Sarah Franklin is President and Chief Marketing Officer at Salesforce. Her career has spanned large enterprises to scrappy startups across industries including Aerospace, Big Four consulting, and Tech. With a dual degree in chemical engineering and biochemistry, she’s held roles from chemical engineer to developer to sales engineer to technical marketer to product owner and GM to executive leadership.
The CMO Club caught up with her at Salesforce Tower in San Francisco. Our first question: what are three themes that have been present throughout your journey?
Three Defining Themes
Courage is a big theme in my life. I chose to pursue chemical engineering and biochemistry, recognizing the headwinds I would encounter as a female student in those fields of study. Early in my career, I moved from Virginia to California, transplanting my life without any local friends or family to retreat to for support. I didn’t even have a dog. Courage is expressed by saying what’s on your mind or wearing what you want, even though others might think it crazy or weird. It’s about turning your convictions into action, and doing things others haven’t. Having courage has helped me get to where I am today. It’s a core value that guides me. I still challenge myself – every day – to confront a fear if I see that it’s driving my decision-making.
I challenge myself – every day – to confront a fear if I see that it’s driving my decision-making.
A second theme for me is committing to bringing my best every single day. No matter the circumstances, if I’m going to take on something I’m going to bring my absolute best every time. Maybe my absolute best isn’t good enough for a specific challenge. I accept that, learn from it, and move forward because I know I gave it everything I had. Maybe the best I can do on a certain day is not all that great. I accept that too. We all have good days and bad days. But for the things I can control, I know that I’m absolutely committed to bringing the best I’ve got. People know if I’m going to show up, they can trust me to step up.
Finally, I think it’s important to pay attention to details that matter. Details help you create authentic connections to other people – it’s how they can see you’re paying attention and that you care. Details that matter help you recognize windows of opportunity. This is one of the reasons I respond to every email. I read every brief. I always need to be open. Whether it’s a stranger on the BART train to work or someone deep in my org I haven’t yet heard from, if a person is making an investment to connect with me, I’m going to give it my attention and absorb the details that matter in what they have to say. As marketers, details are where delight lives. Details are where differentiation lives. Whether you’re putting together an event or the finishing polish on web copy, that last mile is very important.
Resilience Comes From Loss, Then Having to Rebuild
One of the hardest personal experiences of my life has been going through divorce. At the beginning you don’t fully recognize that you’re going to lose friends, you’re going to lose family. You don’t know how cold it is in the depths of isolation. You have no sense for how sharp the sting bystanders can inflict by judging without understanding the wholeness of your circumstances. That experience left me with so much empathy. I try hard never to judge. We have no idea what’s going on in the lives of other people. It’s not our place to make judgements or assumptions. One of the most compassionate things we can do with our colleagues exists in a simple question: “How are you doing?” Then wait, and truly listen to hear the response.
One of the most compassionate things we can do with our colleagues exists in a simple question: “How are you doing?” Then wait, and truly listen to hear the response.
The loss and pain of that experience also gave me gifts. When you have to rebuild, you’re forced to take a long hard look at your foundations. Going through a divorce grounded me and helped me recognize that I needed to be more appreciative of the things that are truly important. It helped me see that the period of my life where I was most happy was when my daughter and I were living in a studio pool house at the back of someone’s property. We used camping pots to cook and the floor to sit on. It was the simplest of times. We didn’t have a sofa or a television. But I also didn’t have to clean or decorate. The divorce gave me the perspective that helped me recognize how happy I could be, and how happy I once was. I developed deeper understanding, textured appreciation, and profound gratitude. And in those gifts I also found resilience.
If the worst thing that anyone could tell you is the word “no,” you’ve got an obligation to keep trying. Twenty five years ago I was a girl with a dream of moving to California and pursuing a career in Tech. I applied to 14 companies. My qualifications were a good match for all of their requirements. They were unanimous in their response to me: “NO.” I did not give up. Never give up. Never let them scare you off. Keep trying. Keep asking. Keep doing. If someone tells you no, go ask someone else. Eventually you’ll find the right fit.
If the worst thing anyone could tell you is “no,” you’ve got an obligation to keep trying. I believe we can do anything we set our minds to.
Take power back from the word “no.” Expect people to tell you “no.” Let Ruth Bader Ginsburg be your inspiration and “I dissent” be your come-back. It’s a big motivator to me when I’m told the door is not open to me or a task is unachievable. I want to prove that it can be done, or prove to myself that I can do it. I believe we can do anything we set our minds to.
The pandemic stole so much from so many. It cost us in ways we never could have imagined and fed a fire of fear in all of us. I would not let it consume me. I vowed to defeat that fear with my own body, with my own breath.
Running is how I think. It’s solitary recharging for me. It’s where I process and ground myself. It’s how I practice mindfulness, how I get myself grounded in my breath, and how I get myself centered. I set a goal: run 2,020 miles in 2020. I ran in blazing heat, in bitter cold, through rain, and even some snow and ice. I ran on absolutely beautiful days too. In total I ran 310 days, in 11 half marathons, and climbed a total of 277,867 feet. I finished at 2,162 miles. It was the distance equivalent of a road trip from San Francisco to Chicago. I wanted to prove that 2020 could not crush me. I guess that last mile really does matter to me. I ran it an extra 162 times. 🙂
Every day we need to be learning. It’s very easy to get mired in our own assumptions, predispositions, and beliefs. We need to keep our eyes and ears open and we need to be seeing, listening, and learning every single day. Our teachers are everywhere.
My children are my teachers. I love the perspective youth brings to problem solving. My daughters open my mind and help me see things in new ways every day. They are my truth tellers. My whole team has been incredible teachers to me. The students, staff, and families at the Karibu Center in Kenya teach me something new each time I return, and their lessons are so profound that I send my team on biannual visits there. I’ve had teachers in Marc Benioff, Bret Taylor, Parker Harris, Amy Weaver, Mike Rosenbaum, Leyla Seka, and so many others. All of my teachers have challenged me, partnered with me, taken me out of my comfort zone. They’ve laughed with me, cheered for me, supported me. Most importantly they’ve helped me see that I can never stop learning because that’s where my life acquires its richest meaning. I want to live to be 150 and I’m counting on modern medicine to help me get there. At the end of my days I want to look back and know I’ve made an impact. I want my kids to have a better life than me. To do those things I must be a forever learner.
My favorite book is Tuesdays with Morrie. It’s about a young man accompanying an old man through the sunset of his life. Every time I read that book I’m reminded of one of life’s biggest lessons: we’ll never get more time. I love that book because it breaks down the most fundamental things: love, friendship, children – all the things that matter most. It’s the book I give the people who are closest to me, highlighting my favorite parts. I think we need to listen to our elders more. We’re all out there looking for answers and the people who have them are right here in front of us. But we never stop to ask.
Life is our greatest teacher. It has taught me to recognize my privilege. I subscribe to Gandhi’s “be the change you wish to see in the world,” philosophy. Life has helped me see my responsibilities more clearly. I come from humble beginnings. As a teenager I worked to help pay the household bills. I earned my way through college. I was a single mother navigating a career in male-dominated industries with a scarcity of role models I could recognize. My path in life has had its share of challenges. But I’ve never worried that my children are going to be murdered by the police. It wasn’t until the air in Northern California turned purple from the wildfires that I recognized what a privilege it was to breathe clean air — and one that people in Deli are rarely afforded. The pandemic, the fires, the racial injustice and systemic racism all bring vital lessons into sharp focus for me. Work that I’ve done with the Karibu Center, with Trailhead, in my community has helped me recognize how empowered I am to affect positive change. I’ve come to understand that what makes for a better life is when you love and you feel loved; when you inspire and you are inspired; when you empower and you are empowered. Life has helped me recognize that as I change myself, the world changes also. Life is my greatest teacher.
I think we need to listen to our elders more. We’re all out there looking for answers and the people who have them are right here in front of us.
The Voice I Always Listen To
When I was in college at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, something told me I needed to go visit my grandmother in Charlotte. I persuaded my friend to skip the football game and the frat parties and instead drive more than 300 miles roundtrip so I could see my grandmother that weekend. My grandmother was a great cook and I told my friend we were sure to get an amazing meal. My friend agreed and we drove to Charlotte. My grandmother didn’t cook us a great meal. I think we got frozen hamburger patties. I think they were microwaved. There wasn’t even ketchup. I remember apologizing to my friend on the drive home about the food, but I was so glad we had gone. Three days after I had visited her, my grandmother passed away. I remember the ache that echoed from the emptiness of that loss. There were so many stories my grandmother could have told me, so many lessons she could have taught me. I remember wishing, too late, that I had more time. And I remember being so grateful to have been able to go see her the weekend before.
Years later, I went to visit my mother back on the east coast for her birthday. It’s on September 10, which also happens to be my youngest daughter’s birthday. We were at lunch celebrating and something told me I just had to get back to California that night. I had been scheduled to fly back from D.C. to L.A. on September 11th. But there, sitting at lunch I had an instinct that I needed to change my flights and leave a day early. My mother was disappointed – it was her birthday after all. But something in me told me I needed to get home. I changed my flights and I got home early. The next day I was at the airport in San Francisco, waiting to board a flight to L.A., as I watched flight after flight getting cancelled. It was then I realized how lucky I had been the day before.
There have been occasions where I get these strong instincts. I don’t question them. I just let them guide me. And I’m so thankful that they do.
What Drove the Shift From Linear to Exponential
The people who are closest to me know I don’t like hearing “I did this,” or “I did that.” Our world is so interconnected. We’re very hard-pressed to find literally anything that we could possibly take care of on our own, not even our most basic human needs – food, water, clothing. It’s impossible in today’s modern world to do things on your own. It just doesn’t happen. But all too often we lose that perspective.
“I worked hard.” “I delivered amazing results.” “I deserve a promotion.” That used to be me. I was so focused on achieving success and incredibly motivated to do whatever it took to make it happen. I was bringing my best self. I was delivering all of this incredible work. I wanted the money, the promotion, the rewards. My mother is a retired school teacher and she raised me on her own in Richmond, Virginia. I know what it is to impossibly stretch to make ends meet. Professional success was very important to me because I wanted my children to have the things my mother couldn’t afford to give me.
I actually left Salesforce for a period of time to go to Amazon Web Services to accelerate that fast-track progression. It was a great job, at a great company. But culturally, I was a better fit at Salesforce. Serendipitously, I ran into George Hu, who was our COO back then. He told me to come back. He couldn’t give me the big title. But he could give me the latitude to do work that I believed in. And so I re-joined and became what we call a boomerang.
With this fresh start, I leaned into the purpose of helping people learn so they can be more successful. As a child I bore witness to my mother’s former students coming to find her, decades after she taught them, to share how they were able to succeed because of what they had learned. At Salesforce, I always loved how people were celebrating the success of others and doing great things with our technology. I wanted to help more people do that. I wanted to do good stuff, no fluff marketing. I wanted to give people tips and tricks on how to succeed. I wanted to give them pride. The marketing was about teaching people what they needed to do to be successful with the technology.
When I stopped focusing on myself and I started focusing on my passion and my purpose, that’s when success found me. That’s when my career went from linear growth to exponential growth.
I come to work every day because I want to build a better future, and I believe I can do that here. I want my daughters to see they can do incredible things in this world. I want them to be paid equally for the work they do. I want them to feel like they deserve it. I want everyone – from every walk of life – to feel like they have a pathway to being able to do important, highly valued work. That’s why the work I do here is important. Yes, our technology helps businesses. But at the end of the day, it helps people too.
When I stopped focusing on myself, and I started focusing on my passion and my purpose, that’s when success found me.
When You Don’t Look the Part
I’ve been told “you don’t show up like an executive.” It’s partly because of the way I look. I love living authentically. I love wearing the clothes that please me – fun pants or funky shoes. It’s partly because of the way I talk. I’ll ask the questions that are on my mind. I’ll examine things that maybe other people don’t question. It’s partly because I’m navigating in a male dominated industry. I’m a cis gender white woman and I encounter push-back on not looking the part as an executive. All too often we find that we can’t be our authentic selves at work. It gives me enormous empathy for the even greater chasm that women of color and LGBTQ+ individuals have to negotiate.
I grew up in the former capital of the Confederacy. I was raised to remain silent if I didn’t have anything nice to say, and not to speak unless spoken to. I was raised that there’s nothing that a smile can’t fix. I was raised to be the girl in the back corner sitting there and smiling. That was one of the many challenges I had to overcome in the male-dominated environments where I was trying to build my professional life.
In some of my early jobs, I was literally the only woman in the room. I quickly learned to avoid making eye contact because I didn’t want someone to think I was flirting. Eye contact was a signal that you’re available. You would not attend the after-hours gatherings because you never wanted to put yourself in a situation where someone would come on to you and you would turn them down and that would impact you at work. So you just wouldn’t go. This was very real. And it was very lonely.
I remember so many situations where people would assume my role was clerical because I was the only woman in the room. I was a highly qualified engineer and I can still remember the surprise on peoples’ faces when I would contribute to a technical discussion. They would look at me in stunned, stupefied recognition that I had a brain, that I was smart. I remember how that made me feel.
We’re in a different time now and I feel really fortunate to be at a company that really values equality. But it’s hard when you’re a female, when you’re a mother. It’s hard when you have to nurse. Or you have to go home at a certain time to tend to your out-of-work responsibilities that all too often your male counterparts just don’t have to do. Even today with all the progress we’ve made, when a female executive has considerable travel because of her work, the question of how she handles that as a mother surfaces. Whereas how a male executive’s travel impacts his role as a father is a question that never comes up. He’s viewed as being a good provider, being out there hustling to provide for his family. We still have a ways to go.
I recognize that by being true to my authentic self and bringing that person to work, I can be the change I want to see in the workplace. I recognize that by blocking my calendar and letting people know I’m unavailable some afternoons because I’m supporting my children in distance learning, I give permission to every other parent in my organization to be able to make the choices that they need to make. While we still have progress to make, I see the role that I can take in helping to drive that forward.