Zahra Bahrololoumi, CEO UK&I, Salesforce

A 22 year veteran of consulting giant Accenture, Zahra Bahrololoumi – or Z as she is known to her friends – has made the monumental leap from consultancy to vendor and now finds herself sitting at the top table within the world’s most progressive software company – Salesforce. 

In 2018, Salesforce announced it would invest heavily in the UK market – some $2.5bn – over the next five years. That commitment was backed up by the announcement of a further $2bn investment in Ireland along with a pledge to create 1,500 new jobs within the same timeframe. Salesforce, which had always derived the vast majority of its revenues from the US market, was getting serious about the UK.

However, Bahrololoumi isn’t the first person to have taken the job on. In 2019 when Salesforce first ramped up its commitment to the UK, it appointed Dame Jayne-Anne Gadhia as the UK CEO. Gadhia was the former CEO at Virgin Money and held a number of government advisory positions. Whilst Gadhia is one of the best-known female leaders in the UK and shares many of the same principles as Bahrololoumi in terms of advocating diversity and equality, they were two very different appointments. 

Gadhia arrived at Salesforce as a seasoned CEO with government-backed credentials whereas Bahrololoumi brings a much richer and more relevant toolkit in the form of front-line digital leadership, customer value creation and deep technical knowledge. Gadhia was a statement signing that made sense at the time and gave Salesforce’s play some gravitas. Bahrololoumi is an entirely different proposition and provides the hands-on experience that will be needed to guide both Salesforce and its customers through the digital revolution.

22 years at the world’s biggest consulting firm (by number of employees) had seen Bahrololoumi rise up the ranks since joining the firm as Andersen Consulting in 1998 through to her departing role as UK&I technology and consulting lead. During her tenure, she gained significant transformation experience with a number of blue-chip clients across several industries including retail, oil and gas, banking, healthcare and telecoms. She pioneered a number of ‘firsts’ – from convening the UK technology ecosystem at the award-winning Kaleidoscope, to patented uses of cloud technologies. She was also the driving force behind several of Accenture’s marquee acquisitions and oversaw the growth of its technology and consulting unit to become the deepest, in terms of talent and expertise, in the UK. She is a former vice chair of the Prince’s Trust Technology Leadership board and currently sits on the boards of techUK and Movement to Work. 

A long list of accolades and achievements which, I know from our time together, embarrass her as much as they instil a sense of pride.

Bahrololoumi is a well-known and equally well-liked personality within the enterprise tech community. In researching for this article, I couldn’t find a single person who had anything negative to say and all who know her describe a fun, energetic, highly articulate and capable leader. Liked by colleagues, customers and partners alike – Bahrololoumi brings something to the world of enterprise tech that is noticeably lacking in many interactions – authenticity. It’s a word that is bandied around by corporate PR teams but is rarely evident and Bahrololoumi has it in spades. Her open and approachable manner is perfectly tempered by her indisputable knowledge, authoritative yet calm demeanour and unmistakable passion for doing the right thing.

These are all admirable and highly desirable qualities, but as I was driving through rural Northamptonshire on my way to ‘Bahrololoumi Towers’ for the interview – I couldn’t help but keep asking myself the same question: how big of a step up is this job? Sure, Accenture isn’t exactly small fry and her role there was very senior – but Salesforce? In a CEO role? Knowing all the complexities that CEOs have to deal with, and understanding the dramatic differences in culture between the two organisations, I wondered – was she going to be up to it?

In late May, as some restrictions to civil liberties were lifted, I popped round for a cup of tea to ask her exactly that and to discuss her heritage, responsibilities, challenges and ambitions as she takes on her new role.

Zahra Bahrololoumi’s (from here on, Z) ascension to the role of EVP and CEO UK&I at Salesforce is nothing short of meteoric and is some achievement for a girl who was once told by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) that she couldn’t fulfil her dream of becoming a diplomat because her skin was the wrong colour. 

Born to Iranian parents, Z’s family came to the UK in the early 1970s and the hostilities and hardships endured by her countrymen and women had a profound and lasting effect.

Conflict was the backdrop to much of my youth. Although I wasn’t living in it, I have family there, so it was a reality, albeit a distant one. I felt very passionately about peace, which sounds really naff, but that’s how I’m wired. I think I’m a good collaborator and I can see things from lots of different angles. I talked about it quite a lot with my Dad and my dream was to make a career in diplomacy and to do my bit towards bringing peace to the world.”

Of course, times have changed and the recruiting policies of most organisations have improved significantly since the days when an employer could determine your suitability for a job based on where your parents were born. But the FCO’s loss was Accenture’s (Andersen Consulting) gain and in 1998, Z started her career in technology.

However, she was somewhat of a reluctant employee to begin with: having completed a degree in Management Science at Brunel University it seemed an obvious path to fall into management consulting. A high achiever throughout school and university, Z had all the credentials that the blossoming consulting world was looking for. However, she was adamantly not interested in a career in management consulting and insisted on being employed in a technical capacity, despite having virtually no technical skills.

When I was interviewing at Andersen Consulting, they offered me a job in what was then change management and is now considered management consulting. I said, ‘Thanks, but no. Unless I can join technology, I’m not joining.’ And they said, ‘Well, you’ve got no technology skills.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know that, but it’s the future and I really want to learn.’ I knew Anderson would give me a great platform so I took the job and the rest is history.”

The following is taken from our Q&A during a COVID-secure interview at her home.

Usually when a person commits two decades to an organisation they are often there for life. Z had served 22 years for Accenture so the two burning questions have to be: ‘why leave, and why join Salesforce?’ 

ZB “Leaving Accenture wasn’t an easy decision because I was really happy. Accenture’s a wonderful place, and it still is really close to my heart, but the opportunity to work inside Salesforce was just too compelling to ignore. When I think about Salesforce, it’s a leader in its field and it’s so purpose driven and value led. The values they’ve got – trust, customer success, innovation and equality – they really chime with me.

“They haven’t just pivoted to these values, they were always very purposeful in their leadership and I wanted to experience it for myself. I knew this was another experience to have in my lifetime. So, it was an easy choice to join Salesforce, but it was less easy to say goodbye to the wonderful Accenture.”

Everyone likes a bit of gossip, and I guess they’d like to know about how you actually got the job. I’m assuming that you didn’t put your CV on Indeed?

ZB “Ha! Not exactly. I was approached by a headhunter. Initially I was quite dismissive, not because I was dismissive of Salesforce – I really loved the company – I was just very happy at Accenture. I started to have informal conversations with leadership at Salesforce and the only way I can describe it was a very warm, embracing hug. The recruitment process was fascinating. It didn’t feel like I was being grilled through a series of interviews. It felt like there was a two-way conversation to allow me to test whether this was the right company for me. I’m extremely loyal – 22 years in one place. You don’t walk away from that easily or lightly.”

I knew this was another experience to have in my lifetime. So, it was an easy choice to join Salesforce, but it was less easy to say goodbye to the wonderful Accenture.”

I mentioned your experience with the FCO in my introduction which must have been an upsetting and disappointing experience. But how challenging was it to break into consulting in 1998 for an Iranian girl, with dark skin and no tech skills?

ZB “My heritage wasn’t necessarily the big thing that was on my mind – it was the lack of technology skills! However, I was one of only two women in my technology start group and there was no one that looked like me! I was the only dark girl in my intake and at the time Andersen Consulting didn’t have the kind of policies and outlook that we have today.”

How has your gender and heritage impacted your career? Do you think it’s helped or hindered you?

ZB “I definitely don’t feel like I was hindered. Anderson Consulting [and subsequently Accenture] have matured and now they really are world class in terms of their stance and their impact in the space of inclusion and diversity. I’ve been part of that journey and I feel really proud of what Accenture does today. Even at the start I was pleasantly surprised at  how egalitarian Andersen was. You did good work, you proved yourself, you delivered and you were recognised for it.”

What’s been the biggest changes you have seen in the enterprise tech world during your 22 years – apart from the technology itself?

ZB “We were quite constrained in the ‘90s and we were very formal. You were in suits, there was a certain polish, and I think things relaxed post the dot.com boom. I think that dot.com boom paved the way for people to become more themselves.”

Yes, suddenly success looked very different – how did that impact you and your career?

ZB “I still have a slide that I use when I talk to folks about my career journey. It’s from pre 2000 and everything is black and white and sepia, and then literally after the dot.com boom, everything was multicoloured. It’s like the tech world, specifically, moved into colour overnight.” 

What drove you in those early days to become successful?

ZB “The main thing that fuelled my drive, influenced my progression and set me apart was the influence of my parents. I remember growing up, my parents always said to me, ‘you have to work twice as hard as everyone else; first of all, you’re a woman, and secondly you’re a brown woman’. My parents sacrificed so much to stay in the UK and help me forge my career – so of course I had to succeed. They never pressured me, not once, but it is my life’s work to prove their decision to stay was the right one and to make them proud.” 

And how did your early career at Andersen progress?

ZB “I was really fortunate that I got accelerated through pretty much every promotion point. I ask myself, ‘why was that?’  I think my drive and focus, I think anyone will tell you that I haven’t changed in 22 years. Some of the nicest things that friends and people have said to me that I’ve worked with over that period of time is that irrespective of your role, you’ve been the same Z. And I think that is something I’ve held quite dear.”

You spent 22 years at Accenture and you were head of technology and consulting when you left. You now find yourself with a CEO title. Is this job a big step up for you?

ZB “Yes and no. If I consider the traditional dimensions of scale and the impact, the roles are quite similar. It was a very large part of the business that I ran and was responsible for within Accenture. The customer accountability that I had and the customer responsibility was very similar.

“I think the thing that is different within Salesforce, for me personally, is the profile and the responsibility is a step up. There’s a deep sense of responsibility – the stakes that we have in powering the economic recovery – I feel an overwhelming sense of duty. As the face and the most senior individual across UK and Ireland that is very different, that has a different profile for me and I love it. It weighs heavy, but it’s rewarding.”

Salesforce, on the other hand, operates in a space where organisations can differentiate themselves by building unique relationships.”

How different is it being on the other side of the consulting vendor dynamic?

ZB “I constantly weigh this up and of course you can’t avoid the comparison. I think number one, both Accenture and Salesforce are very purpose led and value driven. I think that remains the same on both sides. 

“I think the key difference is within Accenture you have a customer base that sits within a specific profile. And within Salesforce, what I absolutely love is that it serves so many different types of customers.”

You must be dealing with lots of companies that you wouldn’t have dealt with before; smaller SMBs, right through to global enterprises.

ZB “That’s it. So that whole spectrum is a massive learning opportunity for me and you get to see different challenges across these different segments of the market. That’s been the biggest difference. The pace in each of the segments is so different and I’m finding that really mind-blowing and incredibly dynamic.”

What’s the best thing that you’ve learned about Salesforce that you didn’t know before you joined?

ZB “Oh, so many things. I am blown away by the responsibility that Salesforce takes for enabling customers to be self-sufficient and successful. The whole Trailblazer programme that Salesforce runs, the mentality of making sure that customers are adequately skilled and able to really get the value out of the solution sets, I think has really opened my eyes. The other thing that I didn’t really count on was the heartbeat that comes from HQ. I think it is really quite strong and I’m learning so much from that. I thought we would be an outpost, but everybody’s so integrated. It’s a large company, yet it feels very intimate and accessible.”

How challenging has it been coming into this role during a global pandemic? 

ZB “It’s a good question, and of course, during my first few weeks I couldn’t go and meet anyone, so I did all my first meetings and customer engagements remotely. In those first couple of weeks I felt like I didn’t fully understand the context of my role in relation to everybody else. Even though I had the title, you live your role by how you interact with others and how people respond to you. I could not get that sense for the first couple of weeks.

“However, what really jumped out of the screen was just how alive the culture was. People were reaching out to me and I was given a really warm welcome. My onboarding was unbelievably world class. I’m a structured person but this was on another level.”

In Salesforce the mission is absolutely focussed on customer success and value and good things come from that if you focus on the greatest need.”

It hasn’t always been a priority for Salesforce has it? The investment in the UK and Ireland is fairly recent and hasn’t been a priority market until recently.

ZB “I think it’s always been an important market but the new commitment and allocation of investment is quite significant. There are lots of traditional measures that we’ll have to measure our success, but I think there are three key metrics.

“Firstly, customer success and that’s my number one priority. We are supporting our customers through their digitisation challenges and helping fuel the economic recovery. I think if we can do that successfully and I can see that we’re delivering the value then that is my first and actually my most important measure of success. 

“The second thing is upholding and expanding the Salesforce culture. It is such a unique environment with innovation and purpose at the heart of everything it does. So upholding that, ensuring that we have the right impact both internally and externally, is something that I take very seriously as a priority. 

“The third thing is something that is actually keeping me quite awake and that is the skilling of people that we need to do within UK and Ireland. The Salesforce ecosystem will create 143,000 new jobs by 2024. You look at that and you think, ‘wow, that’s really amazing’. But the question is, ‘who’s going to fill those jobs?’ We’re not short of people, we’re short of skills and I don’t think Salesforce is unique in that. We’ve got this amazing platform called Trailhead. It’s a free platform that allows people to skill themselves and get certified. Upskilling, reskilling and making sure we have the talent pipeline to fulfil our objectives is a key focus for us.”

And finally, what milestones have you set yourself to measure your own performance?

ZB “As a Salesforce CEO, because the chain is quite clear, if we’re able to make our customers successful, Salesforce will be successful. And if Salesforce is successful, then personally I’m successful and my teams are successful. In my opinion, that is the correct chain. In Salesforce the mission is absolutely focussed on customer success and value and good things come from that if you focus on the greatest need. 

“It is the one thing I talk to customers about the most – focus on the greatest need. Solve that problem and then move to the next greatest need. It’s a common thread through my career. Every career stage or client environment I was in, there was always a big need somewhere. It was either recovery, get this delivered by tomorrow or sell more. If I focussed on that, then the success would follow. That is the key to unlocking customer value and that is the single biggest focus for me, my teams and Salesforce.”

So, what did I learn from my time with Z and what are my big takeaways?

There is no doubt that Zahra is a competent, gracious and technically-minded leader. In terms of her personality and character, I can see the fit with Salesforce working hand in glove. She is a strong advocate for many of the values that Salesforce has been built on and the entrepreneurial environment will allow her to flourish to full potential. 

The skills shortage is a concern, but the main challenge will be to carve out an identity for Salesforce in the region. Salesforce is a very American company and although there is nothing wrong with that, the new UK&I CEO will need to find a way to put her own stamp on this market and bring the Salesforce brand to life for UK customers. 

I have no doubt that Zahra will succeed. As I said earlier, she brings something to a leadership role that very few manage to execute – a combination of authenticity, knowledge, empathy, modesty and purpose. Her relaxed personality should not be confused with being easy going or lax – but who doesn’t want to have fun while they are saving the world? Watch this space for great things from Salesforce in the UK and Ireland…  

The main thing that fuelled my drive, influenced my progression and set me apart was the influence of my parents”

A bit about Salesforce

So, what do we need to know about Salesforce? Well, pretty much everyone recognises Salesforce as a CRM vendor – that’s customer relationship management – and companies of all shapes and sizes use their products and services to manage sales, opportunities and marketing activities. Unlike most other proprietary software vendors, the Salesforce offering cuts across geographies, industries and size of customer and boasts more than 150,000 customers worldwide. 

Salesforce was one of the original cloud companies, set up by Marc Benioff and a small cohort of software engineers in February 1999. The firm’s base of operations was a one bedroom apartment in San Francisco and was launched with the aim of becoming ‘a world-class internet company for sales force automation’, or to bring about ‘the end of software’, depending on whether you reference Benioff’s original marketing statement or the one currently on the SFDC web site.

Salesforce.com (SFDC) business model was truly revolutionary. The proprietary software industry had been selling business applications as locally hosted products for more than 50 years but Benioff et al conceived a better way to deploy and manage business technology by extending the concept of application service providers to a fully remote provision of applications as a service. 

From the outset, Benioff and the other co-founders believed in an obligation to develop a company built on principles”

Not only was the technical deployment of these applications a radical shift from the norm, so too was the pricing model. Benioff believed that subscription billing, which goes up as customers use more and down if they use less, was a far more equitable way to charge for services. Allied to this avant-garde approach to products and pricing, SFDC was one of the first companies to be born out of purpose. From the outset, Benioff and the other co-founders believed in an obligation to develop a company built on principles – what we call today, corporate social responsibility. The founders wrote their V2MOM (Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures) strategic plan in late 1999 and was designed to provide employees with a clear vision for the business and align the organisation around common goals. In true start-up fashion, the original draft was written on the back of an envelope and, even today, V2MOM remains at the core of how SFDC runs its business and continues to guide the decisions they make.

Salesforce is the number one CRM worldwide and its focus on industry specific solutions will only solidify its position as the benchmark. It currently offers 12 vertical clouds that provide purpose-built functionality, data models and processes, all designed by industry experts. It ranks as number one on the new Cloud Wars Industry Cloud top 10 list and boasts an impressive industry cloud run rate of more than $2bn, some way ahead of its nearest rivals: Google, Oracle, SAP and Infor. In 2020, Salesforce significantly expanded its industry-specific product portfolio, acquiring Vlocity and adding four more industry products in media, communications, energy & utilities, as well as new public sector solutions.

Our view is that Salesforce will become more dominant and relevant in the near-term as it offers something that very few other software vendors can – differentiation. No enterprise can carve out a niche through core ERP applications – one finance module is the same as the next and core ERP (other than equally vertical-specific offerings) are soon to become commoditised solutions which add very little in the way of contrast. Salesforce, on the other hand, operates in a space where organisations can differentiate themselves by building unique relationships, delivering personalised services and driving sales with both new and existing customers. As businesses rebound from the last 18 months, the emphasis on growing sales, maintaining customer relationships and delivering unique and personalised services will intensify. Creating seamless experiences and developing new and innovative ways to attract and retain customers will be the number one priority for enterprise leaders and Salesforce is uniquely positioned to capitalise on that.