Leading Through Crisis: Lessons from Salesforce Security Leaders


“It is extremely important you speak truth to power. It’s extremely difficult because they don’t always want to hear it. I disclose everything upfront. You really have to get comfortable mitigating that risk.” – Keith White, Chief of Safety and Security, Salesforce 

Salesforce ranks 137 on the 2021 Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations by revenue.  The protection and safety of its 56,000 team members worldwide, as well as its global centers of excellence, corporate facilities, data centers, and offices, are under the purview of Chief Safety and Security Officer Keith White, who joined the company in August 2020. Along with Chris Mann, the company’s VP, Global Safety, Security and Resilience, they are responsible for executive protection and strategic initiatives, including securing approximately 4,000 corporate events annually. 

In a conversation moderated by Mat Thompson, Ontic Senior Vice President of Sales, both shared how they rose to meet the challenges of the pandemic, changing how safety and security are perceived at all levels of the organization.

An edited excerpt of the panel discussion follows.

Thompson: How did you lead through COVID and the change in the responsibility of the security team?  

White: “Pretty early on we started to engage with internal business partners. We connected with our sales enablement team. We knew we would have to communicate to employees. We worked with our data scientists to create statistical analyses to understand COVID data. We focused on understanding our internal resources and engaging them…then engaging third parties. When I’m comfortable bringing in outside experts, I build faith in my leadership team.” 

Thompson: How do you determine the difference between venting and grievance?

White: “People who are grievance collectors – you can tell by the type of comments, consistency.  Whether it’s a post or text, they want notoriety typically. We do not want something to go by us that hits our radar screen.” 

Mann: “We don’t always have to comment because other employees handle it for us.”  

Thompson: How has COVID changed the responsibility of the security team?

White: “It’s turned everything upside down. We went from having a very traditional model to focusing on health and safety. We emerged as owners, leaders, and experts. We stepped up, we owned it, and as a result, it was a high risk, high reward. We got to a place where we started to lead the whole organization in terms of how we would open and close buildings, PPE, when we would require vaccinations, testing. It raised our visibility in an incredible way. Typically I would update senior leadership once or twice a year – we went to weekly updates of leadership on other areas of what we did.”

Thompson: How do you balance the need to provide security with duty of care?

White: “It is extremely important you speak truth to power. It’s extremely difficult because they don’t always want to hear it. I disclose everything upfront. You really have to get comfortable mitigating that risk. Sometimes a risk we’ve outlined upfront reappears, and we have to say ‘we’ve talked about that.’”

Mann:  “As a company, we are so committed to our values, we go into areas we don’t expect to.  When COVID started, we were loading airplanes and sending PPE to people around the world.  Having a CEO who is comfortable pushing the team – time and time again we accomplish things we didn’t think we could.” 

Thompson: What have you learned best about change management?

White: “To quote our CEO, ‘this is our first pandemic.’ One of our crucial moments came when we were trying to manage travel. It was important for me to own it, start with a beginner’s mindset: ‘let’s get it right.’ When you operate with a beginner’s mindset and as much humility you can muster up, nothing is as complex or undoable. Every situation I’ve gone in and said ‘pretend like it’s the first time you’ve gone through this.’”

Mann: “It’s a lot of tried and true values. The speed has never been more important, but the ‘why’ hasn’t changed. The increased focus on well-being and prioritization. Giving air cover to my team has never been more important than ever. They see that, and they value it. You have to have hard conversations with your business partners: If safety is our number one value, how would you support team members around the globe? I hesitate to take too much credit. Our business model and having 90% remote helps.  But we are keeping them safe in places around the world where they were on-again, off-again.”  

Thompson: How do you pair context with a shifting landscape?

Mann: “The data we use to inform decisions today is different than four months ago. The intel team needs to pair context with what’s happening. January 6 is different from what’s happening now with Russia and Ukraine. I depend on them a lot. It’s all about context, timing, trends. It’s an inexact science, but we remain vigilant.” 

Thompson: How do you think about using greater visibility with leadership? 

White: “Where you always hope and dream you will be in this space – you want a voice, to participate and be heard on issues driving the business – but never fly too close to the sun. You have unbelievable visibility, but increased expectations. Getting the flywheel going is not as difficult as keeping it moving. They’re already looking for something different, new, and fresh. It’s a balancing act.” 

Mann: “The wonderful thing you learn in a crisis is about your teams and their abilities – that they move the ball. You should be able to create your own initiatives so you can get better and do it the next time. That said, not everyone does well – some say ‘I haven’t signed up for this.’”  

White: “I made a conscious decision that I would be a life-long learner. That’s been really key for me. You’re going to read differently and make that investment in yourself. And hope your boss doubles down on you.”  

For more insights on leading through times of crisis, take a look at Ontic Resources.