How Salesforce overcame its pandemic ‘paralysis’ and learned to ‘lean into the change’


Radically adapting a business with more than 50,000 employees during a pandemic isn’t easy, even for one built specifically for the cloud era. But after almost 9 months, Salesforce has almost completely transformed just about aspect of the way it operates.

According to Salesforce president and COO Bret Taylor, that progress came after a slow start that resulted from the belief that any impact of COVID would be short-lived. Once the company shifted its view toward a long-term outlook, it moved swiftly to rethink just about everything and accelerate its internal digital transformation.

“It’s almost embarrassing when you’re a technology company and you encounter a year like this because it shows all the cracks in the foundation,” Taylor said. “All the ways you depended on your office space and all the parts of your business that work digitally…The term that I use for the feeling in March is ‘paralysis.’”

Taylor spoke at the Web Summit, the annual mega-conference which, like most others, was being held virtually for the first time today. In this case, Taylor pre-recorded his interview before Salesforce officially announced its $27.7 billion blockbuster acquisition of Slack. But with the global pandemic still raging, topics such as the future of work and digital transformation loomed large on the Web Summit agenda this year.

Despite being a company that helps customers move their operations to the cloud, Salesforce has a very personal, face-to-face culture. That not only includes its signature Dreamforce conference that draws more than 200,000 people each year to San Francisco, but also its day-to-day work that involves lots of travel for sales, marketing, and customer support.

“We’re an event-oriented company,” Taylor said. “We’re always on airplanes to our customers’ offices. And I think it was that sense of unfamiliarity that really led to paralysis, particularly for customer-facing teams that are used to being face-to-face with our customers.”

It wasn’t just meetings. Without realizing it, the company had become reliant on a particular way of doing business. That meant it wasn’t enough to make some tweaks. Everything had to be overhauled.

“Every single function had to change at the same time,” he said. “And you realized where people were dependent on the machinery of a large company. And you need to be personally proactive to do it. If you’re a marketer depending on the standard ways that you generate leads, all of a sudden those channels are not available to you, and the one channel left, which is digital, it’s completely saturated because every company in the world went there overnight.”

To create momentum around changing, Salesforce started doing all-hands meeting every week with all 54,000 employees. The message was for each employee to think about how they could be helping every customer with whatever needs they might have.

“What’s a relevant conversation today is pretty different than it was a few weeks ago, a few months ago,” he said. “It’s about enablement. How can we train every single employee in the new way that they have to work?”

The key, Taylor said, is stripping away all thoughts about how things have been done to that point and imaging how things should be done as if everything was just starting from the beginning.

“That really demands a beginner’s mind and creativity that I don’t think every individual, and every company really has,” Taylor said. “An expert mind knows one possibility. But for the beginner’s mind, everything’s a possibility. And I think in the age of COVID, it’s really multiple crises at the same time: a health crisis, an economic crisis, a social justice crisis, and a leadership crisis in this country. You need to show up and say, ‘Okay I need to reimagine how we do business.’ Our customers know what differentiates us and we’re enabling a digital transformation which is exactly what our customers need at this moment. But how we engage with our customers needed to completely transform.”

The post-COVID world

Looking back, Taylor is amazed by his own company’s transformation. But with vaccines arriving in the coming months, it is possible to imagine life after the pandemic, even if it still may be many months away.

“If you’d asked me last year, ‘Could you run the business from home, with no events?’, I would have laughed at you,” Taylor said. “Not only did we do that, but we also did it with no preparation. What’s really remarkable right now for us and for all of our customers is that it’s proof that this new digital way of working is possible. But that begs the question, ‘How are we going to work on the other side of this when it’s not imposed on us and we’re not stuck in our home offices because we have to be?’”

Taylor echoed observations about how quickly people embraced ordering groceries online and holding meetings by video. In that case, companies will need to rethink how the traditional office works and what functions it serves when the pandemic is over.

“It has proven that this all-digital work anywhere world can work,” he said. “But it does beg the question about what is the role of the office and what is the role of a headquarters?”

Knowing that a company like Salesforce can operate in distribute ways means evaluating all conceptions about the office, like whether to have assigned desks. Or maybe picking one day of the week that everyone comes into the office. Or maybe having more flexible workdays for employees who are parents.

“I’m looking forward to the day where you don’t have the stress of it being imposed on you, and you can really say, ‘How do we treat the lessons of 2020 as an asset that we can use to transform our culture going forward?’” Taylor said.

In evaluating that, companies also have to examine the toll the changes have taken on employees. For instance, Taylor said that with the ability to meet virtually, the number of meetings has soared.

“I think this year is not sustainable for a lot of our employees,” he said. “On average, our employees have 1.7 more hours of meetings on their calendar every day. In June, we surveyed our customers and only 23% of people wanted to return to their office. Today, 72% of people are clamoring for a semblance of normalcy.”

Looking at Salesforce customers, he sees some of the same lessons being learned. Across many markets, he said the smartest leaders have seized this moment to make long-overdue changes.

“I’m really excited across our customer base seeing the leaders who are treating this as an opportunity to transform rather than just a crisis to respond to,” Taylor said. “At the beginning of this pandemic, every CEO I talked to would about the crisis as something that they would weather, something that they would get through, so then on the other side, they could go back to business as usual.”

But the customers who have navigated 2020 the most successfully are the ones who decided to “lean into the change,” Taylor said.

“There was a wonderful quote from the Chief Digital Officer of L’Oreal, where he said something along lines, ‘We accomplished in three months, what would have taken us three years to do,’” Taylor said. “I think that’s the right mentality.”

As for Salesforce events, Taylor is hopeful those will return but has no doubt they will be adapted in some fashion.

“I’m looking forward to welcoming 200,000 people to San Francisco next year, knock on wood, if this vaccine does what we all hope it will do,” Taylor said. “But what we’ve learned how to do to pull off events like the one we’re doing right now. It’s incredibly valuable, you can watch it in a time-shifted way. You can watch it on your own schedule. The two of us didn’t need to travel to have this conversation right now and it probably lowered some of the barriers to us having this conversation. I’ve heard this from many executives. I have conversations with so many CEOs every week. And I wonder if I would have had that same level of conversation if we felt like we had to be in-person to have them. So in general what I hope on the other side of this for our events and our culture broadly is that we embrace what we’ve learned and really augment the way we run the company.”

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