Salesforce co-CEO and board director Keith Block was recruited by the global
cloud computing company in June 2013 to turbocharge its high-performance
sales and marketing engine, and scale its already-strong culture. Over the
past five years, Block has been doing exactly that.
Since Block joined Salesforce, the company’s annual revenue has
skyrocketed — more than tripling to an expected $13-plus billion in fiscal
year 2019 — largely driven by Block’s focus on international expansion,
industry strategy and the growth of its partner ecosystem, as well as a
succession of acquisitions that he championed.
Despite the company’s rapid growth, Salesforce has remained true to its
core values and created a world-renowned culture, earning the top spot on
Fortune’s World's Best Workplaces list two years in a row.
How is that possible?
That’s among the questions Spencer Stuart’s Jason Hancock posed when he
recently sat down with Block to discuss the challenges — and opportunities
— that arise when companies achieve extraordinary business growth.
Spencer Stuart: Salesforce has grown exponentially since you’ve been with the company. Tell us about
the challenges you saw when you got there, then describe what you’ve done to enable the company
to grow to where it is today.
Keith Block: Salesforce was very successful before I showed up five years ago. It was a $4 billion company then, and
this fiscal year we’ll do more than $13 billion in revenue. At that size and scale, our growth is unprecedented.
One of the most important things that has enabled us to grow is our culture. I heard a lot about the culture before I
came over here, but until you really experience and understand the importance of the culture to the company, you
don’t really get an appreciation for what it’s all about. It’s the connective tissue at Salesforce, and I’ve never
observed a company that has anything like it.
The first of our four core values is trust. Because if you don’t have trust with
your employees, your partners, your customers and your communities, then
you don’t have anything.
We are 32,000-plus people flying in formation who
embrace the values. We walk the walk and talk the talk.
It's the life force for our company, and it’s a guiding light
in so many things that we do: our business decisions,
and the way that we deal with our customers, our partners
and our employees.
Describe in your own words the culture and values
of the company.
The first of our four core values is trust. Because if you
don't have trust with your employees, your partners, your
customers and your communities, then you don't have
anything. And that is really backed up by our business
model: Unlike the perpetual license model that most software
companies use, we pioneered a subscription model
in which the customer can choose to walk away at the end
of the term. That’s why building trust is paramount
We're an incredibly transparent company. Just to give
you an example, on our website we have an area called
"Trust," which actually tells you about the real-time
performance of our infrastructure. Everything is in there
for our customers to see, and that’s something I hadn’t
seen other companies do before Salesforce.
This transparency helps drive our annual business plan,
called the V2MOM, which stands for Vision, Values,
Methods, Obstacles and Metrics. [Co-CEO Marc Benioff]
and I publish our V2MOM, along with every employee at
the company. These V2MOMs are all publicly available
on our internal social network, Chatter, so that every
employee knows what our priorities are for the year.
Our second value is customer success, and this, again,
is something that our 32,000 employees embrace every
day, whether they’re in finance, HR, engineering, sales,
service or marketing. Everything pivots around the
customer and making sure the customer is successful.
That, too, can be traced back to our business model,
because when our customers are successful, our business
The third value is innovation, which is very cellular for us.
We innovate both organically and inorganically, and we
bring what we call the “beginner’s mind” to everything we
do. Talent obviously drives a lot of our innovation, and
that’s critical in who we hire, develop and acquire. But a
lot of the innovation at Salesforce doesn’t just come from
our employees. It comes from our customers.
The last core value is equality, which we feel very
strongly about. We've taken some very public positions
around equality. Probably the most notable is our position
fighting for LGBTQ rights in Indiana. It really comes
down to protecting our employees and making sure they
feel safe and secure in the workplace and in their
communities. We believe in equality, and we believe that
manifests itself in education, the environment and in
gender equality — and we all live and breathe it.
Equality not only means equal opportunity; it also
means equal pay. Every year, we adjust the payrolls to
make sure that we have equal pay. I’m personally very
passionate about that. My wife and I have five children,
and why our two daughters wouldn’t have the same
opportunities as their three older brothers is beyond me.
How do you handle folks who don’t fit in within the
culture? What systems and programs are in place to
ensure that good performers stay aboard even
though they may be a little different?
Because of our size and scale, we hire thousands of
people each year. And when you hire that many people,
you’re not going to be right 100 percent of the time.
We’re very deliberate about setting people up to be
successful with the right systems and mentoring. Some
people may not make it because of performance, and
then there are people who, quite frankly, don’t fit culturally.
Just making their numbers won’t keep them here.
They have to embody our culture and values as well.
How do you assess for cultural fit when you’re
hiring someone from the outside?
I’m sure all companies say this, but we have a very rigorous
process. When we interview people, we assess
benchmarks related to our values, which is not always
easy to do. We've seen some very successful people on
paper who would not be a good fit here, and we've
passed. It’s easy to hire people because they have a
great résumé. But it's been proven over and over again
here that if you don’t align with our core values, it's not
going to be a successful outcome.
How do you decide whether to promote from
within, or hire from outside and risk losing the
internal candidate because they didn’t get the
job they wanted?
One of the advantages we have is our incredible
growth, and that growth creates opportunity for people,
both within and outside of the company, to grow their
careers at Salesforce.
We're not afraid to try people out in a role that's in a
completely different line of business. For example, we've
had CMOs who were never in marketing. Our previous
CMO, Simon Mulcahy, actually worked for the World
Economic Forum for years, and he was more of a management-consulting
type. But even though he didn't have a
marketing background, he was brilliant; he understood
our industry and he was incredibly creative.
We don't just do this for the employees; it's also great
for the company because they bring that “beginner's
mind” to a new job. They see things that people didn't
see before. So we do like to promote from within, but we
also like to sprinkle in people from the outside because
an outside perspective is good.
If you scale a company, you need a combination of
people you can promote from within, people you can
rotate around in a job function and people you can
bring in from the outside. All of them have their risks,
to be perfectly frank. I'd love to say that we're batting
one thousand, but you just try to mitigate the risk and
put the best talent in the best position.
What impact has all the acquisition activity had
on the company? You have an evolving culture,
but when you acquire, you’re bringing a new
organ into the body. How do you stop the body
from rejecting that organ?
It starts when we're evaluating companies. When we do
our due diligence, it's kind of a no-brainer that we would
work out the product and go-to-market strategies, and
the financial merit of the acquisition. But we also do an
assessment for cultural fit. We have found that if you
acquire a company that does not align with your core
values, you will get what you referred to as organ rejection.
And it won't just be the leadership, it will permeate
throughout the entire organization.
So, always, always, always, as part of any acquisition, we
assess the cultural fit. We also talk about what the longterm
vision is for them. That's from the very beginning.
It's not after the acquisition is made.
As hard as these things are, more than 90 percent of the
employees who have come from acquisitions have
stayed at Salesforce for at least one year.
We believe in equality, and we believe that manifests itself in education, the
environment and in gender equality — and we all live and breathe it.
More than 90 percent? Wow!
I know, it's a remarkable statistic, and we're really proud
of it. People want to be here. They see that we're investing
in their companies, and we're investing in them. That
cultural environment is a talent magnet.
For example, our most recent acquisition, the software
company MuleSoft, is going incredibly well. Unprompted
by us, their employees created this video at their headquarters
with this giant “Thank you” to Salesforce, and
they were so excited to be part of the company. That
wasn't something that Salesforce put together — it was
something MuleSoft put together.
Culture really is everything, because it drives talent,
and talent makes the world go around.
Not every M&A exercise is perfect, and they all have
their challenges, but we look at the table stakes that you
would expect people to evaluate as part of an acquisition.
But the culture is very important, and the location
is also very important. Do we have offices in the same
location? Because we want to make sure that we have
cultural ambassadors who are embedded in the offices
of the companies that we acquire. So we do a great job
of plugging these people in when they come onboard.
Drawing on all that you’ve experienced at Salesforce,
what advice would you give to other senior leaders?
Culture really is everything, because it drives talent, and
talent makes the world go around. If you have a really
strong culture that is values-based — rooted in trust and
focused on making your customers successful — and if
you have an environment where employees feel like
they've been heard, and it's also a fun, creative place to
be, those are very powerful ingredients. Don't pay lip
service to the culture and don't pay lip service to the
values. You have to find a way — your own way — to
make sure that every employee really embraces and
aligns with those values and that culture. And I do
think it becomes the heartbeat for a company.
You have to find a way — your own way — to make
sure that every employee really embraces and aligns
with those values and that culture. And I truly think it
becomes the heartbeat for a company.