A New Kind of Leadership: How Salesforce Develops High-Level Individual Contributors

Andy Cook
April 30, 2018
Interview with Matthew Sweezey

When we think of “leadership” in a company, we often think of people who run massive teams or those who have spent decades working their way up a ladder. But some of the most innovative companies are developing leaders in a totally new way: they’re cultivating the works of high-level individual contributors and letting them double down on the areas they love.

This episode focuses on the work of Mathew Sweezey, Principal of Marketing Insights at Salesforce. Though he has no direct reports, he has an outsized impact on the company’s brand and growth. Salesforce is rethinking the “traditional” career path of increasing direct reports and instead, embracing the idea of the individual contributor. Individual contributors have the freedom to maintain focus on their unique skills; Mathew notes that turning one’s attention to people management often means giving up on other activities:

Becoming a manager often leads you away from what you’re good at and what you love.

Instead, Mathew is able to focus on the areas where he’s uniquely talented. He spends his time developing and sharing thought leadership around the future of marketing. This means research, writing, and speaking on how marketing has evolved and where it could or should go from here.

This adds value for Salesforce in a number of ways: Mathew’s work fosters brand awareness, since he’s out keynoting at some of the biggest events in the world. It also allows the company to lure important customers and prospects to Salesforce-hosted events; The CMO of AT&T, for example, might not show up for a sales dinner but will attend if there’s an opportunity to hear about Mat’s newest research. Last, but not least, Salesforce prides itself on being at the forefront of sales and marketing trends. Mat’s work underscores this position and ensures they remain at the cutting edge.

As Mathew notes, this alignment between his work and the broader mission of the company is critical for a role like this to work:

They see this as a part of their mission and purpose: helping customers be better at their jobs

This alignment must take place at the highest level. You have to have buy-in from the CEO directly, so that there’s clarity and trust in the decision to invest in this kind of work, (especially since it involves a lot of out of office time!)

Though this is Mathew’s full-time job, he suggests that more companies should cultivate this kind of work among many people in the organization. It behooves the company to have a number of thought leaders. Help make it part of their jobs. Look for those people who may already have a passion for this work. Seek out those who already engage with research and writing on their own. Look for those with side projects that align with the company’s focus. Allow team members to grow as individual contributors, and you may find yourself with some amazing brand ambassadors and thought leaders.



Mathew Sweezey00:00

I won’t make any bones about it, my role is subjective, because I’m not measured on ACB, I’m not measured on the number of gigs I do, or the number of people I speak to. I’m not measured on any of that.

Jay Acunzo 00:14

You’re listening to the show for people who empower other people to do their best work. I’m Jay Acunzo and this is Org Uncharted.

Jay Acunzo 00:36

[Silence Ends 00:00:36] Hey there, hello, and hi. Welcome to the show that believes … I think what you believe. We believe in putting the customer first, in making decisions from the bottom up because top down leadership is dead, and in building and empowering world class teams. This is the official podcast from Tettra, which makes knowledge management and sharing software to help you do just that. To help you and your team grow and empower each other, and make better decisions in less time.

Jay Acunzo 01:01

You can visit our show website at orguncharted.com.

Jay Acunzo 01:13

Heres the deal, people are so much more than nodes on an org chart, they are. We need to stop treating people like they’re just little cogs in a machine that we’re building. So, let’s venture beyond the org chart and explore today’s theme. Leadership doesn’t mean management. When we think about leaders in the business world, we tend to think about managers. Now, maybe you picture somebody on a stage, or writing books, or other public personas, but I think for the most part the classic image of leadership in the workplace is the corner office. The person with direct reports. The one with the fancier title. The boss.

Jay Acunzo 01:48

When we think about career trajectories too, we also think about the need to impress this person, to convince them to sign off on our promotion. They are the node at the top of the org chart, and I’m sure you know the steps in general that you have to take to get up to that node. For example, you might start out as a junior level or a entry level contributor. Then you’re a middle or a senior level contributor. Then middle management. A director. A VP. And finally, you’re part of the C Suite. And how sweet it can be to be a leader.

Jay Acunzo 02:17

But this is a stale way to talk about leadership. It’s old, it’s outdated. We have to change it, update it. Because leaders can come from anywhere in the org chart. Anywhere in the organization, and we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice as individuals and as teams if we assume that leaders are only those circles up top. Luckily, today there are some really forward thinking organizations who are hiring roles that don’t sit so neatly inside a chart.

Mathew Sweezey02:48

We have to realize that my job is kind of made up.

Jay Acunzo 02:52

That is Matthew Sweezey, and he is a high level individual contributor at Salesforce. Now, just think about your own career arc that unfolds over time. Inevitably we think to ourselves that we’ll move into management someday, or maybe you’ve made that move already. That’s the traditional path and perhaps the only path given to many of us, but this means that we change the path entirely when you really think about it. It’s not one continual path. I know this has been discussed before, but it’s worth repeating. Becoming a manager often means moving away from the path that got you there. From the job and the work that you were great at that lead to that promotion in the first place, and that seems like more than a little bit insane to build the thriving team.

Jay Acunzo 03:32

Luckily, today there are companies like Salesforce that are rethinking that path and trying to solve this issue. In doing so, they’ve created a new crop of leaders, of senior level people who don’t actually oversee anybody else’s careers in that classic managerial sense. Instead, they are high level individual contributors. Maybe you actually know these people within your own organization, or you’ve seen them at events, or on social media and you might wonder, “What does that person actually do?” Oftentimes these individual contributor roles can feel a little bit nebulous. For example, Matt’s title at Salesforce is principal of marketing insights. Not something that typically fits into the hierarchy that you picture if you know anything about marketing teams.

Jay Acunzo 04:16

But basically, Matthew was hired to be a thought leader. A public educator, but what the hell does Matt really do?

Mathew Sweezey04:24

So, what I really do is a combination of three things. Research, writing, and speaking. And that’s really kind of what I do. Primarily it’s all focused around the topic of the future of marketing. So, that’s kind of my directive is to figure out what does the future of marketing mean? And then disseminate that back down through research, writing, and speaking.

Jay Acunzo 04:45

I want to paint a picture in the minds of listeners to give them clarity about your job. So, if your job was a pie chart split into different activities what would be the bigger slices, and what are some of the smaller slices in terms of where you spend your time?

Mathew Sweezey04:59

I’d say they’re all equal in terms of research, writing, and speaking. They all drive each other, right? So, the research drives the writing, the writing drives the speaking, the speaking drives more speaking, and more research, and more gigs.

Jay Acunzo 05:12

And what’s the benefit to Salesforce of this?

Mathew Sweezey05:14

Yeah. So, that’s a great question. So, there’s really three major benefits to Salesforce for a position such as mine. Benefit number one comes into speaking, and you have to think about speaking in two ways. Speaking in way number one is all the events that we sponsor right? So, any type of event sponsorship whether that be, you want to have a sales dinner and get CEO’s to come, you want to break into major accounts, you are sponsoring an event, all of those are extremely costly events, and to get people to those events, you have to have a pretty high level speaker, right?

Mathew Sweezey05:45

So, someone in my position can go talk to other VP or CMO of At&T, where your sales rep’s not going to get that kind of entrance. The second is then, we get invited to events that you normally are not going to get invited to. So, I get personally invited to events all over the country and all over the world.

Mathew Sweezey06:04

So, good example, next month I’m speaking at the largest keynote in the largest marketing conference in Turkey, but also speak at all of the AMA events around the United States, get personally invited to those, content marketing world, and all of these are events where now Salesforce is on stage in front of our core demographic at no cost.

Jay Acunzo 06:24

I want to go back to when you first started doing the role. When you were first starting to craft a job function that has no decades long precedent, I think it can be really exciting, but there’s also probably a lot of uncertainty that you have to navigate.

Jay Acunzo 06:37

So, I’m curious about what were some of the bigger things in your mind that were totally uncertain early on?

Mathew Sweezey06:44

The feasibility of this being a long-term job, because I mean, if you’re not producing leads, and a business just looks at everything value based on leads, and you are more subjective, it really can become a subjective role pretty quickly, and I won’t make any bones about it, my role is subjective because I’m not measured on ACB, I’m not measured on the amount of leads I generate. I’m not measured on the number of gigs I do, or the number of people I speak to. I’m not measured on any of that.

Mathew Sweezey07:18

So, by definition then it is subjective, but at the same time I am able to bring value, and that value is very tangible to people. So, you have to have other people vouch for you, and let me … Kind of got away from your question, but maybe this can kind of help out. When you’re starting off creating a role like this, you have to be very clear on how it’s going to be utilized internally in the organization, and how it’s going to be valued, because without that and without that value at the highest levels of the organization it’s not going to work.

Mathew Sweezey07:52

I had buy-in from the CEO directly. So, without buy-in from the CEO directly, if I’m a line item on marketing, and they look to cut budget, and they’re like, “Oh, we just have this guy that flies around, there’s a huge travel budget, and all he does is speak, and has no direct affect to leads, cut it.” But, if there’s value from the organization that they see that as a part of their mission, it is a part of their purpose by helping their customers be better at their jobs, and this person’s sole focus is doing that based on research, and then spreading that message out all over those places, then that aligns with those two goals.

Mathew Sweezey08:26

So, if it doesn’t align at the highest levels, if it’s not bought into at the highest levels, I don’t think it’s going to sustain.

Jay Acunzo 08:36

We are in uncharted territory now, so let’s go deeper still and see if we can take with us a few buried treasures, a few gems back to our work to help us execute better when it comes to being leaders, regardless of whether we’re actually managers.

Jay Acunzo 08:49

So, we’ve been talking so far about your role within the business, so you’re kind of existing and what are you doing there, and I want to flip it now and look at this from the perspective of a manager. So, if you’re a manager trying to hire a role like yours, and that doesn’t mean a marketing evangelist, or a thought leader, or a speaker, it could just mean, I’m the head of engineering, I’m the CTO, and I’m hiring a developer relations person, which I know are getting more common, but they’re still pretty rare. But basically, I’m hiring somebody who historically hasn’t really existed here and they’re a high level individual contributor, are there any mentality shifts that I need as a leader or team manager … how can I make sure that I bring on the right person and make sure this person can thrive and also communicate the hire to the team?

Mathew Sweezey09:35

Yes, I’m even going to push back and say, “Why do we believe it should be a single individual?” I think one of things that we should realize is there’s so many bright passionate individuals inside your organization that are doing these things already. I have a good colleague I work with that talks about UX. UX is extremely impactful to all of our customers. He’s on the UX team but he still travels and speaks. Now, we need to have a budget for that individual to travel and speak and do those things just as much as we do need to have an individual. So, if you’re saying as a head of a corporation or a leader, “What type of budget do I need to set aside for an individual?”

Mathew Sweezey10:20

Maybe you already have those individuals inside your organization and just need to find out ways to allow them to go do what they want to do because here’s the nuts and bolts of it, a lot of times conferences will pay for their travel and hotel, all you got to do is allow it to be a part of their job and see the value in that. So it’s essentially it could be free. But then what that also states is that you then have to allow some of those people that are really passionate to dedicate some of their time to doing research and doing other projects, which is not a new concept, Google always has followed the 10% rule, right? 10% of an employee’s time is supposed to be spent on something other than the direct project at hand, so why not just let that be thought leadership?

Jay Acunzo 11:03

I worked for Google, and I can tell you first hand that a lot of times, there were managers especially on the maybe sales and marketing side, both at Google and other companies I worked for, that would notice these skills starting to emerge in people and not know how to cultivate them. They would I don’t know have them lead projects, which is a good start, how would you tease … first of all how would notice that somebody that you work with has the skills that you have, and second, how would you actually tease them out such that they stay and help the company versus they get so famous and so popular that they actually leave?

Mathew Sweezey11:33

Yeah, so, I think the second is an unrealistic fear. The first is, how do you identify them? I’m just going to go back to that point, the person has to have an innate, deep, deep, deep love for the topic. It can’t be anything other than fueled by deep love. If not, it won’t last.

Jay Acunzo 11:53

But where does that come through, how do you tell that somebody internally working in Salesforce’s marketing team has a deeper, more thoughtful love of the topic relative to their peers?

Mathew Sweezey12:02

Yeah, it’s going to be really easy to identify, I’m going to give you a couple of ways to identify it. One is listen to what they mention and who they cite. If someone cites anybody, so when I say cites, I mean if somebody is giving a discussion of why they think they should do this and they’re able to cite work that is not from … and I’m going to throw air quotes on the world thought leader, because as we know there’s different levels of it, but if they are citing real research and they’re actually engaging in these conversations on their own, that’s probably a really big sign that this person has an innate love for it ’cause they’re already doing a lot of this stuff.

Mathew Sweezey12:38

If they don’t … and here’s a really good question, when we would do interviews, my favorite question to ask somebody is, “Tell me something that you wanted to be great at.” They would tell me X, Y, Z, it could be baseball, it could be whatever. I’d say, “All right now tell me the things that you did to become great at that.” Based on what they tell you, you can figure out really quickly, one if they really want to be great at something and then two, to the level that they’ll probably be great. When I was interviewing people for marketing jobs, I’d say, “Great, tell me the last three books you read about marketing.” Based on those three books, I could really easily tell if they were intelligent and really cared deeply about this topic or were just kind of reading the flavor of the month and never going past that.

Jay Acunzo 13:18

Right, and that manifests in many ways, the interest in reading and exploring a topic, my favorite way to identify it has been side projects that people launch. It’s so easy today to get your name out and if you don’t have that intrinsic motor to pursue, explore, research and create around a given topic, maybe it’s actually just something you’re doing as a posture to convey that hey, I’m smart you should take me seriously. But if I see someone launch a side project, man they’re doing that in their own time? That’s worth cultivating.

Mathew Sweezey13:44

Yeah, great example. I totally 110% agree and that’s another great identifier. I had a friend of mine reach out to me the other day and they’re like, “Hey, man I want to start looking at another job or I want to advance in my career what should I do?” I was like, “Dude, all those little stupid videos that you make,” and he’s made some of the funniest videos I’ve ever seen, and I was like, “That’s what you should be showing people,” I was like, “Show that stuff to people because that just shows your creativity and your passion and your love for all this stuff.” He totally has the ability to do the thought leadership stuff just from looking at those things. Now, let’s take the second question you asked earlier which is, “How do we ensure that they’re not just going to become famous and go off and do this all this on their own?” Which is, in my true, honest opinion a completely unrealistic expectation, you may disagree.

Jay Acunzo 14:30

No, no I totally agree, but I know people think it.

Mathew Sweezey14:33

Well, here’s the bottom line sense of it, if someone wants to be a thought leader, they will engage with lots of other people and the majority of thought leaders out there are consultants. I think we need to first understand that. The reason so many thought leaders are consultants is why? Well because they have to then fill their own pipeline and this is the marketing that they do for themselves, but once you spend any time with a consultant, you realize how much they hate their jobs because so much of that time is spent trying to drum up business, rather than simply just doing the research that they really want to do. If they’re in a position where they are comfortable, very happy I should say, able to do what they want to do and compensated well, why would they leave that to go work twice as hard, maybe get paid the same and do less of what they love? I just think that that’s kind of an unrealistic thing that most businesses shouldn’t have that view. If that is the case, you just have the ability to create great people so good for you.

Jay Acunzo 15:34

I love that take because I think it speaks of two benefits really. One benefit is you put up a wall of fame of people who have gone on to do amazing things which is what every individual wants in their career. Gone are the days where we would stay for 25 years in one business in most cases, instead every stop along a career path, people want it to be an injection of steroids into the arm of their career. If you can say, “Well guess who came through here, this person, this person, this person and we celebrate that.” You’re going to be able to get better talent. Then the second point that underscores what you were saying is you start to reap the rewards of not only that one person starting to pick their head up and starting to get out there and evangelize and contribute to thought leadership, but the others at the organization that are inspired to do the same thing. So you get this potentially … you get this nice cycle.

Mathew Sweezey16:23

Yeah, you’ve gotten that wheel rolling and you’ll produce others.

Jay Acunzo 16:25

Exactly. I want to end here, if I am somebody listening to this, and I’m like, “You know what, that’s actually me.” Whether I am a leader in terms of my title or I’m a leader in terms of my mentality and I’m like, “Everything that Matthew’s doing I aspire to do as well in whatever domain but I feel like my role is this traditional node on an org chart.” What are some steps that you’d recommend that person take to start to contribute at a more strategic or again air quotes thought leadership level?

Mathew Sweezey16:55

First I’d say don’t wait on your organization to make any changes. Nothing’s stopping you from right now to going and pitching yourself at conferences, creating speeches, creating slide decks and building that momentum because even if your company today says, “Cool, go forth and be this,” you still have a long road ahead of you before you’re going to be getting speaking gigs. That long road ahead of you is one, crafting a good speech, having the wherewithal so when you do apply that people can go search you out and see speeches that you’ve given, read things that you’ve written, and believe that you’re going to be a good speaker for them to bring on to their event. So go ahead and do all that stuff now, go get your website for yourself. Start coming up with a speech. Make a slide deck. Make a presentation. Start writing for different publications and start getting those things out there. Then go start applying to conferences that you want to speak at. Then once you have an acceptance to a conference, then go back to your business and say, “Hey, I’ve gotten the ability to go speak at XYZ conference, they’re paying for my travel, they’re doing all this, can I have the day off?” If they say no, say, “Screw it, I’ll take a personal day.” And then keep doing it. If they still don’t want to do it, go find another job.

Jay Acunzo 18:04

That is advice, honestly, that not enough people say, quite frankly.

Mathew Sweezey18:08

I say it all the time, I love it. We’re in a weird position, if you’re wanting to do this type of a role, one it’s going to require a lot of work. I can’t tell you about how much I read and how deep of conversations I get in with people about this stuff. You have to love it at the deepest, deepest levels and be extremely passionate about your topic. The other thing is is your not a person on an island, you’re not a man or a woman with the only ideas, you need to realize that there are lots of different people out there with lots of different ideas. You got to go listen to them all and then figure out where your ideas converge, where they differ, why they differ, if they do differ, figure out why that person has that idea, research their idea, research your theory and then come up and be able to make a case of which one is better or correct or are they both correct based on real research? Then you’ll start to build relationships with those people and then they start snowballing. Then you end up doing work together and then collaborating and then you get to start doing research projects that don’t cost any money.

Mathew Sweezey19:08

Good example, I’m just about to finish up a research project with the Economist where Salesforce is doing a project with the Economist, no money exchanged hands because the two companies had a central idea that they wanted to research together. Another example, the beginning of the year we launched a chat bot research project with Drift, Salesforce, My Clever and Survey Monkey. Once again, no money changed hands for any of that thought leadership to take place because all the companies worked together to produce it. There’s just a lot of really good love that will come of them building those relationships but just don’t think you’re a person on that island.

Jay Acunzo 19:42

Final question, because this is a show about ultimately empowering every employee on a team or every person on a team I should say, I don’t think you can do that as a leader without having experienced it yourself, without having been empowered by somebody else in your career to do great work, so I’d ask you is there anybody else that you can point to in your career that empowered you to do great work? We so often get caught up in the day to day that maybe we don’t thank those people enough, so what would you say to that person? First, how did they empower you? Second, how would you thank them?

Mathew Sweezey20:13

I’m so thankful you’re giving me this opportunity to thank one of my favorite people of Jeff and say, “Jeff if you’re listening to this, thank you so much, love you so much, you’ve taught me so much, and I just wouldn’t be here without you.”

Jay Acunzo 20:25

What kinds of things did Jeff do to get you to that level of emotional tie?

Mathew Sweezey20:28

All kinds of stuff, from first off, he’s a phenomenal speaker, the way he thinks about things, the way he speaks about things, let me give you some very clear examples. He told me to be irreverent to a level of degree. He’s like, “It’s okay to be irreverent and that is a good thing in speeches. It helps keep people engaged. Use lots of slides, don’t just have three slides and don’t just have a word on the screen, use a different slide for every word to keep people engaged and moving.”

Mathew Sweezey20:58

These are a lot of counterintuitive advice to what a lot of people may tell you, if you look at a PMN’s deck, it’s ten slides and they want you to talk to that for an hour. That’s not going to fly for an audience. Think about the audience, be very passionate about what you do, he just gave me the confidence. He would say, “Hey man that was great.” And this is a guy that I’d been following for a long time before I started working with him so I knew who he was … just all of that and then just how amazing of a person he is, if you don’t know him or ever meet him, you’ll understand what I mean. But just the confidence and inspiration that he passed on to not just me but all of the team members, really drove us to be better but he also led from example because he was such a good speaker we were happy to listen to him and do what he told us.

Jay Acunzo 21:52

Big thanks to Matthew Sweezey from Salesforce, I loved this episode, I don’t know about you, he is one hell of a leader but definitely not a manager. This show is the official podcast from Tettra which helps your team make better decisions in less time. Their product is a knowledge management tool for leaders who want to build and empower world class teams so check them out at tettra.co, that’s Tettra with two Ts dot CO. Or you can visit our show website with lots more content like this at orguncharted.com. All of that is in the show notes.

Jay Acunzo 22:25

This podcast is a production of Unthinkable Media, makers of refreshingly entertaining shows about work. It’s hosted by me, Jay Acunzo, and produced by Annie Sinsabaugh. If you like this show, please drop us a rating and review wherever you listen, whatever app you’re using, it really does help us. We work our butts off to make this show and ratings really help us find others to serve. Thank you so much for listening, I’ll talk to you in two weeks on another episode of Org Uncharted. See you!