A book review: Trailblazer. Marc Benioff and Monica Langley.


I read all sorts of books, but I’m generally not a fan of CEO books. They are usually ghost written hagiographies, brimming with platitudes, false humility, fortune cookie advice and big oily dollops of product placement.

A friend and former colleague recently joined Salesforce, and he said something like, “They take values really seriously here, it does actually shape how the business works.” My friend is not one to be easily swayed by fluff, so figured I’d park my reluctance, buy and read Marc Benioff’s latest book. To my surprise, it is a damn good read.

It is co-written by Monica Langley, who works closely with Benioff. His voice comes through clearly, and the prose works well.

He is very concerned about the state of tech business today. He gets that tech is not just a force for good, and he is forthright bringing up some of tech’s dark side, and how many tech companies have lost trust. He is especially cogent on its negative impact for many people in the city where he grew up and has based his business.

The book looks at some of the internal practices at Salesforce, for instance it is transparent on Salesforce’s efforts to improve diversity, and how it got some things wrong. It also covers topics such as psychological safety, office space design, the use of OKRs (called V2MOMs) and the obvious but often overlooked advice to take a vacation without a phone. (If the CEO of Salesforce can take a vacation without a phone, then the rest of us can).

The book doesn’t overly push product much, but there are several good sales and product anecdotes, the Toyota deal, Procter and Gamble, Unilever and Adidas to name a few. The book positions the role of the Trailhead community well. Putting my analyst hat on for a minute: While other enterprise tech vendors have built vibrant communities around their solutions, and have been at it for longer, with the Trailhead program, Salesforce has out executed them in terms of the community engagement, the technology and the content to support a product community. For instance, I recently had a look at the GDPR and Accessibility stuff on Trailhead, and it was top notch.

Benioff is good at discussing his own failures and stumbles, and this helps build credibility. He emphasises his interests in meditation and mindfulness without overtly preaching. He talks lovingly and proudly of his family history, for instance, his Grandfather’s role in establishing the San Francisco BART.

The last two chapters are most important, Benioff has been one of the most vocal CEOs about the need for capitalism, especially tech capitalism, to reform itself. He writes coherently yet passionately about being an activist CEO. He explains the proposition C vote, his support of a extra tax in San Francisco to address housing and services for the homeless. He also discusses the challenges of education and the environment.

I’d have liked Benioff to expand a bit more on his views of stakeholder capitalism and regulation, and how he would like to see a more responsible tech industry develop in the longer term. I sense that he held back a good few punches here. In the intro section he recalled his Davos comments about regulation, but he didn’t really expand on that later in the book.

I’d like to see Rana Foroohar and Marc in deeper discussion. Her recent book, The Case Against Big Tech robustly and powerfully highlights the tech industry’s failings. It is not a comfortable read, but it is a very important one. I read it in parallel with Trailblazer. It means I get to use the word juxtaposition.

2 Books, 1 book has the title Trail Blazer from Marc Benioff. The second book has the title Don´t be evil from Rana Foroohar
Benioff Trailblazer and Foroohar Don’t be Evil.

I’m of the view that tech corporations will need to be far more responsive to broader stakeholders. I can’t help thinking that the recent US Business Roundtable announcement is still thin gruel.

On housing.
While the efforts by parts of the tech industry to address San Francisco’s homeless problem are very laudable, it seems to me that enlightened capitalists /entrepreneurs like the Cadbury brothers and Joseph Rowntree, operating 140 years ago, were more ambitious (and successful) in their social responsibility efforts. The tech CEOs of San Francisco might wish take a stroll around Bournville. Rowntree’s foundation funds great research into poverty to this day.

I find much of today’s software industry talk of “purpose” just bluster, I share some of McMullan’s concerns about tech philanthropy, and Foroohar’s critique of big tech largely rings true.

However, Benioff is clearly, consistently and genuinely committed to the values he and his co-founders defined in 1999. The phrase “values are behaviours” will stick with me. Benioff comes across as deeply grateful for his success, and profoundly mindful of the responsibilities that come with that success. That is a good thing.

This may be the first tech CEO book I re-read.

If you would like to learn more about concept of stakeholder capitalism, the Financial Times is a good place to start. I’m spending a bit of my time understanding more about ESG, so I may blog more on this topic, eventually.

Disclosure: Salesforce is not a customer, but I hold a very very small number of salesforce shares.