Grace, Allyship, and Leadership: A Conversation with Tony Prophet, Salesforce’s Chief Equality Officer

Tony Prophet is equal parts Silicon Valley executive and social justice advocate. In addition to holding senior leadership roles at companies like Microsoft and HP Inc., Prophet has worked to protect the rights of young workers, improve education for low-income youth, and expand healthcare access for HIV-positive women. As Chief Equality Officer at Salesforce, he has certainly questioned the status quo while leading efforts to build a workplace that reflects the diverse communities it serves and to ensure that Salesforce is a place that truly welcomes all.

Last month, through EGAL’s AmpEquity Speaker Series, Prophet sat down with Kellie McElhaney in front of an audience of Haas students, staff, and faculty for an engaging conversation on equity fluent leadership, the importance of allyship, and how business leaders can drive DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts.

Regarding the arc of his own equity fluent leadership journey, Prophet speaks passionately about various inflection points. During his time leading worldwide operations for HP, Prophet was struck by the impact of making modest changes within the supply chain — he focused on improving labor practices and stemming the flow of conflict minerals. He has deeply personal motivations, too. Prophet’s son identifies as a member of the LGBTQ community, and seeing the barriers and heartache he faced growing up strengthened Prophet’s resolve to be an effective ally. Over the last few years, the growing movement against police brutality has also challenged Prophet to personally do more.

Salesforce is a huge organization and advancing DEI efforts in the global workplace presents certain challenges. Prophet described a recent experience launching Outforce — Salesforce’s equality group for LGBTQ employees and allies — in India, where the LGBTQ community is still fighting for basic rights and only 8% of LGBTQ workers are fully out in the workplace [1]. Salesforce marched in a Pride parade in Hyderabad for the first time and held a national Townhall. Before the launch of Outforce India, nobody in the Salesforce office was out but one employee proudly came out as a gay man at the end of the Townhall; that made it all worth it for Prophet.

Navigating cultural and social differences is nothing new for him — he has championed human rights and social justice issues in both the U.S. and developing countries. When it comes to Salesforce’s global DEI initiatives, the company is mindful of being sensitive to cultural norms and involving local community leadership. Prophet likes to make sure that everyone is starting from the same foundation and will work to meet people at their levels of understanding. With Outforce India, that meant educating employees on the basics (sexual orientation vs. gender identity, binary vs. fluid, etc.), networking with LGTBQ groups from other tech companies in India, and screening films about the struggles of the Indian LGTBQ community. At the same time, Prophet emphasizes standing by organizational values and “doing the right thing.” Salesforce is dedicated to furthering equality for all and “we stay true to our North Star, no matter the longitude or latitude,” he says.

Smart business leaders are realizing that doing good and creating shareholder value are inextricably linked. For small companies and early-stage startups, Prophet advises baking in an effective DEI strategy from the beginning. “Think about the legacy you want to leave and have a vision. Bring in diverse executives and employees early on; do not wait until the company is too big,” he recommends. Want to build buy-in? Listen to and engage the most compelling voices: those of your customers, stakeholders, and the community where your institution resides.

Regardless of the size of an organization, allies are crucial to cultivating a workplace where every employee feels they belong. “A person in the dominant group has four roles: advocate, mentor, support, and serve as a passive listener,” says Prophet. Lead with humility — acknowledge when you make mistakes and commit to getting it right. He is quick to point out that being an ally does not mean agreeing on every single issue but it does mean showing up, creating space for those who are marginalized, and respecting others’ identities and sense of self-determination.

In terms of seeking allies, Prophet highlights the need for grace and forgiveness. For instance, potential allies may use the wrong language. “You can shame and isolate that person or you can show them a measure of grace. Help them come back from their mistakes by gently helping them understand the right vocabulary,” he suggests. And, remember that everyone has a story — by encouraging potential allies to share their story, you foster collaboration and inspire others to see their roles in your efforts.

Prophet also discussed the importance of blending data and narrative to create sustainable change. He lifted up Salesforce’s scorecard strategy as one example of harnessing data to address the gender gap in tech and hold managers accountable. Leaders who lead teams of 500 or more employees at Salesforce are given a monthly diversity scorecard to track how often they promote and hire women and underrepresented minorities. “Data is the fuel of management,” says Prophet, “and we hold it up to people like a mirror, asking if they are proud of the data and whether they are actively making progress month by month.” In 2018, the percentage of women at Salesforce grew from 30.9% to 31.6%; the percentage of employees from underrepresented minority groups increased from 9.45% to 10.19% [2].

We ended with a series of rapid-fire questions for Prophet.

EGAL: What is your go-to interview question?

Prophet: “‘When is a time when you didn’t get it all right? What did you learn from it and how did you incorporate that into your career going forward?’ While past accolades and accomplishments are important, a candidate’s ability to answer this authentically is what will ultimately win me over.”

EGAL: What was the biggest learning from your first job?

Prophet: “My first real job was part of GM Institute Co-Op. I started in the company car wash, but quickly went on from there to doing jobs in the factory, side-by-side with the hourly workers. From this experience, I learned the importance of doing the very best that you can with the task at hand, whatever you have been given. It also proved the great value of having respect and empathy for people across all levels of an organization — everyone in the workplace deserves respect and fairness.”

EGAL: What is an essential belief you hold about leadership?

Prophet: “The best ideas rarely come from the leader. It’s critical to build teams where everyone is empowered to imagine better and smarter business models, processes, and ways to create real customer value.”

EGAL: As current MBAs, we have the luxury of time to reflect on the pursuit of meaningful work. How can we continue to be reflective and intentional over the course of our careers?

Prophet: “The moments when I’ve felt the most engaged, inspired, and motivated in my career have been when I truly believed in the values of the organization and its leaders. As you move through your career, be super thoughtful about the organizations that you join, and make sure you are doing work for an organization that makes you proud and passionate.”

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.

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