Articulating your own ambition can be a scary thought. And for many women, perhaps it’s not something that comes particularly easily.

For Pip Marlow, the Chief Executive Officer of Salesforce Australia and New Zealand, declaring what she wanted from her career used to feel difficult and conflicting. Sharing her aspirations didn’t feel congruent with who she was a person, or as a leader.

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“I felt that if I said for example: ‘my aspiration is to one day be this global CEO of Salesforce’ – I thought that if I said that, it would mean I was arrogant, and I really don’t like arrogance,” she tells Kate Mills in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons podcast.

But what Pip’s realised over her years in business and tech leadership, is that two things can be true at the same time.

“You can have an ambition and you can dream and aspire to do great things, and you can still have humility and still be a team player,” Pip explains.

“It just took me a while to find a way to hold both of those things at the same time.”

As a leading business executive, Pip says she’s felt the pressure that is often placed on women leaders to be humble and nurturing, but what’s most important in her role is helping others to do their job well.

“My number one thing is to create the best possible environment for other people to do the best work of their life,” she says. “You can’t do that if you’re too worried about you doing stuff for you.”

Pip says that her approach falls under the theory of ‘servant leadership’, where helping others to perform effectively is paramount. To do this, authenticity along with a layer of good judgement has been critical.

“I would describe myself as a pretty authentic leader. That means I’ve gotten more comfortable in that authenticity, being vulnerable, saying ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I made a mistake’,” she says.

“I’m actually a really funny person… I think I am. I’ve got a great sense of humour, but it is not always the right moment for that part of me to come out. That doesn’t make me not authentic because I’m not bringing out humour right now – it’s good judgement.”

After two decades at Microsoft and a period at Suncorp, Pip Marlow was appointed CEO of Salesforce Australia and New Zealand in 2019.

She was only just beginning to settle into the role when COVID-19 hit, and it threw her straight into the deep end. Now, she sees the pandemic as an opportunity to build back organisations and our society for the better.

“The world of work is changing for all of us,” Pip says. “Nobody asked for a global pandemic and I know it has cost lives and livelihoods.”

“However, we have some choices to make. We can be deliberate about what we build back to. You can go back to how everything was, but why not make it better?”

At Salesforce, there is a belief that there should be much more to a company’s purpose than just pleasing shareholders. It’s about living out values and considering that all different kinds of stakeholders matter.

“We believe it is about stakeholders, not just shareholders. One of those stakeholders is our planet,” Pip says.

“How do we think about climate and building back in a way that is more sustainable as we evolve our work practices?”

“If you’re going to live your values, you have to be able to stand up for them and walk away from revenue for them. That’s a moment of leadership.”

With employees travelling less into offices, Salesforce is already noticing the multitude of benefits that have come along with re-thinking the role of commercial office space.

“We can have less emissions…and a better ability for our planet to breathe. We can meet talent where they want to live. We’ve shown we can do things remotely and in doing that, we can open our mind to a more diverse candidate pool.”

Salesforce has also spent around $15 million in closing their own gender pay gap, and it offers superannuation to employees while they are on parental leave. They are also in the process of their first Reconciliation Action Plan, and are finding that the educational uptake among employees has been incredible.

As Pip shares, the private sector can, and should, play a major role in shaping society. At Salesforce, there’s a real belief that big companies can be forces for good.

“I think organisations are making more of a shift in this and our research says employees are demanding an expecting business to make a bigger impact on the planet and the community we operate in,” she says.

Pip’s clearly come a long way from her early days, when she didn’t like declaring her ambitions. Now, she’s an established leader and doesn’t shy away from declaring big goals. In fact, she thinks it’s essential for real progress.

“I’m happy to try and talk about the undiscussables. I’d rather us bring those out and address them.

“I believe in courage over comfort, which means I’ll put a bold goal out there and maybe we’ll miss it, but I’m happy to take on the bold goal.”

The Leadership Lessons podcast series, hosted by Kate Mills, is a set of interviews with brilliant female leaders across industries, sharing their perspective on the critical decade ahead. The Leadership Lessons is supported by Salesforce.

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