The director of Content Programs at Salesforce, Nick Johnson, EMBA 16, shares his views on “thought leadership,” the value of a Berkeley MBA for Executives and making the transition from entrepreneur to company executive.
You founded two companies and wrote a book on marketing. Why did you need an MBA from Berkeley?
Well, if there’s one thing I learned from running those companies and working on the book, it’s that the world of business appears to be changing faster than ever. Berkeley gave me access to tools, frameworks, and people to help build on what I had learned to that point, such that I was better equipped for such a fast-moving future.
The book was focused on marketing, and obviously Haas gives you a far broader set of courses that touch on the whole of the business world.
And why Berkeley?
A couple reasons. I was really interested in tech and the Bay Area is where tech innovation is happening. One of the best courses I took at Berkeley was on just that – Tech Innovation with Drew Isaacs. It talked about the different types of innovation - from basic product innovation all the way to business model innovation which is hardest to replicate and more sustaining. Apple, for example, didn’t just create a product, but with an app store and iTunes, created a whole new business model.
And then there’s the culture. Part of it is the Defining Leadership Principles, like ‘Question the Status Quo.’ Another part of the package is about collaboration. Ultimately, you get an MBA to learn and at Berkeley you learn from everyone. The culture isn’t about aggressively making your point as loudly as possible. The school reinforces the point that leadership is also about listening to and learning from others.
You’ve done a lot with what’s called “thought leadership.” Is that real or just a business fad?
I really dislike the term, actually. It seems designed to put the person on this superlative plane - that calling something ‘thought leadership’ automatically makes the person who wrote it a leader. Frankly there’s often little link between what claims to be thought leadership content and actual innovation, insight, and leadership. Too often, thought leadership is a synonym for hype and jargon.
At its best though, thought leadership is content that presents a unique view of the world and a set of original insights that someone can learn from. Originality is crucial. It’s also vital to be actually useful to someone -- focused on the reader’s pain, need, or opportunity -- and how to solve that pain or leverage that opportunity. It’s backed up by credible data and insights.
In our case at Salesforce, good thought leadership is about understanding the challenges our customers have -- or are going to have -- and marshaling our resources to provide them with insights and opinions that help them.
You’ve been a marketer throughout your career. What draws you to that field?
Today, marketing is a role that affects the success or failure of a business more than any other. Today’s customers have more power than before because of developments like the Internet and social media. The old transaction relationships that companies had simply won’t cut it any more. The companies that succeed are those that build long-term, valuable relationships with their customers, understand their needs, and deliver products and services aligned to them.
The best marketing is not and never has been about taking a pre-baked product and ‘spinning’ it for the customer. It’s about understanding those customers and ensuring the company builds the products and services they need. And then it’s about building a trusted relationship with them.
Where’s this all going?
Well, I think that a lot of what I wrote in my book on The Future of Marketing still holds true, which is a relief. Marketing will increasingly be about authenticity, relevance, and transparency And the role of the marketer will expand across a business to have an ever-more important impact on everything from product, to sales, to service.
Since I wrote the book though, artificial intelligence has really reached maturity as a technology, and it enables marketers to capitalize on some of the priorities I mention in the book. From a marketing perspective, AI allows one-to-one engagement with the customer.
In 1950 you had a store at the end of the street, you knew every customer, and you could deliver them a 1:1 personalized service. As companies got bigger, they got further away from targeting individual customers. They moved toward marketing to broad consumer types like seniors concerned about healthcare or teens who wanted to look cool. But as a result they failed to address the unique needs of individuals.
Today, things are coming full circle. AI offers the potential for any marketer to offer individual, personalized experiences to everyone. Amazon or Netflix do it already with their personalized product and program recommendations, but there’s plenty more where that came from.
What have you learned about leadership, not only from Berkeley but also from working at small companies and now at a large company like Salesforce?
First off - whether it’s a small or a large company - leadership is about understanding and empowering your team. That’s the overall goal wherever you work, and the main input on whether you’ll be successful enough.
Good leadership is also about prioritization. As they put it in my strategy class at Haas, “strategy is about trade-offs.” The challenge is often not about working out what to do, but what not to do. Helping my team make those decisions through experimentation and data, is crucial to finding and capitalizing on the ideas that truly move the needle.
Finally, I’ve learned that succeeding in a company the size and scale of Salesforce is dictated by the relationships I build across the organization. That takes a lot of soft skills -- empathy, communication, negotiation.
One of the things I really appreciate about Salesforce is that even though I’m one of 35,000+, the company’s set up in such a way that our size doesn’t impair innovation, nor does it remove agency for the individual.
If you have a good idea, and you can prove it, and build that consensus, then management will back you and will encourage you to innovate and do new things. And given the scale of the company, the change you can make and the impact you can have is huge. That’s really exciting.