to take up the CEO role at Salesforce, stemming in part from a shared involvement with Marc Benioff in children’s healthcare issues which led to great respect for the Salesforce founder’s philanthropic values which aligned with his own.

But it was last year’s decision to take on anti-LGBTQ legislation in the form of so-called Religious Freedom Acts in states such as Indiana and Georgia, forcing both to back down, that upped the stakes:

When Marc became active in LGBTQ issues, I stood back in awe at his courage and conviction. It’s one thing to embark on a fool’s errand, quite another to do something like that thoughtfully and ultimately to be successful.

There’s another personal element here:

My middle child is part of the LGBTQ community and I have been on a journey with him that has opened my eyes. So there’s a personal stake there.

Mention of that battle with Indiana and its Governor Mike Pence was nicely timed, as hours after our meeting Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate in next month's US Election, would be taking part in the Vice-Presidential debate.

Given that Pence was forced into a very public climbdown in Indiana and that he and Trump would  appear ready to sign Religious Freedom legislation into law at federal level, I wondered whether the potential outcome of the US Election gave Prophet cause for concern? 

It was probably an unfair question a week into the job, but for his part Benioff has gone on the record as saying:

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.

Prophet is understandably less outspoken than his new boss, but says:

What you see happening in the political discourse, and the polarity that is there, is worrisome.

One of the accusations that Pence and other critics of Salesforce’s anti-discriminatory stance have made is that the company is guilty of hypocrisy, being willing to do business in countries such as India, where equality laws are notably absent or considerably weaker than in the US.

While the accusations are self-serving excuses to justify home-grown bigotry, they do raise an interesting question of which fights Salesforce chooses to fight?

Or in other words, having set out its stall as equality champion, has the firm also opened a Pandora’s Box whereby every special interest and minority group will expect the company to go to battle on its behalf?

Prophet doesn’t particularly care for the implications of the Pandora’s Box analogy, arguing that it has negative connotations - all the evil in the world contained within etc etc.

To be fair, he has a point. He prefers to think in terms of having opened a treasure chest where the riches might be buried away, but are worth reaching for.

He makes the valid point that this is a long game and while Salesforce itself might not be able to take on every cause directly and win, that’s no reason not to begin the journey and be consistent in its values:

We are going to be strategic and thoughtful and measured about tactics and timings, but what won’t ever waver are the principles we stand for.

I am an idealist. Over the long arc of time, I personally believe that nothing bad can come from standing up for good. Someone will come in behind you. You might only take the first three or four steps on the journey, but someone will come in behind you.

It's a good mission statement and again there’s a personal stake in the background. As well as two children in their twenties, Prophet has a 6 year old son of German and American heritage and who is tri-lingual - English, German and Mandarin. Prophet’s ambition is for him to be able to be a citizen of the world and to live in a world where his father’s new job title shouldn’t be needed.

In so many respects, that would be of course be the ultimate sign of Prophet’s success at Salesforce - when he puts himself out of a job.

Sadly that day is still a long way off, but Prophet’s new role is a positive step in the right direction.

My take

This is an exciting development with huge potential and enormous challenges. Prophet’s soft-spoken words are clearly underpinned by an absolute conviction that this a role that matters and in that, he’s absolutely correct. Here at diginomica, we will be watching how events develop over the coming months, not only in the US, Vice President Pence or otherwise, but overseas in countries where Salesforce has direct presence. (Prophet’s role is a global one.)

With French and German national elections in 2017 and the growing rise of nationalism across Europe, racial equality and discrimination issues could yet be a growing problem. And that’s before we factor in Brexit in the UK and any changes to equality laws that might be pushed for there from some less-enlightened quarters or the unaddressed issues around areas such as women’s reproductive rights in Ireland, where Salesforce has a major presence.

It’s a big job. But I think it’s in good hands.

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