Marc Benioff would have you believe he’s not the revolutionist everyone perceives him to be.
The Salesforce founder, co-CEO, and chairman paints himself as a reluctant participant in the social strifes of the day, dragged into fighting battles on behalf of his workforce. By presenting himself not as a firebrand but as a manifestation of his organization’s collective willpower, the billionaire seems to gain himself the moral high ground, like a pacifistic Atticus Finch, gunning down society’s rabid dogs, unwillingly, when—and only when—it’s clear he’s the one person equipped to do so, and that it’s for the greater good.
“I got labeled an activist CEO,” Benioff said at the annual meeting of Fortune’s CEO Initiative on Tuesday morning. “This is not me. It’s not about me,” he said, while offering up a brief pitch for Trailblazer, his upcoming book on the civic responsibilities of business.
“I didn’t become this activist CEO,” Benioff continued, speaking on stage at the Wagner Hotel in lower Manhattan. “I got pushed by my employees into it. My job as CEO is to listen deeply to my employees and customers and to respond to them effectively.”
Benioff’s self-professed demureness jars against the popular conception of the salesman extraordinaire, whose flashy Hawaiian shirt wardrobe, vocal Twitter pulpit, and penchant for parties lend the executive the appearance of a man more than happy to cannonball-dive into just about any fray. It’s hard not to imagine that, even as Benioff describes his personal disinclination toward fight-picking, not a little marketing is going on. The newfound modesty, perhaps a conscious posturing, recalls the “refusal of the call,” a rite of passage along the hero’s journey.
Salesforce’s history is full of squabbles. In 2015, when Indiana considered passing a law that would allow business to reject LGBTQ customers in the name of “religious freedom,” Benioff intervened. Last year he publicly needled the CEO of Twitter over a tax policy related to San Francisco’s homelessness problem. When staff questioned the ethics of providing software to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the company tossed the decision to an internal ethics arbitrator, which opted to retain the agency as a customer. (Benioff defended the decision, which earned him criticism from some corners.)
The tussles have continued. In May, Salesforce pulled the plug on gun-slingers using its so-called e-commerce cloud to sell bump stocks, controversial gear for semi-automatic weapons. The company determined these sales to be against its values. (Benioff is a known proponent of stronger gun laws.)
It’s no longer sufficient for businesses—and their leaders—to keep quiet on hot-button issues, Benioff sympathizers argue. Once staid, silent, and content myopically to chase profits, old-school corporate executives are finding themselves at sea amid a demographic shift. “What happened in the last decade is millennials have entered the workforce and companies like mine are far more active and involved in creating the culture,” Benioff said, noting that this responsibility is no longer “the lonely job of the HR exec.”
Younger generations “want to be in an environment and business that’s about purpose. They want to make sure the company they’re in is committed to improving the state of the world,” Benioff said. If businesspeople think that’s rough, just wait until the next wave of youth enters the workforce, which Benioff forecast as being “two-to-three times” as mission-obsessed.
“You can’t focus on everything, do everything,” Benioff conceded. “You’re not gonna take on every cause, but you do need to have a North Star, and it better be around a structured process to make that happen.”
Of course, for all this talk, Benioff could not entirely eradicate all traces of the incorrigible visionary he harbors. A touch of that alternate persona slipped into view as he drew a comparison between the reasons for business do-gooderism and the impetus behind Salesforce’s recent blockbuster acquisition.
“Like Tableau,” Benioff said, referring to the data visualization software company he bought for nearly $16 billion in stock just a day prior, “I’m doing this because it’s customer-driven.”
“Investors are not crazy about” that deal, noted Alan Murray, Fortune’s CEO and the session’s moderator. Indeed, the price of Salesforce shares (CRM) dipped as much as 5% on the news.
“They will see, as they’ve always seen, how amazing it will be,” Benioff replied with self-assurance. “It’s just a spectacular combination.”
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