Wisdom//

Why CEOs Should Do More to Look Both Outward and Inward

Prime example: Marc Benioff.

Marc Benioff and Arianna Huffington at Dreamforce on October 16, 2014. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images)
Marc Benioff and Arianna Huffington at Dreamforce on October 16, 2014. (Photo by Tim Mosenfelder / Getty Images)

Later this month I’ll be heading out to San Francisco for one of my favorite events of the year: Dreamforce. On one level, it’s a sales conference hosted by Salesforce. On another, it’s like Burning Man with less dust and more clothes, and a lot more people. It’s an experience — one that changes not just how participants think about business, but how they think about everything, especially themselves and their role and responsibilities in the world.

Over 170,000 Salesforce employees, customers and investors will gather in downtown San Francisco, much of which is closed off for the event. Another 15 million people will join online. They’ll be able to choose from among more than 2,700 workshops and sessions, featuring speakers and performers like Tim Cook, Yo-Yo Ma and some former government official named Barack Obama. But it really feels more like a family reunion — it’s one of those events where the sum is greater than the parts — and the parts are pretty great. And it’s the only sales conference I’ve been to where it’s completely unsurprising to see this on the schedule:

Meditation with Monastics: Take a moment out for mindfulness at Dreamforce. Throughout the week, we offer daily meditations and teachings about the practice of mindfulness… Experience transformative meditation practices for work and home, which will empower you to create peace, stillness, and joy in a busy day, without having to make extra time.

Dreamforce is a perfect manifestation of its master of ceremonies, Marc Benioff, founder and co-CEO of Salesforce. Everything about the conference is an outgrowth of why Marc (who in full disclosure is an investor in Thrive) is a different kind of leader. He’s been on a mission to change business from the moment he founded Salesforce in 1999. That’s at least part of the subject of his new book Trailblazer: The Power of Business as the Greatest Platform for Change, which serves both as a history of what led to the creation of Salesforce — and along with it, Dreamforce — and a roadmap for what Marc calls “a new capitalism.”

The central premise of the book, Marc writes, is that “a culture rooted in values creates value.” It’s about how business needs to redefine its role in society. And not just because it’s the right thing to do. Companies “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,” he writes. “Rather, it must be and. Doing well by doing good is no longer just a competitive advantage. It’s becoming a business imperative.”

Of course, everybody talks about values and purpose. But for Marc, they’re woven into the DNA of Salesforce. In the book he describes being burned out while at Oracle and taking a sabbatical in India. There, he was told by a spiritual leader, “in your quest to succeed and make money, don’t forget to do something for others.” And something clicked for him. “With these words, the idea for Salesforce began to take shape,” he writes in the book. “I knew in my head that I wanted to build a company that harnessed innovative new technology, but in my heart, I also wanted it to be committed to giving back.”

And that’s exactly what Marc’s been doing for 20 years. One of the best examples of living one’s values is Salesforce’s 1:1:1 program, in which one percent of the company’s product, employee time and resources are given away. The result is millions of dollars and hours being given to charities and nonprofits.

You can see it in his response to his employees in Indiana when they challenged him after a 2015 law was passed there that discriminated against L.G.B.T.Q. people. Marc threatened to disinvest from the state. That opened the door for other business leaders to follow, and the bill was revised. “Our employees had essentially tested me,” he writes. “They needed to know that I was willing to stand on principle, no matter the consequences, so they could feel protected and free to bring their authentic selves to work.”

Another example Marc recounts in the book: His response when two senior female executives at Salesforce came to him about a pay gap at the company. At first he was skeptical. “It’s impossible because we have a great culture here,” he recalls thinking. But after an audit showed it was true, he didn’t just issue a statement, or appoint a committee to come up with proposals and future targets. He just spent $3 million to close the gap. When subsequent audits showed the gap hadn’t closed, Marc spent more, ultimately totaling over $10 million to get rid of pay disparities of all kinds. And it’s why Salesforce has a Chief Equality Officer today.

And you can definitely see those values manifested in the new San Francisco Salesforce Tower, which opened last year. Each floor has a mindfulness zone where, as Marc writes, “employees can retreat to any time they need to press Pause.”

In fact, he devotes an entire chapter of his book to how meditation helps him maintain a “beginner’s mind,” which means “opening yourself to curiosity, gratitude and learning.” And yes, Marc’s aware of the trendiness of meditation and unplugging — and addresses it head on. “From the outside, this might seem like a frivolous self-indulgence, or some flash-in-the-pan Silicon Valley fad,” he writes. “But I can tell you with utmost certainty, this practice hasn’t just made me a happier, more productive human being. It has also been an essential business strategy.” He goes on to connect the dots between specific jumps in growth for Salesforce and times when he made a point to “unplug and reconnect with my beginner’s mind.”

That’s why he writes that meditation is “one of the best investments” he’s ever made. He describes learning the practice from Thich Nhat Hanh, the renowned Buddhist monk, and what it does for him. “Anxiety disappears and a sense of timelessness takes hold,” he writes, “allowing qualities such as kindness, empathy and compassion to emerge.”

What I love about Marc is how he translates the impact of mindfulness and meditation directly into his ideas about what business should be about. “I’ve never been entirely convinced that the competitive nature of business today — and even the way we measure our success in it — are necessarily conducive to building a sustainably great company,” he writes. “But I’m increasingly becoming more convinced that they aren’t conducive to achieving happiness.” 

These ideas permeate Dreamforce. And it’s not just about being inspired and rejuvenated. It’s about being inspired to widen your own circle of concern. And that relentless focus is the key to Marc’s vision and leadership about why we need to redefine the role of business in society.

In the book, he talks a lot about the need to move beyond shareholders to stakeholders. The latter group includes, essentially, everybody — especially those around you all the time. “Your customer’s not a product, they’re a stakeholder,” he says, “Your employee’s not a cog in your wheel, they’re a stakeholder. And kids aren’t people you’re driving by on your way to work, they’re a stakeholder. And the homeless aren’t people you’re walking by, they’re your stakeholders.” It’s why Salesforce issues not just a shareholder report, but a Stakeholder Impact Report. It’s why he and his wife, Lynne, have given away hundreds of millions of dollars. And it’s why he’s unafraid to speak out on social issues.

And others are following. In August, the Business Roundtable, a group of nearly 200 American CEOs, issued a “Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation” — a pledge to work not just for shareholders, but for all stakeholders. And it echoes the work of  The B Team, which Richard Branson launched in 2013, to get business to move beyond the obsession with short-term growth. And it echoes the work of JUST Capital, which Paul Tudor Jones launched to build a more just marketplace that reflects people’s true values.

Which is all to say, I can’t wait for Dreamforce. It’s become an engine for Marc Benioff to scale his vision and send it out into the world. And you can take part by streaming it from here. “Imagine a future,” Benioff writes, “in which CEOs and their companies around the world applied the same focus and innovation they bring to solving their most complex business problems to solving our most complex social ones. Together, we can make that future a reality by creating cultures of activism where every individual is personally invested in making the world a better place.”

And we don’t have to only imagine it. We can actually create it.

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