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Employee Engagement and Equal Pay: Salesforce SVP Jody Kohner

Salesforce is on fire, and it is hard to deny it.

Marc Benioff’s 1999 brainchild has grown into a 25,000-person strong superpower that is tackling challenges in ways that few others can. Benioff has remained as the chairman and CEO for Salesforce since founding it.

The Silicon Valley-based CRM software company is having a huge year with 25 per cent growth and a valuation north of $60 billion. Two weeks ago, Forbes named Salesforce their most innovative company in the world, beating out Tesla, Amazon, and Netflix.

Obtaining that kind of recognition from Forbes is no small feat, and it is in part thanks to the company’s intentional focus on the employee experience and new initiatives for equality. The company stepped up in 2017 to address their own gender pay gap, adding $6 million in payroll to correct the inequity.

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The Salesforce campus in downtown San Francisco is growing with Salesforce Tower (left) set to open in 2018.

Jody Kohner started her Salesforce career with the sales and product teams but eventually found herself working for internal teams. Now, as SVP of Employee Marketing and Engagement, Kohner spends her time creating and executing programs designed to improve the employee experience.

We caught up with Kohner at Dreamforce 2017, Salesforce’s annual partner & customer conference in San Francisco to get her take on equal pay, equality, and the Salesforce employee experience.

You started with Salesforce on the product side but transitioned to a culture and people focused role. How did that happen?

When I was on the product side, I was working on our competitive differentiation. We would come in to help get deals over the line when there was a tough competitor. I would help train the sales team to know what the best points of differentiation were and I would work collaboratively with a product team about what was going on in the marketplace and how we should be thinking about our product.

What struck me was these employees who were so passionate about our brand. They were trailblazers and were bleeding Salesforce blue. I mean they loved the brand and they never needed my help. Because they would walk in to meet with these customers with so much passion and conviction that the customers would say, “Whatever, I’m buying it.”

Employee engagement is not a nice-to-have anymore–it is imperative.  There’s ROI there.

I felt like the best defense is a great offense, and so I had a conversation with my boss who then helped me take that conversation to our COO.

If we invest more in our employees, if we can build up their sense of pride, their feeling of productivity, and their passion, that is going to translate into the customer experience they are providing. Every happy customer has a happy employee behind it. These are symbiotic relationships.—you cannot have one without the other.

I wish I could take credit for this, but Kevin Kruse, the author of “Engagement 2.0,” really spelled out the employee profit chain. You invest in your employees, they become more productive and loyal, that creates higher satisfaction and more loyal customers.

The enthusiasm level surrounding Salesforce is unusual. As startups grow, it can be a real challenge to hold onto strong company culture. How are you maintaining this level of engagement with 30,000 employees?

We have a very specific strategy that is extremely intentional. This is not happenstance. There are three components.

The first aspect is to really think about culture and what the values are. You have to be really clear on your values because they are what’s driving that culture. Trust, innovation, growth, equality. These are our core values. Everyone is held accountable to that. Everyone. We measure them, we have programs behind them.

And that is the second component; technology. A lot of companies have values. They put them on a nice plaque on the wall, people walk by them every day and they don’t mean anything. We take it to the next step which is really about our customer success platform. Our customers use the platform to drive fierce brand loyalty. But we flip it inside out and use the same technology to drive that fierce loyalty inside the company. That is creating a more connected, and a more transformed, and a more personal experience for my employees.

Our biggest brand, our biggest client should be our employees.

If you’re in your first year at Salesforce, you are receiving entirely different messaging that I’m receiving in my seventh year. We’re talking to you one-to-one, exactly where you are in your employee life-cycle.

The third component is the data that all of this technology is yielding. It really empowers us to be smart about the decisions we’re making. What do employees like, what don’t they like, what processes are thrown in, how can I fix things, how can I drive my numbers up in key areas of where maybe there’s a value that I feel like we’re not really latching onto.

You mentioned that equality is your fourth core value. Has that always been the case?

When we first started the company, equality wasn’t a priority to that employee base. As we started growing it became important. And it became important to us from the business perspective.

Equality is a cornerstone of innovation. We can’t create the world’s most innovative product if everyone in the room looks exactly the same.

So, we added that. And then we had to say okay, what is the data telling us about equality. All of a sudden we could do things like make a stance on equal pay.

We could look and ask the question “are men and women paid equally?” And if they’re not, (and the data told us they weren’t) then we had to optimize, and we spent six million dollars to fix it.

The hardest part of that process has to be admitting there is a pay gap problem in the first place. What was this process like at Salesforce?

I have nothing but incredible respect for my boss, Cindy Robins, (President and Chief People Officer) and her colleague Leyla Seka (Executive Vice President, AppExchange).

They took this initiative directly to Marc Benioff and said, “We think we should see if there is a problem.” And Marc responded, “Do we have a problem?” Cindy replied, “I don’t know, we’ve never looked. But I can tell you this, we can’t look and find a problem and not do anything about it. If we’re gonna do this, we have to do it.”

Marc then said, “Go do it, and we’ll make it happen.”

This is now part of our cultural DNA, this isn’t a one and done initiative. We run this every year because we’re hiring people who may be coming in with inequities and carrying those inequities forward. That needs to be righted. So, every year we will go through this process.

The pay gap is a symptom of a greater societal problem. Considering your adoption of equality as a company value, what is Salesforce doing to move the needle overall?

The first move we made was about a year ago when we brought on Tony Prophet as a Chief Equality Officer. We needed a leader to own this for the company and to really start evangelizing this.

With that came a resurgence in our Ohana Group–our nine different employee resource groups. This is where people can go for professional development, for career mentoring, to learn how to be a champion in their communities. Maybe it’s our Latino force or our LGBTQ community and all of their allies. We run a lot of awareness campaigns within the company about how to be an ally—now one in three employees are a member of an Ohana group.

I also think we need to look equal rights across the board. In the United States, Salesforce has been involved in offensive or discriminatory legislation in four different states and we have been very influential in changing and making a movement to not let that type of legislation be passed.

Companies have to take a stance. When we talk about the workforce of the future, people want to feel like they are part of something. You are more than just a productivity number but you are part of a movement, and our employees expect us to stand up in these situations.

The last element of that is around ensuring everyone has access to education. That starts young but it goes for everyone. That’s the beauty of Salesforce [learning tool] Trailhead—it’s free. Anybody, from any socioeconomic background, any diverse background, any sexual preference, it does not matter. You can go in there and get the skills you need to build and really revest a meaningful career.

When you look at the jobs of the future, two of the top ten are Salesforce administrator and Salesforce developer–we are really proud of that. And we’re giving away that education for free.

From the outside, the culture could seem very intense. How does balance factor into the Salesforce employee experience?

We have a bit of a different take on this. We do not believe in work-life balance–that’s chasing a unicorn. We believe in work-life integration.

And I think that concept is really important, and that to me is a pivotal defining moment about this workforce in the future because some people will say that is what millennials are demanding. And I would say it’s not a millennial issue, it’s a human issue. They’re just the ones that were bold enough to ask for it.

If Salesforce is going to get the most out of me, 110 per cent, then they have to accept my whole authentic self. For me it means I’m showing up as a mom first. I have two young kids, and if they are not happy, healthy and thriving than none of this matters to me.

The next thing is I need is to work-out because if I don’t, I get super cranky and that’s not good for anybody. And the last thing is I’m really passionate about being able to have an impact in my community and I need space to be able to do that.

Salesforce is giving me permission to be my full authentic self, and to pursue all of this. That might mean that I need to leave early to pick up my kids, that might be that I’m volunteering in their class on Friday, but they are giving me permission to do it. We’re building the programs that support that. Salesforce gives me 56 hours a year to volunteer. That is an integrated life–that is my company encouraging community involvement.

Also, everything is mobile and accessible, so you can have micro-moments of productivity. When you are sitting in a car line waiting to pick your kids you can still approve deals. You can stay connected, and you can stop trying to think it’s work time, it’s playtime, it’s work time. You’re just your whole self.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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