As someone so active on social media, it may come as a surprise that Salesforce Chief Digital Evangelist, Vala Afshar, considers himself an introvert. While he doesn’t like to label people (“Labels are for jars, not people,” Vala jokes), he admits that at dinner parties, he’s usually the person in the corner observing folks, hoping someone will approach so they strike up a conversation first.
Shifting to Resource Flow
Vala was content to sit in his cubicle for many years, writing code. He didn’t appreciate the importance of connection. Vala describes his mindset as a silo mentality. “Silo, by definition,” he says, “captures resources, knowledge, headcount, budget, a fancy title, and salary. The silo mentality is about capturing resources and protecting those resources.”
It wasn’t until his 40s that Vala understood the importance of resource flow. Around the same time, he realized that networking is all about giving. That was when things changed for him. He got into the resource flow of networking.
“My first Tweet, I was 41 years old. My first blog, I was 42. My first book, I was 44 years old. All the patents and podcasts came in my 40s,” he rallied off.
Vala acknowledges that a part of him feels like he has much catching up to do compared to other leaders because he didn’t start showing up and networking until his 40s. However, his primary motivation is the same as other thought leaders; he wants to leave everything and everyone better than when he found them.
In service of that, he tries his best to remain positive and avoid the negative. Quite wisely, he says, “In my experience, the future is created by the optimists.”
That means he avoids the intellectual tug of wars that can occasionally occur on social media. He admits that while he does sometimes find himself thinking how much of a “perfect slam dunk” he could deliver when people argue with him on his patents and other topics, after five seconds of reflection, he realizes there is no value in doing so.
“My advice to folks trying to build a trustworthy voice is to avoid dunking on people and just share what you believe to be true,” offered Vala. “Pretend your mom is standing next to you if you need to.”
The Art of Giving
His approach to social media and networking is all about giving. If he gets value from something, he will share it. Vala takes the same approach in real life, both at Salesforce and outside of it. He likes to say, “To win on social media, you have to win off social media.”
For Vala, that means achieving things that give him the privilege of sharing his thoughts. And that all starts with spending time learning. He often accomplishes this by learning from others. This can be as simple as watching a TEDx talk or listening to a podcast. Offline, Vala likes to surround himself with people who are also leaders off of social media, too.
“When you look for people who are constantly demonstrating that they’re winning, they’re active members of communities, they’re writing, mingling, podcasting – those are the folks that I like to invite to be part of my team,” he said.
Salesforce and Afshar
How did Vala wind up at Salesforce? It’s also an interesting story related to Vala’s networking prowess.
Seven and a half years ago, Salesforce created his current Chief Digital Evangelist role after discovering him on social media and the value he was adding to his network. In fact, Vala admits that most of the hiring process happened through Twitter direct messages. “I didn’t even have a CV,” he joked. “I was with my previous company for nineteen and a half years. I didn’t need one.”
When Vala is working with Salesforce clients on a digital transformation, he believes several critical predictors of success in that partnership exist. His five key ingredients include culture, people, strategy, process, and technology – specifically in that order. As a technologist, it may seem odd that he puts technology last, but he says that the first four pillars need to be strong for the technology to be effective.
Culture, People, and Silos
Vala suggests that a big part of preparing companies to undergo digital transformation is smashing silos. “Silos kill. They kill careers; they kill companies.”
Technology can help companies with silo-busting, but ultimately, it’s not a technology discussion; it’s a people and culture discussion. Vala believes there is no room for friction in business or managing individuals. Mentoring and sponsoring people within Salesforce is vital to him, but Vala says it’s amazing how often he’s the one taking notes in these relationships.
“It’s beautiful when the journey starts with me trying to share my wisdom and knowledge, and I find myself now in a 50/50 situation.” Ultimately, because he is a giver, Vala winds up learning from those he mentors and gets to work with, be it within Salesforce or through the company’s clients.
I learned from Vala that yesterday’s experts might not be tomorrow’s experts, so having open conversations, learning from others, and being active on social media can be critical tactics to stay ahead of change.
And this starts with four words that Vala recommends all leaders ask their team, as well as those you are privileged to have conversations with online and in real life: “What do you think?”
Watch the full interview with Vala Afshar and Dan Pontefract on the Leadership NOW program below, or listen to it on your favorite podcast.
Pre-order my next book publishing in October, Work-Life Bloom: How to Nurture a Team That Flourishes, (You won’t want to miss digging in.)