Salesforce president: Being an introvert is a strength

When Cindy Robbins was tasked with leading Salesforce’s human resources division, she felt “uncomfortable” with the new role.

A self-described introvert, Robbins says she has learned to become “comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

“I’ve learned over time that being an introvert is a strength. It’s how you embrace it, and how you bring it into your leadership, and I’ve done that,” Robbins tells CNN’s Poppy Harlow in a recent episode of Boss Files. “I’m not the only introverted leader out there, but I don’t need to be the loudest voice in the room.”

An employee at Salesforce for more than 12 years, the president and chief people officer now reports directly to CEO Marc Benioff.

“That was definitely the ‘oh my’ moment,” Robbins says. “That was the first time in the tenure of the company that HR reported to the CEO. And although I had been at Salesforce for a very long time, I knew Marc, but this is a different relationship, one that we had to build, and nurture and it had to be a trusted one.”

Born in Southern Texas, she credits her Mexican-American heritage for instilling the work ethic and values that helped guide her to leadership. She was the first in her family to go to college. Her father picked cotton during the day, and handled a lot of the domestic work at home while her mother built a career in real estate sales.

“My mother became the breadwinner, she became a very successful real estate agent, and my father, kind of had a nine-to-five job and was the one that had dinner waiting for us, that took us everywhere we needed to go,” Robbins reflects.

Robbins later moved with her family to Northern California, but her roots down south made a lasting impact.

“I would go to Texas, and you would see kind of a different culture that I remember as a kid growing up. You see the women in the kitchen, and the women cleaning. But how I grew up, my mother was the driver, their partnership was so strong, so supportive, never a jealous moment of anything. My father was just so proud of everything my mother achieved, but she couldn’t have done it without him.”

It’s that “inherent responsibility” to elevate women that helped Robbins raise the issue of equal pay at Salesforce in 2015. Robbins and her colleague, Leyla Seka, found gender pay disparities in an internal audit and suspected that women at Salesforce were being paid less than men at the company. Benioff was skeptical at first.

“When Marc said, ‘Do we have a problem?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. But here are two things we need to line on. Number one, we can’t look under the hood and see money, a big dollar sign, and then shut the hood. And then number two, you don’t just do this once,'” Robbins admits.

Salesforce has since completed three internal audits of its pay practices. To date, the company has spent nearly $9 million to close its gender pay gap, adjusting salaries of its nearly 30,000 employees. But Robbins says there is still more work to do.

“This is not a Salesforce issue. This is not even a tech industry issue. This goes across multiple industries. It’s not a US issue,” Robbins continues. “This is not something that I believe will go away. I think it’s just, companies will be forced to be more transparent.”

Robbins says it’s the responsibility of CEOs to fix gender equality in the workplace.

“It’s the tone from the top, and it’s what CEOs should be held accountable to. They set the tone. They set the vision,” Robbins says. “That starts to shift behavior down the chain.”

When Benioff realized there were hardly any women in his quarterly meetings with top executives at Salesforce, he decided to do something about it. He now requires that 30% of the quarterly meeting attendees are women. Robbins is part of this “Women’s Surge” initiative.

“As an officer of the company, it has given me permission, when I’m in certain meetings, if there are 15 people around the room and I’m the only woman, to say to the organizer of the meeting, ‘Why am I the only woman in this meeting?'” she says. “I do that because I think we’ve created this culture now, where it feels like it’s permissible to say that.”

And when it comes to the ratio of female-to-male representation at Salesforce, Robbins says “I would love to see 50/50.”

“I’m a Latina. I would love to see more Latina women on board, not just as Salesforce, but just on boards in general. I think 50/50 is a great balance to achieve,” Robbins tells Harlow. “What I want for Salesforce is to be viewed as a great place to work and that means a diversity of ideas, that means an inclusive workforce, and just imagine the talent you can attract and retain to make it a great place to work, and be successful, and make your customers successful. That just makes good business sense.”