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What Every Business Can Learn from Salesforce’s Corporate Culture


Last week, Salesforce turned entire city blocks of San Francisco into a massive street fair for its Dreamforce 2017 event. Since its inception in 2003, Dreamforce has grown from an audience of 1,300 attendees to 170,000 participants. Despite the content, industry updates, thought leadership seminars, and prognostications about the future of business, the gathering serves to showcase one of the most vibrant and important attributes of Salesforce’s success: its corporate culture.

Transforming Nightmare Corporate Cultures into Dreams

The tech space has been notably plagued by the ramifications of striving to be “cool.” That means building a culture based on the ideals of a tight-knit group of founders or executives. It has led to fratboy-like environments, poor inclusion efforts, outright discrimination, scandals, and inattention to the needs of employees and customers. In the immortal words of Jimi Hendrix, “That ain’t too cool.” What Salesforce understands, and what we can learn from this valuable object lesson, is that the epitome of cool is building an organization that supports clients, communities, and workers of all kinds.

Yes, Salesforce is a company that concentrates on automation, but it realizes the value of humanity in developing that technology -- and doing so in a way that’s intuitive and beneficial to its population of human users. As Ken Krogue noted in Forbes, Salesforce sees the next iteration of the digital economy as a job creation springboard, not a hostile robot takeover.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff spoke at length about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which technologies such as mobile, artificial technology and nano technology are converging in ways that create, by his estimate, 3.3 million jobs and $859 billion of additional GDP by 2022. Conversely, however, the nature of work will be shifting dramatically, which will have a profound impact on many within the current workforce. It will be vital within this transition to help the thousands or even millions of people who will need to gain new skills in the burgeoning arena of tech.

“Everyone wants to join the fourth industrial revolution,” Benioff said in an interview with Yahoo Finance. “We can’t leave anybody behind.”

Benioff’s commitment to not leaving anybody behind is genuine and evident in his tireless efforts to enhance Salesforce’s employment culture, inclusion efforts, customer support, and corporate social responsibility. In an article for Inc., Mark Farley emphasized Benioff’s “practice what you preach” mentality:

Growing doesn't have to mean losing your soul. Look at Salesforce. Founder and CEO Marc Benioff has financed investigations and instituted policies to ensure female and male employees are paid equally for the same work. He publicly speaks out on behalf of LGBTQ people, even going so far as to pull business from certain parts of the country that are promoting discriminating policies.

For 18 years, Salesforce has also challenged businesses to give directly back to neighboring communities. Its 1-1-1 model exemplifies how the organization contributes one percent of its time, products, and equity to social consciousness causes. This is important for several reasons.

  • Strengthening communities improves the economy.
  • Efforts to give back bolster Salesforce’s employment and consumer brand, attracting customers and motivated workers who share the message.
  • Allowing employees to champion causes important to them instills a profound sense of morale and commitment.
  • At a wider level, as Krogue illustrated in his Forbes post, Salesforce demonstrates the power of instilling “the culture and desire in our organizations to build social enterprises that can continue to impact our world for generations to come.”

So, have all these initiatives benefited Salesforce directly, beyond the rewards of altruism? The answer is yes. Salesforce was once again named one of the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For. An even more impressive accomplishment is that the company rose from #23 to #8 this year. Financially, the efforts have delivered tremendous results, according to CNBC: “Salesforce’s revenue has approximately tripled, from $4.1 billion in the fiscal year ended in January 2014 to an expected $12.5 billion for the year ending in January 2019. Its share price has jumped more than 160 percent during his tenure, giving Salesforce a market value of over $75 billion.”

While interviewing Salesforce COO Keith Block, CNBC also uncovered how a laser focus on the needs of people -- customers and employees -- are at the heart of every innovation: “Number one, all we care about is our customer success; everything that we do is about the customer. We are laser-focused on the customer. We’re not worried about ERP, we’re not worried about consumer electronics, we’re not worried about servers, storage. Some of those five that you’re referring to, that’s their world -- that’s not our world. And I think that world largely represents the past, and our world is about the future -- It’s about customer engagement and growth. That’s our vision, that’s our mission.”

Although technical innovation, product enhancements, and new solutions remain the concentration of Salesforce’s core business offerings, culture serves as the force that drives delivery and performance. Salesforce describes this philosophy as Ohana:

Many years ago, Marc Benioff had a vision of a company with a purpose beyond profit ... a company built around the spirit of Ohana. In Hawaiian culture, Ohana represents the idea that families – blood-related, adopted, or intentional – are bound together, and that family members are responsible for one another. Today, the #SalesforceOhana is our close-knit ecosystem of employees, customers, partners, and communities. We take care of each other, have fun together, and work collaboratively to make the world a better place.

The Power of Purpose

Back in June, we explored the undeniable sway that corporate culture holds over a company’s failure or success, particularly in talent acquisition and engagement. Some analysts attribute the problem to the pitfalls of an overly automated society. In an opinion piece for the Guardian, David Boyle discusses the rise of the Absent Corporation, where the last vestiges of human support have been reduced to impersonal, detached, computerized solutions -- or replaced entirely by online ratings systems: “You can see it as corporate functions shrink down to finance, with everything else outsourced or replaced with algorithms. And as customer-facing staff are transformed into security personnel, whose task is to prevent customers messing with the machinery.”

Boyle has a point to make, especially in context of the emergency call box that directed him to a recorded message stating that no police were available to assist -- then disconnected. I’m sure we’ve all had encounters with organizations that place a low premium on old-fashioned interaction. Maybe for some, the pressures to automate have influenced that apathy. However, this seems a little like killing the messenger to me. Automation, when done correctly, enables human processes to be more human. Advances in digital intelligence are actually paving the way for enhanced employee experiences, which we explored in March. I don’t think automation is the culprit here -- it comes down to culture and the decisions made within that culture.

Over the past few years, an increasing number of employment surveys have emphasized the critical role that a company’s mission plays in acquiring and retaining top talent. According to Harvard Business Review, a report by Calling Brands revealed that: “Working for an organization with a clearly defined purpose is second only to pay and benefits in importance for employees, and ranks ahead of promotion opportunities, job responsibilities, and work culture. Two-thirds said a higher purpose would motivate them to go the extra mile in their jobs. A similar study by Net Impact showed that almost half of today’s workforce would take a 15% pay cut to work for an organization with an inspiring purpose.”

Some of the gig economy’s brightest stars have faded recently due to employees exposing troublesome work cultures. It’s our responsibility as stewards of the businesses we champion to help talent find their callings -- not just careers.

Talent who have found their calling in a position are deeply invested in the mission of the enterprise. They see their work as a form of self-fulfillment and personal expression. They don’t distinguish between their professional and personal aims. They view the office as an extension of their relationships and their communities. The job gives meaning to their ambitions and compels them to grow. We can talk of diversity all day in this industry, yet we seldom mean little more than hitting some metric. Ohana and similar cultures promote inclusion: uniting every worker, customer, and company in a shared value system where everyone has a voice, a unique perspective, and a place. That is how we succeed.

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