Invoca CEO Gregg Johnson: “You never know where the world is going to take you.”

In our interview with Gregg Johnson, the CEO of Invoca had some sage advice when it comes to planning a career: “I always say to people, ‘Be careful how much deliberate design you put into your career path, because you never know where the world is going to take you.’”

And Johnson speaks from experience. The seasoned software leader who previously led Salesforce Marketing Cloud’s social marketing product line — where he integrated $1 billion of M&A investments into the Salesforce product portfolio — earned his bachelor’s degree in international relations from Stanford University and his MA in international relations from The Johns Hopkins University – Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C.

Now, he’s a successful entrepreneur and the Chief Executive Officer of Invoca, the cloud leader in AI-powered conversation intelligence for revenue teams that enables marketing, sales, customer experience, and eCommerce teams to understand and immediately act on the information consumers share via connections. 

The company has thus far raised $184 million from leading venture capitalists including Upfront Ventures, Accel, Silver Lake Waterman, H.I.G. Growth Partners, and Salesforce Ventures.

Johnson initially thought he was going to go into the State Department or teach after college. But after spending five months at the American embassy in Greece, he learned the State Department wasn’t for him, so he went and worked in consulting for a few years.

By then, it was the late ‘90s and Johnson was living in San Francisco, and according to him, everyone was starting companies, so he and a few colleagues decided to do the same: “It was sort of the late 1990s version of a robo-advisor type of company, think about Wealthfront, something like that, so we were automating financial advice.”

Johnson had to teach himself how to code to build a prototype of his company’s product, and for him, that was a “eureka moment.” He fell in love with software through “learning to code, and then building something, and hitting a button and just seeing a piece of software do its work without you doing anything. And that source of tangibility and creating something that is going to exist and function without you, for me it was just a really, really neat experience.”

After having an experience like that, Johnson was hooked. But he stuck with consulting for a few more years before leaving Boston Consulting Group to work for Salesforce in 2007, when he was sure it was the right move.

 As Johnson says, “The most important thing for you in your career is actually to make sure you’re going in the right direction. . . Make sure you’re headed the right direction before you obsess over how fast you’re going in that direction.”

Joining Salesforce was clearly the right decision for Johnson, who learned several important lessons during his nearly 10 years with the company, which ballooned from around 1,500 employees when he joined to nearly 30,000 when he left in 2016.

For instance, things he took for granted at Salesforce, like management’s transparency with employees, don’t often exist in other companies. But Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff was always transparent, as was Scott Dorsey, a co-founder of the company ExactTarget (which Salesforce acquired in 2013 and turned into Salesforce Marketing Cloud).

Dorsey would write an email to employees every Friday and say where he’d been that week and what he was seeing, and now Johnson does the same thing for his employees using Slack.

“I have lots of people say to me, ‘I really appreciate that you take the time to share your perspective and thoughts on what’s going on with the company, the economy, with customers every week,’” said Johnson. “And for me, that’s just like, that’s part of the CEO job description. I’m like, ‘Why are you thanking me for doing my job?’”

Another thing Johnson learned from Benioff is how important it is for leaders to be able to zoom out and zoom in. Benioff has the uncanny ability, Johnson says, to zoom out and think about the five- to ten-year trajectory of where the industry is going, but also to drill down into the minutiae of the smallest Salesforce projects.

And Johnson thinks Salesforce built this ability in its leaders as well; to think about the big picture, but also to roll up their sleeves and get stuff done and pay attention to details.

Perhaps the most important lesson Johnson learned from Benioff was the need to have a clear vision, and to clearly communicate it with the company. Salesforce has the V2MOM alignment process (which stands for Vision, Values, Methods, Obstacles, and Measures). It’s a way of articulating the company’s priorities to the organization, and Invoca has done something similar under Johnson. He believes it’s essential for employees to know what the company is trying to achieve, and what can they can do as teams or as individuals to contribute to the company’s goals.

Being clear and transparent, especially with goals and methods, enables companies to get the most out of their resources, and allows employees to contribute at a maximum level, which can help avoid the popular businessman’s lament: “You overestimate what you can do in a year, and you underestimate what you can do in a decade.”

Listen on iTunes or Google Podcasts.