Few people can say they turned down a job offer from Marc Benioff. But that’s exactly what John Taschek did in 2002 when he was the lead product analyst at eWeek (PCWeek) magazine. Early on, his relationship with Benioff was cemented through frequent debates over the promising but still unproven merits of Salesforce’s value proposition versus its competitors.
Taschek’s thoughtful questions often ignited the curiosity inherent in Benioff’s “beginner’s mindset” approach to innovation, an approach that replaces preconceived notions with an openness to learn from others with insights and wisdom that are often contrary to one’s own thinking. As Taschek recalls, “Marc recognized the importance of diverse points of view to challenge and strengthen his own ideas.” And that is exactly what he brought.
Taschek eventually did join Salesforce and is now the Head of Market Strategy, which includes leading the competitive intelligence practice. In this role, he arms the executive leadership team with the ability to see around corners, anticipating threats as opportunities and strengths as potential weaknesses. These insights, which he codified through regular “tear sheet” reports, have become a mainstay and consistent competitive advantage for Salesforce over the past two decades.
But it wasn’t enough to anticipate outside threats and opportunities inside Salesforce. Instead, he wanted to bring in outside voices to not only challenge the status quo but to also imagine what’s not possible.
Similar to the “beginner’s mindset” that brought him to Salesforce, he sought to foster the company’s intelligence by hiring a team of proven thought leaders and experts who could share new perspectives and fresh thinking to energize and inspire the internal team and, more importantly, to build stronger connections with their customers.
Thus, Salesforce’s evangelist program was born.
Ambassadors That Don’t Talk Brand
Unlike other brand ambassador programs, where individuals are given a script to follow and sales targets to meet, these evangelists are encouraged to speak freely and are valued for their independent voices, both internally and externally. Prior to joining Salesforce, their reputations had already been established as highly regarded subject matter experts in their respective fields.
“There is never an open headcount for an evangelist, instead it’s created for an individual that already exists,” Taschek explains, “It’s based on their personal values, personality and network, their ability to be a brand ambassador without talking about the brand, and more importantly, their ability to influence others towards a higher cause.”
So if not promoting the brand, what exactly does an evangelist do?
“Every year, I deliver over 50 keynotes, write multiple articles each week, and host a weekly podcast, while never missing a day on social media,” shares Vala Afshar, the first evangelist hired by Taschek. “I write and talk about the future of technology, and I care deeply about how it will impact all of us.”
Prior to joining Salesforce, Afshar was a successful tech executive, author, and well-known expert on social collaboration, market disruption, and innovation leadership. He still is.
His almost one million followers look to him for advice, counsel, and inspiration as they try to navigate the sometimes confusing digital zeitgeist. What resonates most for them isn’t where he works but his understanding of what keeps them up at night and what excites them when they wake up in the morning. Joining Salesforce allowed him to better scale this innate sense of empathy.
“The most important quality our evangelists share is empathy,” explains Taschek. “It’s their ability to listen, more than speak, that engenders trust and goodwill with others.” Taschek understands that without trust, thought leadership operates in a vacuum and is void of impact.
A Team of All-Stars
Joining Afshar is a team of 15 other highly accomplished individuals who are passionate about the promise offered by the intersection of technology, business, and life. “Looking at my colleagues I feel like it’s a hall of fame, and I feel humbled to even be asked to be a part of this,” reflects Brian Solis, the newest member of the team whose “humble” background includes eight award-winning best-selling books and over 60 seminal research reports.
So what qualifies someone to join this “hall of fame?”
Beyond being empathetic, each evangelist brings not only proven domain expertise but also the ability to resonate with new and complex ideas with all types of audiences through the power of stories. “True expertise isn’t about being the smartest person in the room, but instead it’s the ability to help others become the smartest people in the room,” Solis explains.
And the appetite for these empathetic storytellers seems boundless, especially from customers seeking outside perspectives to foster innovation, strengthen culture, and elevate purpose. “In today’s confusing landscape of new technologies, John’s team of proven practitioners help customers navigate the often challenging periods of rapid change and disruption” notes R “Ray” Wang, Founder of Constellation Research and best-selling author of Disrupting Digital Business and Everybody Wants to Rule the World, who has been benchmarking the appeal of different brand ambassador programs.
Yet, having a team of all-stars is not the same as having an all-star team. Getting so many talented yet independently-minded folks to row in the same direction is no simple task.
Becoming an All-Star Team
As with all good hires, whether it be an engineer, accountant, or evangelist, it’s important they share a common set of values, especially the ones important to all employees at Salesforce: being a trusted advisor to achieve customer success through mutual innovation; while leveraging the diversity of equality and the power of sustainability. The evangelist program is not only made up of accomplished practitioners who personally live these values, but the program itself is an embodiment of the core values themselves
As with all good teams, having a common vision that unifies the purpose and mission of the team is critical. This “higher cause” that calls each of them is the belief that the “business of business is to improve the state of the world.” It just so happens they joined a company that shares this vision.
Finding individuals, passionate about their proven expertise, who stand on a common set of personal values, with their sights set on a shared vision, allows Taschek to turn a group of all-stars, each with different personalities and talents, into an all-star team.
Quietly Loud Leader
Assembling this team is only the first step, empowering them to be successful individually and as a team requires an unconventional leadership style, one that is quietly loud.
“Smart people talk less but say more, and that’s exactly how John leads,” explains Afshar when asked about his boss. “By focusing your time on making others feel heard, especially when managing a team of personalities, makes the few words you speak matter more.”
This is supported by Susan Cain’s research on the power of introverts as captured in an article by Rob Ashgar (That Moment When a Quiet Leader Outshines the Loud Ones), which concludes, “When you’ve got a team of stars, they’ll be best served by working under a quiet, introverted leader who respects their ideas and who is willing to let them shine.”
For Taschek, this is likely less about leadership theory and more about role modeling the one behavior he values most: empathy. Empathy that requires understanding is the result of active listening, which in turn generates trust and leads to meaningful influence.
From Beliefs to Destiny
Unlike most brand ambassador programs which focus on assembling a team of socially outgoing individuals who are then trained to promote the brand story, Salesforce’s approach is different.
It begins with a “beginners mindset” and the belief that “we don’t have all the answers, so let’s invite others to help us find them.” This belief opens the door to new thought leadership often challenging them on how the business of business can improve the state of the world. This thought leadership is then put into action by engaging customers with fresh thinking and new ideas to help them achieve greater success through mutual innovation. And over time, with cadence, these become the habits that allow Salesforce to live its values.
Gandhi understood the power of beliefs in shaping one’s destiny. And for an organization that believes it’s always beginning, it might just mean that there is no end in sight for what’s next at Salesforce.