- In January, Business Insider’s US editor-in-chief, Alyson Shontell, hosted a discussion with two top executives at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
- Cindy Robbins, the president and chief people officer at Salesforce, helped spearhead the program known as Women’s Surge at the company.
- Janet Foutty, the chairman and CEO of Deloitte Consulting, has risen to the top and seen firsthand the challenges women face on the way.
Cindy Robbins started at Salesforce 12 years ago, and worked her way up the ranks before getting a life-changing phone call from CEO Marc Benioff.
“He said, ‘Now you’re gonna report to me,'” Robbins told Business Insider’s US editor-in-chief, Alyson Shontell. “Definitely that became a kind of ‘oh my’ moment.”
Shontell spoke with Robbins and Janet Foutty, the chairman and CEO of Deloitte Consulting, in January at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
Before she even unpacked her desk more than 26 years ago, Foutty had learned firsthand some of the challenges women face as they try to make it to the top.
“The offer letters of my two male colleagues who started the same summer as I did were sitting on the recruiter’s desk, and I could not help but see them – it was almost double pay,” Foutty said.
Shontell, Foutty, and Robbins discussed a range of topics – including the gender pay gap, the shortage of female mentors, and the importance of taking on projects outside your comfort zone – for this episode of Business Insider’s podcast, “Success! How I Did It.”
Listen to the full episode here:
- Microsoft’s Executive Vice President for Business Development Peggy Johnson
- “Shark Tank” star and FUBU founder Daymond John
- Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini
- Walmart.com CEO Marc Lore
- BBG Ventures President Susan Lyne
- Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
For Robbins and Foutty, success requires finding good mentors and going outside your comfort zone
Janet Foutty: So I joined Deloitte right out of business school, planning to do a classic two-year stint as a consultant and then figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. And 26 years later, now find myself with the great privilege of leading this wonderful business.
I will tell you that, for most of the things over the course of my career, I have focused on just a couple of criteria: Am I doing really interesting things with really interesting people, and am I creating impact? And that can obviously have lots of different definitions, but that’s the criteria with which I measured what I was doing at every step.
But if you would have asked me – certainly 26 years ago and probably 20 years ago – whether this role was something that I directly aspire to, the answer would be I love what I’m doing. I love the people I’m doing it with and the impact that I’m having. And that’s really what grounds and me and really what matters at the end of the day.
Alyson Shontell: And now, Cindy, you’ve been with Salesforce for about 12 years.
Cindy Robbins: Twelve years.
Shontell: And risen through the ranks there, clearly. So one thing that you were part of and you helped with is this thing called Women’s Surge. So what is that, and how did you wind up managing this team of 700?
Robbins: Well, I can’t take credit for the name – that is my boss, Marc Benioff, CEO of Salesforce.
It started like four years ago. He holds these quarterly management meetings for the top managers in the company, and it’s a tight group, very intimate meeting. And one day, he looked around the room, and he just said: “Where are the women in this room? There are no women.” And he made a very overt action to say that going forward on those meetings, 30% would be made up of high-potential women – the future heads of product, heads of engineering, heads of marketing, etc.
And so I got invited to that meeting for the first time. I wasn’t the head of HR at the time. I was, I think, still in this HR generalist type of role. And my job was to keep getting invited to that meeting.
You know, once that door opens, you have accountability to stay in that room and to keep that seat at the table. So I applaud him for that. I surge my career after that – that’s kind of why he calls it the Women’s Surge. And probably six months after that first meeting, my predecessor left the company, and he asked me to take the big job.
Shontell: Wow. So what do you think – you’ve both been at your companies for a long time. What do you think your companies and your coworkers and you all did to be able to find a place where you could really grow?
Foutty: I always think about what’s the thing that you’re bringing to the conversation or to the situation that’s a given, that you know you’re wonderful at and that you’re bringing? And what’s the thing that’s stretching you up?
I think almost of like a stair step. You’ve got the platform, that’s the thing that you’re really good at, and what’s the thing that you’re stretching and growing in?
So I really challenge myself, as well as my team, to always be thinking about, OK, what are you bringing, and what are you going to use this next opportunity or step to really stretch and grow in and around for yourself? And that has helped me sort of keep a fresh frame, both for myself as well as for the team.
Robbins: The other piece that helped me I think really grow my career was I had a lot of advocates. I had some champions. And I had a mentor who invested in me very early in my tenure at Salesforce.
He actually started at Salesforce like 17 years ago, came in as an MBA, Stanford intern, and got mentored by Mark, and then became the COO of the company. And he’s now since left, and he’s still my mentor. But he was, I would say, my biggest advocate, biggest champion, but my toughest critic. And that is really important, right? Because I think to grow your career, you need that criticism. And it’s tough to hear sometimes, but it really did help me grow.
He kept telling me, “What do you want your brand to be?” Right? And these are questions I never really thought about, and he kept challenging me, and he said, “You have to get also comfortable with being uncomfortable.” So he always would push me to do things kind of outside my comfort zone, which helped me.
Shontell: Does anyone really reach the top alone? I think the answer is “no,” no matter who’s there. So what is the difference between a mentor and a sponsor, and how do you look at that role now that, I assume, you all are mentoring people as well and helping them?
Foutty: There’s clearly a very big difference between a mentor and a sponsor. And we’ve really tried to shift the conversation in our organisation to be much more anchored in and around sponsorship than mentorship.
Mentorship, obviously, is something that is important – advice, counsel, guidance. But it’s behind the scenes. I think of it much more like a coach. Sponsorship is putting your political capital on the line to help somebody. Very, very different.
The level of investment that you personally take to sponsor someone is a very different conversation than “I’m gonna give you advice.” I can give anybody advice entirely free. My political capital as a sponsor – very different.
What we’ve found in and around gender and underrepresented minorities is that we have to be much more disciplined around making sure that sponsorship happens, because it doesn’t happen always as naturally and organically. I think part of the tricky thing is because it is about political capital, you need a lot of courage to be a sponsor, especially if it’s someone that you have not sort of grown up in and around or doesn’t look exactly like you. So that’s some of the things that I’ve been thinking about and processing and evolving in this conversation.
Shontell: Yeah. Another thing to reach to the top is you need to take risks, and you need to put yourself in somewhat uncomfortable positions. So have you two found – was there a role that you didn’t feel maybe quite ready for? That you’re like, “Oh god, this is it, I need to step up”? And then how do you kind of get over that feeling and just get there?
Foutty: Every role I’ve ever had.
Robbins: Yeah, I was going to say.
Shontell: It’s good to know, because I feel the same way.
Robbins: So three and a half years ago, when my predecessor left, I was kind of in this global HR generalist role. And I had a lot of tenure, built a lot of good relationships, had a lot of sponsors, advocacy. But I was very comfortable, right? I was very successful at what I was doing, and I felt good about it.
And when I got the call about taking on the head of HR, I became in an uncomfortable place very quickly. And it’s really hard because it’s, you know, of course I’m going to take the job. But at the time, I was going to report to the COO of the company, and that was my mentor. The person that invested in me at the very beginning of my tenure, for the first time, I was now going to report to him.
After I got that job, three weeks later, he decided to leave Salesforce. And then I got a call from Marc, and he said, “You’re now going to report to me.” And that became kind of my “oh my” moment. Even though I had a long tenure at Salesforce and I knew Mark, this was going to be a big shift – you know, reporting to the CEO of the company.
But I got comfortable eventually, and now being mentored by one of the top CEOs out there. So it all worked out. But definitely that was kind of my “oh my” moment.
Foutty: So I am propelled by always being sort of on the edge of what I feel that I can do. Now I do think that women generally are less confident in knowing. You know, I tell our young women – especially our young women in India – to be, you know, really thoughtful about how they position themselves for new things, because I remind them that the men next to them will be fearless in doing that.
But I do absolutely live each and every day waking up thinking, OK, what are things I have to do today? What do I know how to do, and what do I not know how to do? And if I ever get to the place where I know how to do them all, then something has gone very astray.
It became the most apparent to me when I was a youngish partner and had sort of first responsibility for a small part of the business. And I had a partner in my group who is struggling, and the national leader, who is based somewhere else, said, “Janet, why don’t you talk to him about the issues?” And so quickly dumped that on me.
And we sat down to talk about what was going on. He goes: “I don’t know why I’m struggling. This job just isn’t that hard.” And it was a real epiphany for me. And I asked him, “Well, do you wake up sort of every day, you know, thinking about how you’re going to navigate the day and what-“
“No, no, no. I wake up totally calm and comfortable.”
And it was such a clarifying moment for me that complacency for him had sort of taken him off the rails.
How to set up for success in the first 90 days of a job, and how to align your team
Shontell: I think it’s important to realise that you don’t need to know all the answers. You don’t have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be the smartest in the company at every aspect – as long as you have a really strong team that you can lean on for the parts where you’re still getting up to speed or you’re still learning.
Foutty: I think we’ve been talking a lot in our organisation about courage, and, I think, the courage to surround yourself with people who are different from you on many dimensions and will push you.
Someone once told me, they’re like: “You know, Janet, your team is so aligned. You know, you’re surrounding yourself with yes-people.” And I thought, oh my goodness, if you could sit in on our executive committee and watch, it is the furthest thing from that.
We have incredibly intense debate and discussion. Are we aligned when we leave? Absolutely. For all the right reasons. But the courage to surround yourself with people who will challenge you and push you is something I feel I’ve matured a lot over the course of my career in as well.
Shontell: When you get this huge new job, how do you spend your first 30, 60, 90 days? How do you make sure you set yourself up for success?
Foutty: For me, it is about two things.
It is being clear about my principles and values. But that’s about the only talking I do; the rest is all listening.
I go on pretty intensive and extensive listening tours and conversations. And that’s everything from our most junior staff to our most tenured partners. That is one-on-ones. That is small groups. Lots of conversations over dinners. So I go into heavy-duty listening mode.
And then because I’m a quant by background, I also get really smart about the analytics underlying the topic.
So those are the sort of three things I do so that when I get to about the 60-day mark, I can start to put a strong point of view on the table that’s really well-informed and where I’ve begun to build consensus through all the conversations I’ve been in.
Robbins: You do have to go into listening mode. You can’t slam an agenda down anyone’s throat or anything like that.
So I spend a lot of time listening to the team, getting their feedback. And then you align them, right? That’s very, very important, and that’s probably what we spent a lot of time at Salesforce doing. And that’s what we do through the business plan, which we call V2MOM at Salesforce.
But aligning people to what they’re actually going to achieve for that year and the next year is really, really important.
Shontell: I was going to ask you a little bit later, but we can do this now: What is the V2MOM?
Robbins: So the V2MOM was created by Marc since the inception of the company, and it stands for Vision (what you’re going to aspire to do for the year), Values (the set of values that will achieve that vision), Methods (the actions that you’re going to take, for the year), Obstacles (the obvious hurdles that you’re going to have to overcome), and Measures (how you measure success).
It always starts with the corporate V2MOM, which is Marc and the management team coming together to kick off the year. And then from there it’s a trickle down, right? So from Marc’s V2MOM, Cindy does her V2MOM, and then Cindy’s people do their V2MOM, and then every employee has their V2MOM.
They are all done usually by the first quarter of the year, and it’s all transparent – so anyone can access anyone’s V2MOM in the company.
It’s a business plan. It’s an alignment tool. It’s a way to get your teams organised. It’s also a way for your teams to understand what part they play in the success of the company. So that’s the V2MOM.
Foutty: So as we’ve been starting this dialogue today, there’s lots of things that you and I have very much in common. But I can tell you that leading in a partnership, can you imagine – within our consulting business, I have 2,000 partners; each of them is an entrepreneur unto themselves and thinks that they are absolutely king of their castle.
And so we are all about shepherding and aligning, without the structure of which I’m incredibly jealous of – that level of infrastructure and discipline – because we are in the herding cats business against a very aggressive agenda, which is really fun, but it does create some very different obstacles in terms of the types of conversation you have and how do you lead each and every day.
So I’m going to take that back and see if I can just – pepper just a little bit of that in.
Robbins: Just a little.
Foutty: Just a little.
Shontell: So one thing I wanted to ask you also about is how you developed your own leadership style. It can be really tempting to feel like you need to emulate the person that was in the role before you, or to do what your boss did. So how did you come into your own?
Robbins: That was very hard for me, mostly because I’m an introvert. I’ve always struggled with that, because I always felt it was kind of viewed as a bad thing, as a sign of weakness. And I’ve embraced it, and I know that it’s a leadership style that is great, you know? And it should be viewed as a positive thing and not as a weak thing.
But I think the No. 1 thing is just being your authentic self and really staying true to who you are, your words, your message, because that will come across.
And I remember – it’s really hard, because when you fill another person’s shoes who was an extrovert and so out there, or you work for someone who was so out there, you’re challenged kind of about who you are as a leader. But you have to really stay true to who you are, because you cannot influence, you cannot motivate, you cannot inspire anybody. And I think that’s what I’ve learned through my leadership style is around that and really embracing who I am as an introvert and as an effective leader.
Foutty: Everyone that I’ve replaced has been absolutely a 42-long male – perfect, you know, textbook 42 long. And obviously I’m not that, and so emulating it is absolutely hopeless.
I think the combination of good feedback from my clients who really don’t care about the politics or what’s happening within our organisation and knowing that there is no way that I could emulate those people that I’ve replaced sort of gave me that confidence.
Authenticity has obviously become part of the vernacular. It was not, as I was growing up, ever part of the conversation. It was sort of one of those things that was not talked about. Once in a while, you might get a comment: “Oh, that’s an unusual way to go representing that.” But never “Oh, that’s a good thing, because it’s your authentic self.”
When it became the most clear to me that this conversation had sort of come full circle, I’d just come into the role to lead the business and had lots of notes and calls from my clients and from our business partners and, of course, from the partners within the organisation. And the notes were – many of them were lovely and thoughtful and as you would expect very gracious.
But one of my partners – and as I’ve reminded you, all 2,000 partners, each with their own opinion, they will be very direct with you – and it’s not someone I knew very well, and he said, “Congratulations, Janet, I’m really excited for you in the role, and the best thing is you did it your way.” And classic girl reaction, I’m like, “What the hell does that mean?”
And I obsessed and I obsessed and I obsessed about what does he mean, and what is that really saying? And I got really agitated, and of course all the nice notes I ignored, and I just read and reread and obsessed over that one.
And sort of when I came to peace was because this authenticity conversation was evolving at that same time. The positive view of that was that it’s absolutely what he was trying to say – it was not a linear path; I took a lot of career twists and turns, especially when I was had young children, but I also had a very different style than the 42 long that had preceded me.
Addressing gender pay disparity, and how Foutty felt when she learned what her male colleagues made
Shontell: One thing I wanted to ask Cindy about specifically: I know some work you’ve done at Salesforce that’s been really important has been around the gender pay gap.
Robbins: So at the time when my career surged and I was promoted into the big job, a colleague of mine who’s a product executive at Salesforce, Leyla Seka – her and I go back 20 years, pre-Salesforce, just personal friendship there – and we both got promoted at the same time. She also got elevated around when I did.
And after coming down from our euphoria of being kind of promoted, we put our heads together, because we’re like, why isn’t it easier for women to get elevated at Salesforce? Why can’t we see this happen a little bit more? And what are the things that are prohibiting it?
And so we put our heads together, and we talked about things like at the time just making it a good workplace for working mums, so increasing the maternity leave. More programs to really identify who those heads of engineering and product, etc., were going to be, so we can kind of bring those people a little bit more overtly up. And the third was pay.
And so I had a one-on-one coming up with Marc, and I invited Leyla to that meeting. I don’t really put agendas together ahead of time with Marc, so I just went in. He did not know what I was going to go in with at the time. And we pitched him.
And when I talked about pay, he said, “Do we have a problem?” And I said: “I don’t know if we have a problem. We’ve never done this type of assessment before. I’m confident we have good pay practices, but an audit and equal pay are a little bit different, right? But I know that we cannot look under the hood, do the assessment, see a big dollar sign, and close it.” And he said, “Go do the audit.”
And we did it, obviously. It resulted in $US3 million at the time. It impacted about 6% of the population.
And then we did the second audit. And we got some criticism about, well, “Why do you have to pay again? And why do you do this assessment again?” It’s very simple: It’s not a one-and-done situation. And that was what I told Marc at the time. I said, “If we do this, this is now ingrained in our culture.” And he said, “Of course it is, part of the DNA of our culture going forward.”
And that was when we started to shift, and he started to talk about this “women’s issue” more overtly in the company – and that is the tone from the top, because that made his direct shift, and it’s a trickle down, right? It starts to just shift the behaviour in the company.
We also had our biggest acquisition year the year before – we acquired 14 companies, which was a record for us. And when you acquire 14 companies, you acquire their pay practices, right? And we had to do the assessment again for that as well. But, you know, you have to put a lot of defined processes and systems in order for this to keep going, and so you have to do the assessment regularly to make sure you’re staying within those parameters and ensuring you’re paying your people equally.
Foutty: So when I started way back when, 26 years ago, we were in a down market – well, most of you probably won’t even remember – in 1991. And there were only three MBAs that started that summer, and the offer letters of my two male colleagues who started the same summer as I did were sitting on the recruiter’s desk.
And I’m not a sneaky person whatsoever, but it was such the ’90s, these slanted tables, and they were sitting right there. I could not help but see them.
And I had gone to a different school, so I sort of rationalized. “Well, it’s a different school.” But these were – it was almost double pay.
Foutty: So, I didn’t think to – I compartmentalized it. And I had a really, really, really good first year. One of my two colleagues had had a fine first year, and the other had a mediocre first year.
So I go in – and I’m pretty unsophisticated at this conversation – for my first compensation conversation at the end of year one. And I’d gotten a modest signing bonus as well, as part of starting out of business school. And the person giving me my review and compensation said, “You had a great year, and here’s your raise.” And I’m a quant, I quickly did the maths, and I’m like, “Wow, I’m going to make less next year than I did last year.”
And so I did about what you would expect from a 25-year-old MBA who’s hit with something where she’s no idea what’s going on: I burst into tears.
Foutty: So I literally burst into tears. So, you know, I coach women about asking for what they need – well, that was my response to asking for what I needed.
And the person was absolutely mortified. And I was trying to pull myself together and explain that I had thought I had a great year. I suggested that I knew what my colleagues were paid and that I could not face thinking about making less my second year after such a great year.
And so I reflect on how hard it is for women in particular to ask for what they think they deserve, so the practices that we’ve all been putting in place in and around not asking history of compensation, which is probably the most important move that we’ve made, to get that discipline into the system so that it’s natural, so we can avoid tears and that horrifying moment that I had early in my career.
But it is very personal to me that this is an issue that we’re collectively tackling as a community to make sure that we are not putting our women on the spot to have to ask for what they need, but we are handling it, knowing that there’s still a long way to go.
Shontell: And did you get that raise?
Foutty: I did. They actually did adjust my comp.
Shontell: Good, good.
Foutty: Not by a lot – by enough so that I was making more than I had the first year. And it was probably five years before I was fully caught up. But I felt that my voice had been heard in the conversation.
Shontell: So you two have reached the top. It’s incredibly impressive and difficult to do for anyone, but as we sit here at Davos, you are two of the few women in the crowd. How do you think about the leadership example that you set not just for your employees, for the people here, for the people around you, but for really anyone who sees you in your position?
Robbins: I mean, I’m taking a key from my mentor, you know, who said, “Now you have to pay it forward a little bit.” I try to find two or three people and really take the time to invest in them and really support them, and that means being their toughest critic as well as being their biggest champion. And that’s inherently what I’m trying to do because that is what helped me get successful, so I’m trying to remember that and give it back.
Foutty: So for me, I do feel a tremendous responsibility to the young women in my own organisation, to the young women in the communities of the clients with which I serve, and to my daughter and all of her friends. So I do feel a tremendous accountability to pay it forward.
Do I really want to share with you all that I burst into tears when I was 26 years old? I’ve gotten a lot more courage over time to share those stories because I think it’s incredibly important to understand that men and women are different, and that there are lots of different ways with which you can be wildly successful in the things that you choose to do.
And so being here and being part of this conversation is incredibly important to me, gives me great energy, continues to put me on the edge of pushing myself. And it is really a pleasure and a privilege to be able to do so. So that’s how I think about it.
Shontell: Great. Well thank you both so much for your time.
Foutty: Thank you.
Robbins: Thank you.
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