Salesforce founder Marc Benioff: What business school never taught me

In an interview with Fortune, the billionaire tech mogul shares the surprising secret of his success.
October 15, 2019 4:01 AM UTC
Marc Benioff sitting
Marc Benioff, Chairman and CEO of Salesforce.com, in San Francisco on April 2, 2018
Matt Edge—The New York Times/Redux

On the eve of the release of Marc Benioff’s latest book, Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, Fortune Editor-in-Chief Clifton Leaf talked with the Salesforce co-CEO and founder about why women and men are often paid so differently, what’s really generating value in businesses today, and why some big tech companies just don’t get it. Below, the conversation, edited for clarity and continuity—plus an excerpt from Trailblazer.

Fortune: The central premise of your book, which you co-wrote with Monica Langley, is that a company’s “values create value”—at least when they are truly embedded in the business rather than, as often seems to be the case, limited to words on a plaque at headquarters. This notion is at the heart of what you call the “new capitalism.” What exactly is the new capitalism—and what happened to the old one?

Benioff: I would say that capitalism, as we know it, is dead. And that businesses have to move to a new capitalism: a more equal, fair, and sustainable way of doing business—one that values all stakeholders as well as shareholders. And Salesforce is living proof that the new capitalism can work. Since Salesforce was founded nearly 21 years ago, with the focus on all stakeholders, we’ve grown from a pioneering idea to a $131 billion [in market capitalization] company known for our innovation, our culture, and for being a great place to work. For me, as the co-CEO, investors are a key stakeholder. And since becoming a public company in 2004, Salesforce has delivered a [nearly] 3,500% return to our shareholders. But the new capitalism is one where we value all of our stakeholders: our customers and our employees, our public schools, our planet, as well as our shareholders. And going forward, this stakeholder return is as important as the shareholder return. That’s why we’ve given $300 million in grants towards worthy causes, our employees have volunteered 4 million hours to the community, and 40,000 nonprofits and NGOs use a billion dollars of our software for free each year. It’s also why we work so hard to evangelize to all businesses and to all CEOs that this really works—that this is an amazing way to run a business.

Let me drill down into that for a minute. You mentioned the nearly 3,500% return to shareholders since Salesforce went public in 2004. [Editor’s Note: As of press time, the company’s shares are up 3,374% from their first-day close and more than 5,300% from the offering price.] Your stock is up 173% over the past 5 years in total return, which beats the stocks of Apple, Facebook, and Google (Alphabet) over that same time frame. But there was a time in early 2017, after a stretch when the share price seemed to limp, when even Salesforce had some activist investors nipping at the company’s heels.

What did you tell your own institutional shareholders who might have been looking for that bump in the stock then, and who might have been inclined to support an activist campaign? How did you convince them that Salesforce’s “values” were really driving business when the share price seemed to be reflecting something else?

Well, I told them exactly what I just said: that this really works, that we strongly believe in what we’re doing and how we’re running the business. We made no changes. We’ve gone through two major recessions. We have gone through major economic cycles, ups and downs. We’ve gone through major business cycles—that’s a normal, healthy part of running the business. And we are focused on the shareholder return. But we also are focused hand-in-hand on the stakeholder return. And we think our shareholder return is higher than others over the long-term because we have focused on all stakeholders.

You talked before about evangelizing to other CEOs the need for this multi-stakeholder view. And you make clear in the book that a fair number of those running big technology companies—your own sector—don’t necessarily follow that playbook.

I think that this is a critical time for our industry. If trust is not your highest value, your employees will walk out. You can see we have examples in our industry where that’s happening. And your customers are going to walk out—We have examples of that too. And your investors will walk out.

Early in the book, you share a story about being on a panel at the 2018 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, with a few other well-known tech CEOs. To the surprise of many, you effectively described some now-ubiquitous parts of modern technology—in particular, social media—as being akin to credit-default swaps, sugar, and cigarettes: They were “all harmful products,” you said, “that companies had been allowed to peddle to customers, unconstrained by regulations designed to protect the public.”

When I called Facebook the new cigarettes, which is kind of what I said at Davos in January of 2018, a lot of people didn’t know what I was saying at that point. But now they do. They understand: It’s not good for you; it’s addictive. They’re after your kids. They need to be regulated. I felt very much alone on that panel, but today I don’t feel that way.

I just saw this movie on Netflix called “The Great Hack” (a documentary about how personal data gathered from social media platforms was used to manipulate voters in the 2016 presidential election). It was amazing. And I’m like, “Wow, people are understanding this now!” And I think that our industry, companies in our industry, have to get committed to a higher value.

By the way, our industry started with these values. You look at people like [Hewlett-Packard cofounders] Bill Hewlett and David Packard—this was the way they built companies in the early days of Silicon Valley. But we’ve definitely strayed a little bit, and that’s why I’m excited that now 9,000 companies have adopted our 1-1-1 Model [giving 1% of a company’s product, 1% of equity, and 1% of employee time to philanthropic causes]. I can give you a lot of examples of companies that now do everything that we’re doing, have volunteerism built in, take activist positions. Apple is one; Paypal is one. And many other companies are doing the same. So that’s exciting.

Marc Benioff at the 2018 World Economic Forum
Marc R. Benioff, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce, Member of the Board of Trustees of World Economic Forum, attends the WEF annual meeting in 2018.
Denis Balibouse—Reuters

You write that Salesforce has four core values—trust, customer success (which you call an analog for growth), innovation, and equality—that drive the company. How do you actually embed those values into the company’s day-to-day operations?

These four core values, and even sustainability, are all dancing together at Salesforce. And you do have different groups or teams or moments in time when you want to prioritize things differently. But you operationalize those values. Like you might ask, “What are the three things that we’re going to do right now to create trust, which is our highest value? What are the three things we’re going to do to create customer success? What are the three things we’re going to do right now to spark innovation or ensure equality? And what’s preventing us from getting these things, or how will we know that we have these things?” That’s our process.

Which brings me to one of the most compelling tales in the book—when you discovered, in 2015, how out-of-sync compensation was for men and women at the company, by comparable role and region. As the result of that first audit, Salesforce spent about $3 million to raise the comp, mostly of women, to bring about gender parity. Then a year later, you had to do it again. And then a third time. In all, you spent $8.7 million, as you write in the book, to eliminate such pay disparities by gender, race, and ethnicity. What I found myself wondering is, what did you learn about the way women and men were being hired, and then managed and promoted at Salesforce that might have accounted for the disparity? And what did you begin to change, at a structural or management level, as a result?

Well, there are two things. Because this is a subconscious bias, you have to monitor and measure it on a regular basis. So this is just happening automatically when people are getting hired. But number two is, we didn’t realize that when we acquired companies, we weren’t just buying their innovation, we were also buying their pay scales. And that can really, really impact you as a CEO—if you buy a company and you’ve done all this good work, and now you discover that they had the wrong pay scale.

What business books talk about that? Even go back and look at every article ever written in Fortune magazine. You’re not going to find an article that says, “When you acquire a company, make sure you not only look at technology, but that you also look at the culture, and the ethics, and the leadership—Oh, and look at the pay scales as well.” That’s not part of how [most companies] do things.

But now, we have to look at it constantly and transactionally. So when my head of corporate development comes in and says, “Hey, we’re going to buy this company,” I will say, “Okay, how much are the workers paid? Show me the pay scales. Are men and women paid differently?”

That problem seems ubiquitous.

Well, Fortune is about to have its “Most Powerful Women” Conference and those women know they’re getting paid less than their male peers. And my female employees knew, too, but the male employees didn’t necessarily know. That’s reality: men don’t really realize it, but women do know. And also in journalism, too, it’s the same thing. It’s true across industry and geography—but you know, here’s the thing, Cliff: When I went to business school, which was from 1982 to 1986 at USC, I didn’t take any classes on equality. Or on sustainability. Or on stakeholderism. I took none of those classes. The classes I took were on accounting, marketing, organizational behavior, leadership. That’s what business was. Well, that’s not what leadership and business is today.

Factoring in pay scales as part of the corporate acquisition process, I would imagine, could have a cascading effect on companies across Silicon Valley. It’s a bit like how when Walmart makes a change, it affects all of their suppliers down the line.        

Well, that’s why business can be the greatest platform for change—because you can impact your whole ecosystem as a CEO. As CEO, one of my key stakeholders are my suppliers. I can impact them [through my actions], but I also have to be sensitive to how I’m impacting them.

Salesforce is, of course, a public company—which means that every corporate policy change you put in place—such as readjusting salaries for more equal pay between women and men—is done under the glaring eye of investors. One might think that such practices would be easier to put in place if you were privately held. But you’re actually a big believer in the transparency demanded of public companies—and the discipline that comes with that.

Okay, here’s why. Because when you go public, it’s a cleansing. When you start to apply things like Sarbanes-Oxley, SEC regulations, governance, quarterly board meetings, investor statements, earning calls, it’s a cleansing—and it’s very healthy. And I think that a lot of these companies, they stay private too long. We went public when we were $100 million in revenue. That was a great thing for us. That gave us a lot of strength. But it also really emphasized for us that we could make this stakeholder model work. Go back and look. You can see that in 2004, when we went public, that is when our stakeholder model actually started to accelerate—because we were able to give more away, we were scaling, we were communicating more about how we operate. Now we even have a Stakeholder Impact Report that we issue, not just a Shareholder Report.

Do you think that regulatory agencies like the SEC will begin to require such corporate stakeholder reports the way they now require financial statements?

It absolutely should be a key requirement that the SEC and other regulators need to put into place. We need to have structural reforms to encourage this stakeholder concept, including companies publishing their stakeholder report.

In Trailblazer, you write about several instances where Salesforce found itself confronting a government policy that seemed to be at odds with the company’s core values—and you discovered what now seems to be an increasingly common reality at big companies today: pressure from employees to take a stand. As you put it:  “If the leadership won’t act, they’ll have to face the bayonets poking up from below.” That was the case, for example, when you learned that Salesforce software was being used in the government’s border operations, which had resulted in the separation of migrant children from their families. And as you discuss in the book, that raised a whole new test of values: how your products were being used in the world.

Well, we can no longer wash our hands of what people do with our products. In our industry, we have to be focused on the ethical use of our technology, and how we are going to ensure that our products are being used appropriately—especially as we move into artificial intelligence.

Isn’t that a slippery slope? What about fast food restaurant chains and or companies that make sugary drinks—should they be responsible for any downstream health problems their products might cause? At what point does this responsibility chain end?

It’s a question for all of us. And that’s why about a year ago my company put in place an Office of Ethical and Humane Use, led by a team of people who do nothing but ask what you just asked—which is look at how our products are being used. Because that has to be the cornerstone of how we operate. That’s also why we recently banned assault weapons (and products like bump stocks) being sold on our commerce cloud—because they determined that it was not ethical. That’s our new world. And other retailers like Walmart are going to do the same thing, where they have to ask: Is it ethical how their platforms are being used?

What do you say to people who say, “Okay, these are values, but they’re liberal values”—or “they’re your values and I have different values?”

This is not about being right or being left or Democrat or Republican. Those are false choices. This is about being anchored to a set of core values, and also being focused on all stakeholders. That’s why I think this is so important. This isn’t a liberal system of belief or a conservative one. That’s a false choice I think. This is a new capitalism.

And you see this “new capitalism” as truly a different economic system than capitalism?

Yes, one where values are creating value. If trust isn’t your highest value, like we were just talking about, the employees will walk out. Customers will walk out, investors will walk out, leaders will walk out, and you’re seeing that more every day. And that’s why I wrote the book, because you need examples, and you need frameworks and guidebooks—and because, as I said earlier, in business school, this is not the education I got. So maybe this book can help.


Excerpt from Trailblazer, by Marc Benioff and Monica Langley

the cover of Marc Benioff's book
The book Trailblazer, by Marc Benioff and Monica Langley.
Courtesy of Penguin Random House

On a snowy morning in Switzerland, one simple truth became clear to Salesforce founder Marc Benioff: Capitalism would need to chart a new direction if it were to survive.

Packed into the giant auditorium, in every seat and lining the walls, was a veritable army of global influence: leading politicians, executives, bureaucrats, academics, journalists, and policy experts. On either side of me sat my four fellow panelists, an esteemed group of technology CEOs and thought leaders. Behind us, the title of the keynote panel that was about to commence flashed on the screen in giant, intimidating type. It wasn’t a title, really—more like a loaded question: In Technology We Trust?

As we sipped water and smoothed the creases in our jackets, our moderator, the business journalist Andrew Ross Sorkin, kicked things off by declaring that the public’s eroding confidence in the judgment of technology companies was “the most pivotal and important discussion that’s taking place right now, really in industry anywhere.”

He was right. In early 2018, the tech industry was experiencing an acute crisis of trust. Recent revelations of alarming privacy breaches at Facebook, and even possible Russian-backed voter manipulation in the 2016 presidential election, were not sitting well with a large portion of the American public. The burning question on many of the minds gathered here at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, was a deceptively simple one: What are we going to do about it?

Technology is a field to which I have devoted my entire career. I’ve often marveled at how today’s advances in computing have transformed the way we live and work. During the last decade, the start of a period often referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we saw extraordinary advancements in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and genetic engineering, robotics, and 5G connectivity. Massive tributaries of digital information are now flowing at a speed and scale unthinkable even a decade ago while AI and robotics are breaking down barriers between humans and machines. Everyone and everything on the planet is becoming connected, creating complex business challenges and disruptions nobody could have foreseen.

I’ve always believed that technology holds the potential to flatten the world in wonderful ways; to foster a more open, diverse, trusting, and inclusive society while creating once-unthinkable opportunities for billions of people. Just one year from the publication of this book, it’s likely that more people on the planet will have mobile phones than have running water or electricity in their homes.

But it had also become clear that technology is no panacea and such outcomes were far from guaranteed. New pressures and dangers had emerged, and with them came moral conundrums that none of us had ever considered. The global inequality gap had caused an erosion of trust in institutions, while complex social and economic issues including privacy, ethics, education, the future of work, and the health of the planet had begun to insert themselves, often uncomfortably, into the corporate agenda. On that snowy morning in Davos, one simple truth had become abundantly clear: These issues could no longer be dismissed as the domain of nonprofits, activists, or philanthropists. Every business, old or new, was struggling to figure out how to operate in a world where customers were beginning to hold them to higher moral and ethical standards.

A new day was dawning, whether we were prepared for it or not.

Meanwhile, the message I’d been hearing from my own employees, customers, and other stakeholders at Salesforce was simple: The world was changing, and the essential nature of what a business is, and how it should operate, needed to evolve. These weren’t temporary, or incremental, shifts, either. They were structural and permanent. And to meet these challenges of the future, the one essential element every company needed most was what Salesforce had adopted two decades earlier as its number one value: trust.

In the panel’s opening minutes, Ruth Porat, CFO of Alphabet (parent company of Google) remarked that she believed the public hadn’t lost trust in Google; after all, she pointed out, people kept returning to its platforms daily to perform trillions of searches. It was a line of argument I’d heard from my tech colleagues many times before.

When it was my turn to speak, I said, “Trust has to be your highest value in your company. And if it’s not, something bad is going to happen.”

I could sense a ripple of discomfort in the room. After a short pause, I began by pointing out other moments in history when regulators had fallen asleep at the wheel. I mentioned tech in the same breath as credit-default swaps, sugar, cigarettes—harmful products that companies had been allowed to peddle to customers, unconstrained by regulations. Our industry had been given a regulatory pass for years, I continued. “When the CEOs won’t take responsibility,” I said, “then I think you have no choice but for the government to come in.”

When I arrived home from Davos, my phone began ringing nonstop. Leaders in the technology industry kept calling, one after another, to inform me that I had betrayed them. Apparently, I had broken ranks, or crossed some sort of imaginary line. And they didn’t like it. My wife, Lynne, jokingly started calling me “the regulator.”

Crawling out on that limb was, at the time, a scary feeling. As a lifelong champion of technology, I felt deeply conflicted about my new role as its apparent chief critic. But no amount of scorn could persuade me that growth, innovation, profit, or any other motive, was more critical to the success of a business than building and sustaining people’s trust.

I decided to write this book because I genuinely believe we are on the brink of a Fifth Industrial Revolution, one in which trust will be earned by those companies that apply the technologies developed in the Fourth to improving the state of the world. In the future, innovation cannot advance in a positive direction unless it’s grounded in genuine and continued efforts to lift up all of humanity. Companies, and the people who lead them, can no longer afford to separate business objectives from the social issues surrounding them. They can no longer view their mission as a set of binary choices: growing vs. giving back, making a profit vs. promoting the public good, or innovating vs. making the world a better place.

Rather, it must be and doing well by doing good is no longer just a competitive advantage. It’s becoming a business imperative.

On that snowy weekend in Davos in 2018, I finally realized that the tables had turned. Salesforce, the company I’d led for almost twenty years, was guiding me in a new direction.

Lots of businesses talk about values, but in turbulent times, when they matter most, executives often forget to operationalize them. They see values as expensive luxuries that should remain nailed harmlessly to the wall when making major business decisions. If some new product or initiative does not seem to advance the company’s stated values, many CEOs seek solace by distancing themselves. They rationalize that it’s really not their business to monitor how people use the products they offer to the world.

At Salesforce, a series of leadership trials and challenges we faced—and the bumpy, sometimes painful, occasionally inspiring, process of addressing them—ultimately changed how I understood the future of business, upending my perception of what made the company work.

If there’s one thing that these experiences taught me, it’s that tough times are when values and culture matter most.

Excerpted from the book Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, by Marc Benioff and Monica Langley, published in the U.S. by Currency, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC and in the UK by Simon & Schuster UK Limited. Copyright © 2019 by Salesforce.com, Inc. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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