Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff
Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff

The CEO of the Year Is Marc Benioff of Salesforce

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Even measured against the fun-house-mirror distortions that 2020 has imposed on the lives of every person on Earth, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff had a singular year.

Consider:

  • he turned his own world-renowned company upside-down in just 6 months and still beat growth expectations;
  • he helped hundreds of corporate customers figure out how to sprint through the pandemic and into the digital economy;  
  • he roiled the enterprise-software business with the $28-billion purchase of Slack;
  • and, in his spare time, he masterminded the procurement and delivery of 50 million pieces of PPE for a San Francisco medical center during the throes of the pandemic.

So while other executives in the Cloud Wars had superb years and were forces of outsized change and innovation and impact, I chose Benioff as the Cloud Wars CEO of the Year for 2020 because he achieved all of those things without his company missing a step.

Last year, our CEO of the Year was Google Cloud’s Thomas Kurian—and while at the time it might have seemed highly improbable that he could top his 2019 accomplishments, all Kurian has done in 2020 was make Google Cloud the fastest-growing and arguably most-innovative major cloud vendor in the world.

This year, Benioff showed that outsized and audacious (what some would call crazy) goals can be achieved in even the most-challenging of times, and that if a one-time disruptor wants to continue disrupting, it must remake itself relentlessly to avoid becoming complacent, which leads to comfortable, which leads to sleepy, which in the tech world leads to disaster.

And Benioff did that over and over again throughout the year, never easing up and never giving his company any reason to ease off the gas even momentarily.

To illustrate that, I’d like to share a few excerpts from our Cloud Wars coverage of Benioff throughout the year.

This first one is from our Special Report analysis of Salesforce called With or Without Slack, Salesforce Will Remain #1 in Cloud Applications

Salesforce has two primary challenges, and while the two are about as different as could be, they present equally serious scenarios that have the potential to derail Salesforce’s massive momentum:

  • The threat from without: the ability of SAP and Oracle to give businesses access to ERP data and HCM data, as well as CRM data, will tilt more business toward them and away from Salesforce.
  • The threat from within: what if Marc Benioff decides to run for governor, or the Senate, or for president?

Let’s take the second one first. I admit it’s a bit crazy—but, at the same time, Benioff has injected himself and his views purposefully and aggressively into national discussions about social and political issues in ways no other major CEO has done. He’s been the unabashed leader of the call for a new type of capitalism called “stakeholder capitalism”, and on that and all other major causes he has embraced, Benioff has pulled no punches: he says what he means and means what he says.

The second is from an April 2020 analysis called Marc Benioff: the Extraordinary Ascendancy of a Global Leader:

Well into his third decade of running one of the most innovative and successful software companies the world has ever known, Benioff somehow finds ways to reinvent—redefine? reorient?—himself and his company with a speed and grace that few if any CEOs in any industry can match.

Part of it is that Benioff simply does some things better than many other CEOs. But I think the bigger factor is that Benioff treads where most other CEOs dare not go.

Look at the outstanding efforts and initiatives of the major tech companies to battle COVID-19 and the nightmare it’s unleashed across the globe: high-value applications and solutions made available to all at no charge, donations of money and cloud services, efforts to help researchers optimize data analytics, and much more. 

All excellent ideas, all valuable, all making a big impact.

But Benioff did all of that as well, and then leapt completely of his company’s category and started procuring and, with partners, transporting 50 million pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE). The undertaking was surely not easy. But Salesforce and Benioff made it look that way because they got it done rapidly, without a hitch and with results that have immediate and lasting impact.

And this last one from Marc Benioff Delivers: “The Best I’ve Ever Seen Salesforce Perform”:

This is important—incredibly important—for a number of reasons. Yesterday, Benioff and Salesforce:

  • redefined the roles of, and expectations for, the world’s top tech companies;
  • gave CEOs in many industries stability, hope, and confidence to overcome potential economic devastation;
  • created a new set of highly relevant products in a remarkably short time;
  • transformed the company in ways that will endure for years to come; and
  • helped reinvigorate the entire software industry with a new sense of purpose and possibility.

Wait—I almost forgot two other pretty decent accomplishments Benioff managed to squeeze into the quarter. First, Salesforce boosted revenue by 30%. And second, Benioff signed what could be the largest deal (with AT&T) in the company’s storied 21-year history.

These achievements—and the dreams, passion, and unrelenting will behind them—are a continuation of Benioff’s evolution into one of the great leaders of not only the tech world but the global stage as well. (I recently explored in that journey detail in How Salesforce Plans to Beat Oracle and SAP While Scaling to $35 Billion.)

As I said, the competition for CEO of the Year was particularly tough this year because each of the Cloud Wars Top 10 companies pulled off some extraordinary achievements in this bizarre year that will blessedly be behind us in about 8 days. And I could certainly have vigorously made the case for 2 or 3 other world-class CEOs.

But the Slack acquisition sealed the deal for Marc Benioff because it will drive new innovations and value for customers, it will force every other major software company to react by innovating more aggressively around collaboration, and it intensifies the level of competition among the world’s largest and most-influential cloud vendors. And out of those wickedly hot competitive battles comes endless innovation for businesses in every industry and across every region of the world.

That’s the true genius and enduring value of the Cloud Wars.

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