How Does the “Salesforce MBA” Stack Up?

The following is a guest post by Gregg Johnson. Gregg is the CEO of Invoca, a call center intelligence service. He is a seasoned digital marketing and SaaS leader, with over fifteen years of extensive experience bringing products to market in emerging categories, leading large teams, and working with the world’s best enterprise brands. Most recently, Gregg led Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s social marketing product line, where he integrated $1 billion of M&A investments into the Salesforce product portfolio. This post originally appeared on Medium.


Like many of you, I was excited to attend the first day of SaaStr Annual 2017 in San Francisco. (If you missed it, you can read the Day 1 highlights.) Jason M. Lemkin and the SaaStr team put together an amazing set of speakers and topics for the event, and as I scrolled through the lineup for Day 2, one session jumped out at me — a panel discussion on “The Salesforce MBA” with George Hu, Leyla Seka, Cathy Polinsky, and Tod Nielsen.

The title got me thinking about my time at Salesforce, my experiences in management consulting, and my formal graduate education at Wharton. I was fortunate enough to have three distinct “MBA experiences,” each of which taught me important lessons. Over the years, peers have often asked me the same question: “Should I go back and get an MBA full time, or is it not worth the money?”

Having been exposed to several different learning experiences, I thought it would be worthwhile to share my perspective on the unique benefits of each.

The “Management Consulting MBA”

By a twist of circumstance, I joined a management consulting firm right after completing my undergraduate degree. I worked at Mitchell Madison Group / US Web for two years, and then did a second “tour of duty” with the Boston Consulting Group after finishing my MBA at Wharton. In retrospect, my “MBA experience” in the consulting world taught me four key skills:

Breaking It Down.” Consultants often don’t have much experience in the industries of clients they serve. So, one of the first skills you learn is how to break down a strategic problem into logical, quantitative components that you can more easily understand, assess, and model. For example, if a client faces slower revenue growth, you decompose that problem into analyses of the market trends, competitive forces, customer acquisition rates, cross-sell / up-sell patterns, and other variables impacting their growth. Understanding these components equips you to make sense of problems when you have little practical experience.

Pattern Matching. At the core of management consulting is the idea that a generalist, without deep company experience, can provide strategic business insights. Consultants develop the ability to understand patterns across various industries and then apply them, as relevant, to a specific business. To this day, I tend to look at a specific business challenge and think through the pattern it represents, and what analogies I can look to for guidance and learning. For example, once you understand the pattern of how a low-cost entrant can disrupt a market, it becomes far easier to identify and assess this risk across a variety of industries.

Communicating Concisely with Data. I was introduced to the work of Edward Tufte during my first stint in consulting, and his perspective — materialized in thousands of slides I built for client presentations — helped me understand how to crystallize complicated concepts and nuanced analysis into simple, compelling visualizations. As a CEO, one of my most critical responsibilities is distilling the seemingly complex into a strategy that everyone can understand.

Burning the Midnight Oil. Client services businesses — like consulting, investment banking, law, accounting, and advertising — are tough jobs. Ultimately, you are at the disposal of your client, and it leads to working late nights, with lots of travel and little sleep. While it’s by no means conducive to long-term good health, I think it also builds a level of endurance that serves you well in the occasions when you really need to grind it out.

The Wharton MBA

After working for four years after college, I completed a dual degree program — an MA in International Relations (Johns Hopkins SAIS) with an MBA from Wharton. While I took dozens of different courses, the lasting benefits of my Wharton education were focused in a few areas:

Finance 101. I took my first finance course at Wharton, though I completed advanced economics at the undergrad and grad school levels. The principles of finance weren’t immediately applicable in my first years after graduating, but as a business leader it’s been unquestionably valuable to understand core concepts like the income statement, accounts receivable and payable, and cash versus accrual accounting.

Strategic Frameworks. Strategy courses at Wharton gave me insight into business at a macro level. I’d worked in consulting, but business school exposed me to a wider range of strategic problems and frameworks than the 3–4 consulting engagements I’d seen each year. These courses gave me the chance to go deeper, learning about fundamental frameworks like the four Ps in marketing, Porter’s five forces analysis, Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm,” and Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma.” consulting before starting my MBA, You can certainly read about these concepts in books, but putting them into practice in case studies, and discussing them with groups of incredibly smart people, makes the concepts resonate in a way that’s different from a quick read.

Analytical Marketing. Before Wharton, I suffered from the illusion that marketing was about images, creativity, and emotions. After taking courses with experts like Pete Fader, I learned that marketing was ultimately far more science than art. This approach certainly appealed to my quantitative bent, and I’ve loved pipeline and conversion rate analysis ever since.

The “Salesforce MBA”

I joined Salesforce in 2007, and in the following nine years, had a number of roles in product management and product marketing. It was an incredible run, but if I distilled my near decade-long experience into key lessons learned, they would be:

The Motivating Power of a Mission. The most lasting takeaway from my Salesforce experience is the power of mobilizing employees — and eventually an entire business ecosystem — around a mission. In my early days, the focus of our mission was customer success and the disruptive technology of cloud computing. But philanthropy has been part of the company’s DNA since the beginning and is closely tied to the mission. As social activism has become increasingly important and people seek more meaning from their work, employees feel they are not only improving business, but the broader world as well — and that makes the work “far more than a job.”

The Importance of Alignment. Marc Benioff has an amazing ability to see trends and articulate a clear vision for the future, but equally important, Salesforce has developed a culture of execution focus to turn that vision into reality. The leadership team uses tools like the V2MOM to get every employee aligned behind a shared vision and goals. We’re rolling out a V2MOM at Invoca, and I believe enabling every employee to see how their personal contributions tie to overall company goals increases individual motivation and unleashes unexpected creativity.

The Core Economics of SaaS. While I learned the core concepts of finance at Wharton, I only grasped the subtleties of SaaS economics during my time at Salesforce. Having a successful career in SaaS requires a fundamental understanding of concepts like the relationship between bookings and revenue, the long-term impact of churn and the payback for investing in sales capacity. I had the fortune to watch and learn from leaders like Mark Hawkins, Graham Smith, Steve Cakebread, Sarah Friar, and Craig Shull.

“Zoom In, Zoom Out.” One common characteristic I noticed in almost every successful Salesforce executive — from Marc Benioff to my old bosses and friends Kendall Collins, Chuck Ganapathi, and Brett Queener — was the ability to move seamlessly between the strategic and tactical levels of the business. In my early days, peers would often joke about “the eye of Sauron” being on your part of the business — meaning that Marc was reviewing marketing, product, or sales to the last level of detail. I was always amazed by how Marc could sit in one meeting discussing technology trends and 3–5 year product strategy, then 30 minutes later question the copy on the website down to specific word choice. I’ve realized that successful CEOs must develop the skill to shift quickly between 30-day execution and three-year vision.

Choosing Between The Formal MBA and the MBA On the Job

What’s the best value and experience when it comes to building out your business skills — a full time MBA program or “on the job” training at a company like Salesforce?

There are tradeoffs: getting an “on-the-job MBA” is appealing from a financial perspective; a formal MBA allows you to take a break from a full-time job and build your skills while developing a broader perspective on your career. Ultimately, my counsel depends on a pretty simple equation.

If you’re just entering the workforce and still not completely sure “what you want to do when you grow up,” spending a few years in management consulting is a great training ground that leaves you a number of options. You learn practical skills that you don’t typically learn as an undergrad (at least I didn’t), and that apply to almost any professional role you will have in the future.

If you’re looking to make a change mid-career (e.g., going from accounting or finance to marketing or product management), a formal MBA program is an incredibly effective vehicle to make a more “radical” transition. If you’re smart and deliberate about it, you can use those two years to build a deep network in the space you want to enter. An MBA also “rebrands” you in a way that tends to create more of a break from your past. MBA programs are homogenizing forces in the sense that they tend to make students look more alike upon graduation than when they entered, so it’s far easier to move from one career path to another.

If you’re looking to build incremental skills while staying in the same career path (e.g., learning the basics of finance as a product manager or marketer), I would suggest leveraging on-the-job training, a part-time MBA program, or self-service digital courses. This will be a smarter investment of your time and money. And as long as you’re at a great company with smart people and a culture that focuses on talent development, you can get most of the knowledge and skills you need with a little bit of planning.

So which option is the best way to get ahead? That really depends on you!

  • Elements.cloud

    This is a really insightful article. The challenge with formal MBAs in a fast moving business world is relevance. The on-the-job MBA depends so much on the quality of your mentors. I spent 12 years at Accenture from consultant up to partner and the managers and partners I worked for were inspiring and ingrained a set of values, work ethics and principles that live with me every day. So the on-the-job MBA is better, provided you can work for one of the few stand-out companies AND be able to recruit the real stars inside those companies as mentors. @iangotts

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