The Inside View

10 minutes with Amanda von Almen, Salesforce

This column is about the "how" of sustainable business, featuring one significant change and how a leader (and team) made it happen. Amanda von Almen is the green building program manager for Salesforce, a company with a unique culture of "Ohana" and a CEO at the forefront of social issues, Marc Benioff.

Bob Langert: What’s the "what" of Salesforce’s green building program?

Amanda von Almen: Our vision is to make sure that we site, design, construct, operate and maintain sustainable, high-performance workspaces that cultivate innovation, productivity, health and wellbeing for our "Ohana."

Langert: What does "Ohana" (Hawaiian for "family") mean for how you act in your company and behave?

Von Almen: I think it means we win as a team. We take it seriously that we understand each other’s work so it’s not just "the sustainability woman over there doing her own thing," but how this is all integrated into what we do as a company. And then being proud of each other’s work and successes and really elevating that, as well as not being afraid to take risks and being a trailblazer when you need to.

When you have a culture of support that does that like a family, you’re much more willing to have grand ideas and be innovative. I see it as a kind of our secret sauce here that we really all enjoy each other’s company and want to win as a team.

Langert: How did you get a green and holistic building program started?

Von Almen: When I started about 2.5 years ago, there wasn’t a formal green building program in place. I saw the opportunity to start something great and went to our leaders in real estate after a lot of research and discussion, and we talked about how this is a really important part of our real estate brand value. It ran from there. Now, we’re integrating this sustainable built environment program into our real estate strategy on a truly global level.

Langert: What are the top two reasons on how you’re getting this done?

Von Almen: First, at Salesforce we really do consider the environment a key stakeholder. And as our CEO always says, business can be a powerful platform for change. So not only do you have that magnificent top-down support but you’ve got employees that are really excited as well.

Second, we have an incredible support system here, what we call our REWS department (Real Estate and Workplace Services). They were ready to dive into the unknown, to learn, to ask those critical questions and really make sure that sustainability was part of our real estate brand, was part of our messaging to our employees and in the end that we were delivering a really healthy and sustainable space.

Langert: How did you challenge your real estate team?

Von Almen: The question that I posed for everyone was how can we say we’re providing our employees with the best space for them to do the best work of their lives if we’re not prioritizing the environmental and the health aspects of that space that they’re in?

Langert: What was your No. 1 challenge?

Von Almen: This was a big shift. It hadn’t been done at this scale before at Salesforce. I had to get a lot of people on board to get them to buy into this larger integrated approach to built environment sustainability.

And so, it’s getting them understanding why we need to do it, what does it mean for our Ohana to have healthy and sustainable spaces and really just getting them on board to understand how they can connect it back to their own work and their own lives.

If you speak in acronyms or all this technical language, you start to lose people. So I’m not just talking at them but we’re talking together. And it’s been great, and we’ve seen all parts of our real estate team and workplace services become comfortable speaking about sustainability.

Langert: How do you work with your landlords, the outside people that control the real estate?

Von Almen: I think it’s really important to have that open dialogue and communication.

I always make myself available. I’m a fan of in-person meetings whenever I can make that happen because I think it’s important to have those relationships and have that dynamic. I take the time to bring them up to speed about what we need to do this, what are the benefits, what’s the value.

Langert: What have you learned from this experience that is really just helpful both to you and that you would want to share with others?

Von Almen: I think this is a specialty field where you’re going to learn forever. You’re never going to fully grasp it or be a master at it. You’re going to need to always be learning. So, for me, that’s one of the biggest lessons learned: taking the time to always be learning, to understand other’s perspectives.

But particularly at Salesforce, I would say we are moving very fast, so really reminding myself to take a minute to reflect on our accomplishments and also how we can improve on some of the misses. Then taking these learnings forward. It’s really important to me that we share this with others. We want to share our work and influence with others in the space because it should be a shared goal for all to improve the state of the world. And none of us can do it alone.

Another thing that I’ve learned along this journey is that sometimes you just need the right timing to make it all come together. So, don’t get discouraged by the first "no" because by the second or third or fourth try it may be a different answer.