Salesforce Chief Digital Evangelist Vala Afshar’s wonderful networking strategy

Vala Afshar

Vala Afshar-UMassLowell

As someone so active on social media, it may come as a surprise that Vala Afshar, Salesforce’s Chief Digital Evangelist, considers himself an introvert. While he doesn’t like labeling people (“Labels are for jars, not people,” Vala jokes), he admits that at dinner parties he’s usually the person in the corner, watching people in hope that someone is approaching so they start a conversation first.

This is from a man with almost a million Twitter followers and over 30,000 on LinkedIn. What has he learned about networking in his 25+ year career?

Change to resource flow

Vala was content to sit in his cabin and write code for many years. He didn’t appreciate the importance of the connection. Vala describes his way of thinking as a silo mentality. “Silo,” he says, “captures resources, knowledge, head count, budget, a fancy title, and salary. The silo mentality is about capturing resources and protecting those resources.”

It wasn’t until his 40s that Vala understood the importance of resource flow. Around the same time, he realized that networking is all about giving. That’s when things changed for him. He got caught in the resource flow of networking.

“My first tweet, I was 41 years old. My first blog, I was 42. My first book, I was 44 years old. All the patents and podcasts came in my 40s,” he enthused.

Vala admits that part of him feels he has a lot of catching up to do compared to other executives because he didn’t show up and network until his 40s. However, his main motivation is the same as other thought leaders; he wants to leave everything and everyone better than he found them.

stay positive

In service of this, he tries his best to stay positive and avoid the negative. He wisely says, “In my experience, the future is created by the optimists.”

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That means he avoids the intellectual tug-of-war that can occasionally occur on social media. He admits that while he sometimes wonders how much of a “perfect slam dunk” he could pull off when people are arguing with him about his patents and other issues, after five seconds of thought, he realizes there’s no value to do that.

“My advice to people trying to build a trusted voice is to avoid engaging with others and just share what you believe to be true,” Vala offered. “Pretend your mom is by your side if you have to.”

The art of giving

His approach to social media and networking is all about giving. If he gets value from something, he will share it. Vala takes the same approach in real life, both inside and outside of Salesforce. He likes to say, “To win on social media, you have to win over social media.”

Vala Afshar

Vala Afshar

For Vala, that means achieving things that give him the privilege of sharing his thoughts. And it all starts with spending time studying. He often achieves this by learning from others. It can be as simple as watching a TEDx talk or listening to a podcast. Offline, Vala likes to surround herself with people who are also leaders outside of social media.

“If you’re looking for people who are constantly proving they’re winning, are active members of communities, write, mingle, do podcasts — these are the people I’m happy to invite to be part of my team,” he said said.

Salesforce and Afshar

How did Vala come to Salesforce? It’s also an interesting story related to Vala’s networking skills.

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Seven and a half years ago, Salesforce created his current role as Chief Digital Evangelist after discovering him on social media and the value he was adding to his network. In fact, Vala admits that most of the hiring process was done via Twitter direct messages. “I didn’t even have a resume,” he joked. “I was with my previous company for nineteen and a half years. I didn’t need any.”

When Vala works with Salesforce clients on a digital transformation, he believes there are several critical success factors for that partnership. Its five key ingredients include culture, people, strategy, process, and technology—in that order. As a technologist, it may seem strange that he puts technology last, but he says that for technology to be effective, the first four pillars must be strong.

Culture, people and silos

Vala points out that a big part of preparing companies for digital transformation is breaking down silos. “Kill silos. They kill careers, they kill companies.”

Technology can help companies break down silos, but ultimately it’s not a technology discussion. It’s a discussion about people and culture. Vala believes there is no place for friction in business or in the leadership of individuals. Mentoring and sponsoring employees within Salesforce is vital to him, but Vala finds it amazing how often he’s the one taking notes in these relationships.

“It’s nice when the journey begins with me trying to share my wisdom and knowledge and I’m in a 50/50 situation now.” Because he’s a giver, Vala ultimately learns from those who he serves and works with, whether within Salesforce or through the company’s customers.

Be open

I learned from Vala that yesterday’s experts may not be tomorrow’s experts. Having open conversations, learning from others, and being active on social media can therefore be a crucial tactic to stay ahead of change.

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And that begins with four words that Vala recommends all leaders ask their team, as well as those you’re privileged to converse with online and in real life: “What do you think?”

Watch the full interview with Vala Afshar and Dan Pontefract on the Leadership NOW program below or listen to it on your favorite podcast.


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I want leaders to become better versions of themselves. I’m the Founder and CEO of The Pontefract Group, a company that helps organizations become culture, engagement, purpose, thought and more human. I am the author of four bestsellers, LEAD. CARE. WIN. How to Become a Leader Who Matters, OPEN TO THINK: Slow Down, Think Creatively, and Make Better Decisions (winner of getAbstract International Book of the Year 2019), THE PURPOSE EFFECT: Building Meaning in Yourself, Your Role and Your Organization, and FLAT ARMY: Building a connected and engaged organization. I’ve been asked to give four different TED talks and I’m on the Thinkers50 radar list. In 2019 I was nominated for the Thinkers50 Talent Award. I give about 50 keynotes a year. (You can hire me.) I am an Associate Professor at the Gustavson School of Business, University of Victoria. Sign up for my free newsletter. My personal mantra is: “We are not here to see through each other; we are here to see each other through.”

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