Inside the big tech bubble: Angela McKenna, Salesforce executive VP and head of employee success, EMEA

Recognising that customer and employee experience are two sides of the same coin has been a key tenet for Salesforce’s head of employee success, Angela McKenna, and continues to drive the tech giant’s exponential growth, finds Beau Jackson

Salesforce’s reputation precedes it. Consistently marked as an employer of choice in Glassdoor rankings and Great Place to Work lists, the company is brimming with tantalising perks, from onsite baristas to fertility reimbursement, and headline-making policy, including CEO Marc Benioff’s million-dollar pledge to eradicate the company’s gender pay gap.

Like many of its Silicon Valley contemporaries, Salesforce, a trailblazer of the software-as-a-service space, has a novel approach to problem-solving that fascinates those in a much more glacial business world.

It is this openness to new ideas which has meant Angela McKenna, its executive vice president and head of employee success, EMEA, has stayed there for nearing a decade.

Interviewed at its London HQ overlooking the Gherkin and Tower Bridge, she says: “We’re always asking ourselves: how do we create the best possible employee experience? And it’s not that that stems purely from us being inwardly focused, it very much comes from the focus on the customer experience.

“That is very well understood at Salesforce – you’re pushing on an open door in this company, you don’t have to go and explain to people that the customer experience and the employee experience are completely integrated and interdependent of each other.”

Putting your people first:

Banking on good intentions: Tara Ryan, Monzo

Come fly with me: Ella Bennett, EasyJet 

Honesty is the best policy: Caroline Cording, Mamas & Papas

Employee-as-customer thinking forms a distinctive identity at the business.

Friendly cartoon-character mascots, such as Astro, pictured below, take care of onboarding, training and other employee queries, for example, and each Salesforce office follows Ohana design principles meaning each one looks and feels the same wherever you are in the world (down to the tiles in the kitchen). Though such ideas may seem nebulous to some; McKenna is quick to challenge the assumption.

“It’s not all fairies and unicorns here,” she stresses. “This has been a fast-growth business. We have grown exponentially over the last few years – a huge success story – that hasn’t happened because we’ve all been going around hugging each other. That’s happened because we have been super focused on our goals.”

Salesforce sets goals and strategy through the V2MOM method (vision, values, methods, obstacles, and measures) devised by its founders.

Every employee has their own V2MOM, and those belonging to leadership are fully transparent so everyone can see how their work is contributing to the big picture. 

McKenna says: “I think it forces a level of rigour that I don’t know other organisations necessarily have to the same extent. Is it perfect? No, as we’ve got bigger it’s become harder, but it is still the essence of who the company is.”

Hyper-focus can come with the price of overwork, but continually adjusting and amending V2MOMs, as well as eradicating tasks that aren’t relevant to them, reduces that risk. 

“I think the risk in general is if you’re super focused and rigid,” says McKenna. “That’s a big risk, but I don’t think we are focused and not flexible.”

"I believe some of the best work that’s being done is genuinely being done here"

Helping people stay rooted, not just in the task at hand but to their personal purpose, is one of the things she is most proud of about her career to date.

An advocate of inner work, McKenna has helped senior leaders delineate their personal values, which proved vital in a time of change.

“No one could have predicted how difficult the last few years would be,” she says, “but I’ve had half a dozen or even more of the most senior leaders in the company who’ve been through really difficult leadership moments come to me and say, ‘I don’t know if I could have done it if we hadn’t really done the work on values.’”

A passion for inner work runs through her too. She admits: “The biggest challenge of my career has been, honestly myself.”

One of the best pieces of advice she’s ever received is: “Just because you’re right, doesn’t make it right.” To McKenna this means: “It’s great to be smart and talented and know good things, but it’s not good if you don’t know yourself and the impact that you have on yourself and on others.”

McKenna’s background, unsurprisingly, is in learning and development. Non-CIPD qualified, she successfully pivoted a career in hospitality management to training in technology for the sector, before breaking into big tech at Salesforce competitor Cisco in the early 2000s as an instructional designer. 

As more employers rethink the employee experience, McKenna believes non-traditional HR backgrounds like hers will become more common.

“With a talent and learning background you come with a lot of perspective around human dynamics, organisational dynamics, how people learn, how people thrive, the type of culture and environment where people are going bring their best; a lot of organisations are looking for that now,” she says.

“So, the background in talent and learning is becoming a much more critical skill to have in your overall basket of HR skills.”

Five things I can't live without:

Family Obviously – my husband and my daughter

The dog Luna is the only one that’s thrilled to see me when I come home now as my daughter’s grown up!

Coffee A strong cup of black coffee in the morning

Erborian CC cream When the tube is half full, I’m already ordering the next one

Being in nature When you’re in a people job all the time you have to have that counterbalance

Although the media enjoys speculating on the end of the big-tech boom, plans for the future of Salesforce are, seemingly, flourishing. In 2023 it will open a new office in Dublin, bringing with it 1,500 new jobs. The building will be used to help explore new ways of working – a concept the company has begun addressing through its Success From Anywhere hybrid work strategy.

McKenna says: “We want people to think less about, ‘I’m associated with this office’ and think more about ‘how do I create a community?’ We’re even encouraging teams or people that are in the same vicinity to utilise our one-one-one model [giving 1% of equity, product and employees’ time back to the community] to support each other and do community events together.”

Digitally, cross-geography collaboration is supported through voice notes, 10-minute Huddles and instant messaging through Slack, which Salesforce acquired in 2021. 

McKenna adds: “We’re 78,000 people globally, you’re never very far from a Salesforce person.”

Challenges in HR abound, the opportunities afforded by the tech titan mean that, as long as creativity stays, McKenna may well see out another decade at the firm.

She says: “I’ve had my ups and downs, and there are times when I question: could I do something different somewhere? And ultimately it always comes back to the fact that I believe some of the best work that’s being done is genuinely being done here.” 


The full article of the above first appeared in the November/December 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.