Get outside of your comfort zone, says Salesforce.com's Anshu Sharma

This is the fourth interview in an ongoing series on innovative thinkers and business leaders. Firstpost will explore technical expertise to a lesser degree and focus instead on what makes them outstanding leaders.

Anshu Sharma, the vice-president of product management at Salesforce.com, has steadily risen the ranks over the course of his 11-year career (he was previously a product management lead at Oracle). He speaks with Firstpost about the importance of mentorship, whether there's a glass ceiling for minorities in the Silicon Valley, and why it's important to get a speeding ticket every now and again.

"Anybody who works for me...I always tell them that once a year, they should get a speeding ticket, which means you should be just outside of your comfort zone."

Tell me a bit about your career path.

I grew up in a middle-class family. My dad was a bank officer, and we lived in mid-sized towns in India. When I was 14 or 15 I got introduced to computers and fell in love with computers. When I was in high school, my friend and I got together and wrote software for managing restaurant point-of-sales systems that we sold to a couple of people. We didn't make a lot of money, but it paid for a couple of pizza parties back then. Then I was fortunate to attend IIT Kharagpur for computer science. Those were fun, fond years for me. I came to the US to do my masters in computer science at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I joined a company in the Bay Area because that is where a lot of the action is. Since then, it's been an interesting ride. My career has gone through typical stages: starting out as an engineer, learning how to build products, becoming a product manager, and deciding which products should be built and how, and what markets to go after.

What are the a-ha moments you've had in your career?

The first a-ha moment was when I was first introduced to computers as a kid-I could actually make a machine do what I wanted it to do. The second a-ha moment was when I worked with my friend and built a piece of software and sold it to someone. That made me go from a typical student to an entrepreneur. The third a-ha moment was that IIT had a huge impact on me-there are so many smart people you can learn from. And then, after having built products for a few years, I found a couple of mentors. Finding a mentor who can see you in your raw form and help you see where the future is headed was a moment of inspiration for me. That was my fourth a-ha moment.

Who are your mentors?

My first mentor was my friend's father, Ramesh Chopra. He started a publication called Electronics For You, and he taught me how to go from being an engineer to being an entrepreneur and leader. I was inspired by him. I saw that someone who had a very technical bent of mind could go into business. So you can look at business from a very analytical perspective and bring your engineering smarts to the table.

During my early years at Oracle, I had a mentor named Ajay Patel [a Silicon Valley executive]. He saw something in me and helped me make the transition from being an engineer to an executive-in-the-making. He told me, "You need to stretch beyond your comfort zone." In my case, that meant going from being inbound to being outbound and more customer-focussed. Second was to look from the perspective of the customer, engage in partnership opportunities, and think solutions rather than how to ship a product.

[Salesforce.com CEO] Marc Benioff is an inspirational leader. Interacting with him, seeing him change the industry was hugely inspirational, and that started even before I joined Salesforce.com. At Salesforce.com, I've been hugely inspired by Steve Fisher, who runs all of engineering, and Parker Harris, who is our co-founder.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I find the best people and empower them by letting them make mistakes in the pursuit of greater opportunity and greater success. You learn by doing and when you do things that are beyond your comfort zone, there is always a risk of failure. Knowing that your manager is going to be standing right behind you and not pointing fingers when things don't work out exactly, and that he's going to help you transition and make something good out of that, I think, is key.

What do you tell those who made a mistake about how to recover?

My advice is what I call the Warren Buffett principle. You may think you are one or two steps behind where you should be, and sometimes you think you are one or two steps ahead of where you should be and so you are maybe feeling insecure. But over time, life evens things out, and it's kind of like the intrinsic value of stocks. It eventually returns to the value it should be. You have to keep that long-term perspective in mind.

"A lot of times, people confuse leadership with management"

How do you transition to a leadership position?

There are two important aspects to making any transition. One is finding a role model. Second, once you have a role model in mind, it is about finding the path. And the path involves, ideally, a mentor because they can see you through the blind alleys because they have gone through those experiences. Anytime I have someone who is working in my organisation, I try to reach out and explain to them how to think from the perspective of the customer, management, and the shareholders. Being able to step outside and look at the bigger picture - that's the role of a mentor, in my opinion.

Is there a glass ceiling for minorities in hi-tech firms in the Valley? Given the large number of Indian and Chinese engineers, why don't we see more of them in top executive spots?

I don't think there is a glass ceiling. Often, we don't connect ourselves to role models that may not look or talk exactly like us. An example is when [Barack] Obama became president. A lot of people of colour thought, "Okay, now I can become the president." But when Obama was looking to be president, he didn't say, "I need to have someone the same colour as me to become the next president of the United States." He had his own role models.

On the other side, you do need to find a company where you see that embedded in the culture of the company is an openness to ideas and opinions, and that they value that from all parts of the globe.

Then there are just global trends where emerging markets, the BRIC countries, are a reality and companies are paying attention to that. All of those things put together empower an individual to make the transition to becoming a leader. The key thing is that leadership is not something that is handed over to you; you have to take on responsibility and then you become a leader.

Do you think leadership is an innate quality, or can you learn it?

All of us have leadership qualities in us. You have to find the right ground for it to bloom. Leadership can take different forms. One of the things our CEO [at Salesforce.com] often talks about is that you can be a leader as an individual contributor. A lot of times, people confuse leadership with management.

You can be a thought leader; there are so many ways of being a leader other than having a whole set of people reporting to you.

Now that you are mentoring others, what professional advice do you give?

I have a rule called the speeding ticket rule. Anybody who works for me, or whom I am mentoring, I always tell them that once a year, they should get a speeding ticket, which means you should be just outside of your comfort zone enough that every once in a while, you are doing something that you think could get you a speeding ticket. So the ability to take some risk, but a measured amount of risk, is key.

And follow your passion, get engaged with the community and reach out to people who are five to 10 years senior to you to learn from their experience and have them as your role models. But also engage with people who are five to 10 years younger to you because that's where I learn all the new ideas. And when you bring together three generations, you have a combination of innovation that can actually be practical, and you can turn that into something powerful or transformative for society or your business.

A previous version of this Q&A included a misspelling of the name of Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff. Firstpost regrets the error.


Updated Date: Dec 20, 2014 03:51 AM

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