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Why corporate values count - Salesforce's Marc Benioff and Workday's Aneel Bhusri on the crisis challenges of COVID-19, racial equality and leadership

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 22, 2020
The CEOs of Salesforce and Workday reflect on the perfect storm of crises afflicting 2020 and the role demanded of business to provide leadership based on sound corporate values.

Bhusri Benioff
(Marc Benioff and Aneel Bhusri)

We thought we were only dealing with a pandemic; then all of a sudden we realised we're dealing with an economic crisis. Now, we're in a social and racial crisis and we're in a huge global leadership crisis as well.

It’s a concise, if somewhat depressing, summation of the worldview in June 2020, courtesy of Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, one with which his counterpart at Workday, Aneel Bhusri, concurs, although he adds that a good crisis does have a notable side effect: 

It forces you to your core values….I think you never know if your value system really works until you hit a crisis. We've had multiple crises at the same time; we fall back on our values.

As CEOs, Benioff and Bhusri have a strong working relationship as do their companies - the two firms are currently partnering around solutions to enable a safe post-pandemic return to work for their customers - but just as importantly, they share a lot of corporate values. For Workday, those values have a simple starting point, explained Bhusri:

We've always been employee-first. I know a lot of companies say customers number one, but I've never seen a company that has happy customers and unhappy employees. You've got to start with your employees. We lead with them; having happy customers comes next. We have fun along the way. We innovate. We try to do it with integrity and that really defines our values. We live by those values and we work toward those values and if people don't fit those values they don't stay at work…They are a touchstone for us to make the right decisions, which we did early on in the pandemic.

Racial equality

As Benioff noted, the world is embroiled in a racial equality crisis in the wake of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. While it’s both CEOs first pandemic, equality and diversity are long-standing priorities for both Salesforce and Workday. The former’s commitment to diversity now and in the future has taken another recent step forward with the decision to place responsibility for recruitment in the hands of Chief Equality Officer Tony Prophet. The rationale is simple, according to Benioff:

We realise recruiting and equality need to come together if we're going  to make progress. We're looking at our product. We bought Tableau last year, and they're doing tremendous work in analytics and really taking their product and providing transparency to some of the issues that we're seeing with the police. So if you go to [the Tableau website] you're going to find new analytics and new visualisations that really expose what's happening. We make these great products [and] we can use them to create more equality.

At Workday, the role of hiring is also front of mind, affirms Bhusri:

It starts with the right mindset. Right now, we're very focused on training our hiring managers to be more open-minded and embrace diversity rather than just hire in their own image. Then we need to create better leadership paths. I think that the biggest thing in talking to our Black employees - and I've done that three times in the last few weeks through a series of Town Hall [meetings] - is they feel alone in many cases. They don't get the mentorship that their other colleagues get. We have to fix that. For them, taking a leadership job is risky. They don't feel like they have the support to be in a leadership role. These are all things that are fixable, but it's got to be a major change in mindset.

And the role of Workday products is also in focus in that respect:

On the product side, we have all of these diversity inclusion dashboards, where you can really see how you're doing….if you can't measure it, you can't change it. We've got to measure it and then we can change it.

Transparency and accountability are critical, agrees Benioff:

As we've gone deeper in this crisis, we even looked at our purchasing. We have a tremendous Black executive Craig Cuffie, who runs purchasing at Salesforce. I asked him just yesterday, ‘Are we buying from Black businesses aggressively enough?’. He had something really interesting to say, which was that making slight changes in our payment terms would allow us to do that. On another level, I asked him, ‘Are we investing in black entrepreneurs enough? ‘

I think these are some questions that are really on my mind. Are we taking actions to really address racism in all of our policies, not just our internal policies, but even our public policies as well?  I want to go deeper, to really look at that. Each one of these times that we have a crisis, I look at crisis as opportunity. This is a moment when it gives us the ability and the willingness to go even farther.

Stepping up

Bhusri concurs, arguing that business has an obligation to meet the current crises head on:

We've had our call to action now. I really think this is the time for companies to lead. Our Government is maybe not leading in the way we'd like it to, so companies can step up and show that we have a soul and we want to do the right thing. I think we all need to embrace [Stakeholder Theory]. We all need to think about more than our share price. We’ve got to think about our community, our employees, our customers, in a far more complex way than we have historically. And this is a moment where we can really embrace it.

He adds:

We're in that leadership crisis right now. Companies like ours can step up and be forces for good and forces for change. What we're trying to do at Workday is not just do the right thing internally around equality and opportunity, but because we are an HR provider, we're working with our CHRO [Chief Human Resource Officer] customers across the globe to give them the tools and techniques to improve their results as well. There's not a CHRO in the country that I've talked to who doesn't want to do the right thing. They all want to do the right thing. We just have to give them the tools and the education in order to do that.

For both men, as with millions of others, the last few months have clearly left their mark. As Benioff put it:

I think that there was no way you could [have explained] to me what was going to happen three months ago. I would not have believed it. You know, if you'd said to me in February, when we started to see these things emerge, that this is where we would be now in June, I would have said,  No, no, that's not gonna ever happen’.

But despite all the disruption in the world at present, Bhusri remains positive:

I do wonder when we come out of all this, we'll look back and see there's a lot of sadness from all the death because of COVID-19 and there's nothing we can do to undo that. But I do think we'll also have learned a lot. We'll have learned a lot about how to deal with pandemics, we'll learn a lot about how to be resilient. We will come out a stronger country as it  relates to dealing with racism. I think we're going to look back at this environment as one of the most meaningful times in our in our life. 

I feel really energised right now. I think this is a time where the right conversations are happening. These conversations are uncomfortable. We have to get comfortable talking about the uncomfortable. In the past, we just kind of brushed some of these conversations under the rug; now they're out there.

My take

There's a lot of goodness out in the world. I think it's easy to be cynical, but...I see so many leaders stepping up and doing the right thing and it gives me hope that we are taking on these issues and not being silent and we're trying to do the right things for our customers.

An admirable sentiment from Bhusri and one that has been publicly espoused by Benioff on many occasions. Of course, words need to be backed up by actions, but in the cases of both Salesforce and Workday  - led from the top by Benioff and Bhusri - those have been evident since long before COVID-19 raised its ugly head.

One thing that has been striking in recent months is the emphasis most companies - not all! - have placed on being seen to be doing the right thing around in this period of multi-crisis. The debate around Stakeholder Capitalism has been around for a long time, but the perfect storm of 2020 crises brings it to the top of the corporate agenda. What the long term result will be remains to be seen, but there is opportunity amid the crises to build for lasting change, if enough businesses are ready to take it.

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