Salesforce’s founder and co-CEO Marc Benioff is a pioneer “activist” CEO who seems to devote a great deal of his time and energy to things outside the regular responsibilities of a CEO. Over the past five years, Benioff has led two employee movements against a pair of controversial pieces of legislation in Indiana and Georgia, and pushed for a “homeless tax” bill in San Francisco to mandate tech companies, like his own, pay higher taxes to help address the Bay Area’s homeless crisis.
But by the tech billionaire’s own account, all these seemingly irrelevant efforts should be included in a CEO’s job description today in response to the expectation of a growing Millennial workforce.
“[Millennials] want to be in an environment that’s about purpose. They want to make sure that the company they are in is actually committing to improving the state of the world,” Benioff said at the Fortune CEO Initiative 2019 on Tuesday in New York City.
“You are seeing activist employees. That’s creating activist CEOs. My job as a CEO is to listen to my employees and my customers and to respond to them effectively,” he added, pointing to the recently announced acquisition of data visualization firm Tableau as an example. “I’m doing that because it’s customer-driven.”
“I might be called an ‘activist CEO,’ because I’m responding to what my employees want,” Benioff said. “But the reality is that if you don’t do that, you are not going to be the CEO. We have a lot of examples in Silicon Valley, where CEOs were ‘fired’ by their employees because they did not listen.”
“It’s really gotten really close to some super high-profile CEOs. You see employees storm out of the building because they are unhappy with the critical part of the [company] culture.”
When asked by his peer CEO, Fortune‘s Alan Murray, whether he was referring to the recent Google employee walkout, Benioff said, “I’m not naming any names.”
Regardless, Salesforce has faced its own share of employee activism. In June 2018, hundreds of Salesforce employees signed a letter urging Benioff to cancel a contract to sell software to U.S. Customs and Border Protection because of the agency’s role in enforcing President Donald Trump’s controversial family separation border policy.
In the wake of the employee outcry, Salesforce formed a new internal function called the Office of Ethical and Humane Use of Technology, headed by former social impact investor Paula Goldman, to address the border contract controversy and potential issues of a similar nature in the future.
Benioff said he never told his employees a clear yes or no during the border contract outcry. “I would never say such a thing: ‘I don’t agree,’ ‘I this,’ ‘I that.’ I think if you are a CEO and you say that, you are in big trouble,” he said. “That’s not the job of a CEO. The job of a CEO is to create a process and a structure that auto-resolve [challenges].”