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Salesforce’s Marc Benioff On The Power Of Values

“There’s all this incredible energy in your company and you can unleash it for good,” says the CEO. “All you have to do is open the door.”

Salesforce’s Marc Benioff On The Power Of Values
Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce [Photo: Flickr user SwissnexSF/Myleen Hollero]

Fast Company‘s latest cover story explores the various ways values and social responsibility are having an impact at companies such as Facebook, Airbnb, and Uber. Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff has long pushed his company and employees to make a positive difference in the world. I spoke to him recently about his company’s approach.

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Fast Company: You have talked about Salesforce as a company with purpose beyond profit. Can you explain that?

Marc Benioff: My goals for the company are to do well and do good. The most important thing to me is that we bring along all our stakeholders with us. We had a vision from the beginning that not only would we have a new technology model, which was the cloud, not only would we have a new business model, which was subscription, but we’d have a new philanthropic model, which is 1-1-1. [Salesforce commits 1% of its equity, employees’ time, and product to nonprofit work.] As the CEO I need to embrace all of my stakeholders, not just all of my shareholders. What I’m trying to do is maximize stakeholder value.

FC: How does doing good help bottom-line performance?

MB: Well, we’re the fastest growing software company of all time, so I hope it’s connected. [Laughs.] If you go to my Twitter page you can see the revenue chart. It’s a direct connection to our values. Not only are we building a great product but we’re building a great company that is trying to create a great world. Certainly it’s a source of great talent. People come to the company and stay because of the incredible opportunity and impact that they’re having on the world. Business is a great platform for change. When a business like Salesforce gets to scale, with 25,000 employees and customers all over the world, you have an opportunity to influence them in a positive way. I do believe we’re having that impact. You can see it in Pledge 1%, where the 1-1-1 idea has spread to thousands of companies.

FC: Does Wall Street support this idea?

MB: Wall Street is agnostic in terms of picking one philosophy or the other. But they certainly do invest and support companies that do good work. We’ve been public since 2004, you look at our chart, we’ve had a really good run, and I do connect that back to [the fact] that we’re building a great company. It is part of our differentiation. As you differentiate against an SAP or an Oracle or a Microsoft, Salesforce is indeed different.

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FC: There seems to be heightened discussion and activity from corporate leaders on policy issues in recent months. Is that directly related to a new administration?

MB: I think you saw it before that. You’ve seen the rise of more activist CEOs who stand for things and represent their employees and their stakeholders in the same way a politician would represent the people who vote for them. I think CEOs have to think this way. They have to understand that they represent their stakeholders, all of them. They need to be able to speak and act on behalf of them.

When I went to school for business, we were not taught this. It was not part of my education. I was taught marketing and organizational development, that sort of thing, I certainly was not taught stakeholder management. This is something I’ve learned, honestly, since I started Salesforce.

I’ll come back to the 1-1-1. Because of 1-1-1, we got involved with so many nonprofits and NGOs. We support 30,000 of them. Many of these people I had never interacted with, and they really impacted my consciousness, how I think about the world. They are working on health care and the environment and with developing nations, areas where I have not spent that much time. Those conversations have been extremely valuable. What I realized is we can help them and support them in our work. As we’ve done that, our employees get a much higher level of satisfaction and fulfillment, knowing that they work for a company that supports that.

We give our employees the ability to have direct involvement too. One of our executives just went to set up a school in Africa. We give them four hours a month paid time off, six days a year—we’re paying them for their volunteerism. That only creates a better company. It’s quite selfish in many ways. This has probably done more for Salesforce. And that’s why I encourage other CEOs and entrepreneurs to take this on.

FC: When you first started doing this 18 years ago, it was novel. Do you feel the expectations on business leaders has changed since that time?

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MB: Yes, increasingly so. I think you’ll see that continue to accelerate. There’s a shift for CEOs to be focused on all their stakeholders, not just their shareholders, and I think that will be more and more true.

FC: Are there cultural elements driving this?

MB: Absolutely. You can look to millennials, they have a desire to work for companies that have meaning. Yes, they want a company that is making money, focused on profitability and market share and all of that, but also that there is meaning to their work, that they’re actually improving the state of the world.

When I was at Oracle, I felt deeply inside myself that there was this bifurcation. I was working for this company, and that was one way of life, and there was another way of life that was nonprofit world or spiritual world, whatever you want to call it. I went on this tour of India in 1996, talking to gurus, incense wafting over us, and all of a sudden it became clear to me that there was a way to integrate all of this, that you could do both at the same time. Why do I have to be two people? Can’t I just be one person? I want to live an integrated life. I want to be an integrated leader.

A lot of people feel like they have multiple lives. They compartmentalize. I have an integrated life. I have one set of values, and I project that through all of my work. I’m not perfect, I have incongruency, but I try to work on that. This kind of integration is something we can all strive for. I know that the work I’m doing is making the world better. Salesforce helps hospitals and schools and all kinds of nonprofits. Salesforce gives guidance to our employees to get out there and volunteer. And I think that’s why we have high levels of satisfaction in our employees. And why we can attract people. We are creating an environment that gives them satisfaction in their work, not just financial gains.

FC: The trust people have in government is waning. Is trust in business leaders growing?

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MB: Nothing is more important today for business than trust. The Edelman Trust Barometer says trust with CEOs, companies, government is at the lowest point in a long time. We are in a crisis of trust. CEOs get caught in this crisis of trust and it gets amplified for them. That’s why I come back to that 1-1-1 model. It brings a set of values into the company. If you do have an incongruent moment, you’re going to be able to seek forgiveness for that. I’ve had those moments myself. For those people who are only out there to make money, when you hit that incongruent moment, you don’t get air cover, you’re going to be in trouble because you didn’t create the good karma.

You have the opportunity to set up companies that do good in the world. It’s easy. There’s all this incredible energy in your company and you can unleash it for good. If you’re not unleashing it, you’re missing something. I really think people are inherently good and want to give, I think companies are inherently good and want to give. The ability to do it is relatively straightforward. All you have to do is open the door.

FC: So is this more important than meeting the expectations of Wall Street?

MB: You have to be able to do both. It’s not an either/or. Yes, you better hit your revenue and earnings goals. But there is no linear success. If you look at my stock chart, you’re going to see ups and downs, but where is it over time? From that same perspective, your company isn’t always going to be perfect, we’re human beings, there are going to be problems and challenges along the way. But when you aggregate it all up, it’s like the stock. What is your compound growth rate of your equity over the years? What is your compound growth rate of good over the lifetime of your company?

In 2008 I went to Bhutan. They don’t measure gross domestic product. They measure gross national happiness. We don’t live in Bhutan, but we can look to Bhutan for inspiration—we can have companies with more happiness and satisfaction and fulfillment but that are also able to achieve strong financial outcomes. This something every CEO can do, easily, and I’m encouraging companies to do this. It’s probably more important than any time in human history that we’re all focused on improving the state of the world.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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