Corner Office: Salesforce.com Executive on Seeking Out Challenges

This interview with
George Hu, chief operating officer of Salesforce.com, was conducted and condensed by
Adam Bryant.

Q. You worked your way up from intern to chief operating officer at Salesforce in a decade. Where did you get your drive?

A. It’s interesting, especially with all the publicity around the “Tiger Mom.” My parents are first-generation immigrants, and they were very laid-back. They gave me a lot of freedom, which actually allowed me to find myself. One trait I noticed that I had early on was that I always tried to do the thing that people said I couldn’t do, or was off-limits for some reason. When I was in school, if there was a course that people said I couldn’t take because it was too advanced for me, it was like they were throwing down the gauntlet. I would want to take the class.

Q. How did you start your rise up the ranks at Salesforce?

A. One piece of advice I always give people is: Don’t solve the problem that your manager or your boss tells you to solve. Solve the problem that either they don’t know they have, or solve the problem they know they have but nobody is solving. When I first started at Salesforce, Marc [Benioff, the C.E.O.] had sent out a note saying, “We’re having some problems in Europe.” I talked to 20 people, did an analysis and sent it to him. He called me to his office and said, “I want you to tell me what’s wrong with the company.”

Q. That was a bold move.

A. If I think I have a good idea, I just can’t help sharing it. I had worked for a different company before Salesforce and sent a note to the C.E.O. about things I was observing. The C.E.O. forwarded it to someone else, who told me I should never send a note to the C.E.O. again. I see that in a lot of employees who come to Salesforce from hierarchical cultures where they might get slapped down if they communicate beyond their direct manager. I call it the “six-month detox” before they understand we are different.

Q. What do you do to spur innovation?

A. At almost every company, there are people who have good ideas. But you have to have a process for sorting the ideas, so that the really good ones get produced. When I think about driving innovation, I think about solving that gap. As the company gets larger, it gets harder to filter up great ideas and get them executed. We spend a lot of time on that. So, for example, when we have an important decision we need to make, we put a presentation on our social network and let people comment on it. Or people will post ideas and we use a liking system, just like on Facebook, so that the best ideas bubble up.

Q. What are some unusual things about Salesforce’s culture?

A. People set up groups on our internal social network. One is called Airing of Grievances, which we borrowed from “Seinfeld.” Employees can rant about anything. I will check in to get a pulse of the employees, and I’ll sometimes make comments or explain what’s going on.

Q. What else?

A. It’s important for us to ensure that you are always communicating and aligning with people. Every year, the management team gets up and presents the business plan to every employee in a worldwide forum — the vision, the values and the 10 most important things we’re going to do this year.

We use this process called V2MOM, which stands for vision, values, methods, obstacles and measures. And Marc starts the process with his, and we circulate it in its early forms so people can provide feedback. Then each of us writes our own V2MOM, and they’re all online, so any employee can see what I’m supposed to get done that year.

Q. How do you hire?

A. I ask “why” a lot, to learn what motivated people to make the decisions they made throughout their career. I also tend to have a bias toward people who have been in an organization for more than five or six years. We say inside Salesforce that if you spent two years doing something, you spent two years doing nothing, because there’s just not that much you can do in that time frame.

I also spend a lot of time forcing people to prioritize things. I’ll ask people what they think are the most important traits to be successful in the role they’re interviewing for, and then prioritize them for me. And I’ll ask them why they prioritize them that way. If they do that well, I know they’re going to fit in our culture.

Q. What behavior do you have a low tolerance for?

A. I call it “going into your cave.” I might say to somebody: “I’d like you to assess whether this idea makes sense, but don’t go into a cave.” And what I mean is, don’t go off for three months and work on this detailed analysis. Because that’s not how things get done. I want them to shoot me some thoughts every couple of days or every week. We’ll make much more progress that way, and it will be a lot more fun, too.

Q. What other career advice do you give people?

A. One is, really know yourself well. A question I ask people in interviews is, “How would you describe who you are, in the core of your DNA, in one word?” People often struggle with that. The most common response I get is, “Do you really mean one word?” So know who you are, and really understand what you’re exceptional at.

Q. How would you answer that question?

A. It’s changed at different points in my career. When I was a management consultant, I would have said I’m an analyst. Up until the time I took over as C.O.O., I would have said I’m a problem-solver. Today, and it can sound like a cliché word, I really view myself as a leader. I once hired this person who had been the C.E.O. of a start-up. He said to me, “As a C.E.O., what I learned was that every day, whether things were good or bad, I had to come in with a lot of energy and feeling good, because if I showed any sign of being down, it would pull the whole energy of the company down.” And that’s the place that I’m in now. People watch for whether I’m feeling positive and energetic about where we are going, and people cue off of that. I think by definition that makes you a leader.