Reimagining Business As Usual: Corporate Leaders on Moving Forward During Challenging Times

By Bill Leigh

The need for companies to adapt and evolve quickly is greater than ever. With an ongoing pandemic, an economic crisis, and a national discussion on race and equality sparked by the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and the shooting of Jacob Blake, companies have had to quickly rethink how they work, how they serve their customers, and how they support their employees.

To get a sense of how corporate leaders are responding, Salesforce presented a lively conversation called “Reimagining Business as Usual” featuring three speakers:

  • Ryan Aytay, Salesforce Chief Business Officer and co-CEO of Quip
  • Zing Shaw, Starbucks Global Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer, and
  • Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress and CEO of Automattic

Here are some of the highlights.

How are each of you redefining your organizations in the face of COVID-19?

Ryan Aytay, Salesforce: We sent 54,000 employees home, cancelled all our physical events, and changed how we sell, how we service, and how we engage customers via Zoom or Hangouts. What didn’t change is our relentless focus on customer success, and our belief that business can be an amazing platform for change. We provided our technology at no cost for thousands of companies, and we worked with UCSF to source over 50 million units of PPE to deliver to hospitals around the world.

Zing Shaw, Starbucks: COVID hit the U.S. first in Seattle, where our corporate headquarters and Starbucks Support Center are located. We also have hundreds of thousands of partners who work in retail stores all over the country and around the world. Partner safety and customer safety are part of our mission and values, so that’s what we had to ground ourselves in. We had to get our teams activated very quickly to figure out the best ways to adapt to what was happening in real time.

Matt Mullenweg, Automattic: We’re much smaller than Starbucks or Salesforce, but we’ve all been working at home for 15 years now, distributed across 77 countries. With kids or roommates at home, people who were working at home alone before now found themselves in a very different situation. We saw productivity hits of somewhere between 20 to 25 percent, so we’ve had to increase our hiring. Our products — WordPress, which runs about a third of the world’s websites, and WooCommerce, one of the largest e-commerce platforms — saw huge surges as more people have moved things online.

With the social unrest, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake, what’s your take on inclusion and accountability in the leadership role?

Zing Shaw: We’ve seen this before with Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, and on and on. This was different because the world had nothing to do during COVID but pay attention.

The resounding message is we need to talk. We have to respond by bringing our total workforce together for an open conversation around race relations, systemic racism, what we saw transpire, and what’s next. How can we specifically manage our black partners at this time, to make sure they’re okay emotionally and have the resources to get through this moment? How can we bring our total workforce together, to show allyship and support, and to collectively think about all of the next steps that our organization can take to remain a leader?

We recognize that we are not big enough to cure racism, sexism, ageism or any of the isms. But we are big enough to make a difference and make a dent.

Matt Mullenweg: As a company you try to do everything you can, follow best practices, make space for people who are struggling, and focus on mental and physical safety.

I’d say this year has amazingly illustrated the limits of what private enterprise can have on society. I think a lot of companies including the ones represented here are doing many of the best things they can. But even the largest ones are much smaller than the problem. We need political change to address root causes, and leadership from world leaders not just company leaders.

Ryan Aytay: We encourage everyone to be an equality ally, but what does that mean? Right now it means supporting your black colleagues. Strive to create a workplace that reflects the community you work and live in, where a diverse workforce can bring their authentic selves to work every day. Set some goals. At Salesforce we’re committing to double the U.S. representation goals for black employees in our leadership team, which means vice presidents and above, and increase our U.S. representation of black employees by 50% by the end of 2023.

We try to follow the four P’s:

  • People: Our primary focus needs to be standing with our black employees: hiring them, supporting them, and empowering people within your company.
  • Philanthropy: We’ve made grants to combat racism, violence, and hate. Earlier this year we granted $1 million to the NAACP.
  • Purchasing: Talk to your procurement teams: How many black-owned businesses are you working with?
  • Policy: Not only do we need to take action but have a mechanism to drive that action. We have a task force that’s very focused on this.

Zing Shaw: A lot of times organizations think that having a lot of activity equals progress, but that’s not necessarily the case. We have to remind ourselves that this is a long journey, and phase one is understanding. It’s going to take hours of constant trainings, not just PowerPoint sessions and webinars, but real courageous conversations with thought leaders that can bring expertise to the table and help bring us along a learning journey.

We talk about the virtual workplace and the “new normal.” What does that term mean to you?

Matt Mullenweg: I don’t love the phrase “the new normal,” but I would strongly encourage leaders to use this way we’re working now, particularly mediated by the internet, to radically reimagine the way we are doing things.

As an example, years ago Automattic started hiring developers and designers without ever doing a voice or video chat. It can all happen over text, which then of course removes many opportunities for conscious or unconscious bias in the hiring process. This seems radical that we’d hire someone without ever seeing or talking to them, but we’ve done it for hundreds of people, and it works. When you radically change processes like this, without just taking what you were doing offline and bringing it online, it opens up new ways to reimagine things that might be systematically excluding people. To me that’s the most exciting thing. I don’t think the internet solves all problems, but I do think it opens up reimagining.

Zing Shaw: In our corporate offices the new normal is obliterating the idea of distance bias. What we’re learning from working in a virtual environment is that you do not have to be physically around a person in order for them to be productive, perform at a high level, and produce high quality work.

For our store partners, I would say the new normal is adapting or figuring out solutions where customers are not able to come into the stores. We’ve started to become very good at curbside pickup, and we are thinking about ways we can enhance our drive-thru accommodations. The dynamics are certainly different, but both instances are showing that we have to adapt at lightning speed.

Ryan Aytay: We’re still very much in the middle of the crisis, and we’re still learning. You have to reimagine how to run your business, not just translate things from the old physical world to the new world. We’re in a digital environment, and we have to think of contactless ways to interact. If you’re a retailer, you’re thinking of ecommerce. If you’re a cafe or restaurant, you’re thinking curbside pickup, delivery, or ordering from your phone at an outdoor restaurant so someone doesn’t have to come to your table.

The way we work is changing — fast. And one of the teams most impacted in this new normal is B2B Sales. We surveyed more than 250 sales leaders to uncover critical B2B Sales challenges and identify leading best practices. View our free infographic to learn the common set of challenges sales is facing across industries, as well as how to overcome them.