Salesforce picked one of its own execs to become Slack’s CEO. Now she’s patching up a $27.7 billion marriage

Lidiane Jones, CEO of Slack.
Philip Keith for Fortune

Last fall, Lidiane Jones discovered that Slack founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield was leaving Salesforce—by learning that she was a candidate for his job.

Jones was blindsided by the news but immediately interested in the “dream job” that combined her love of consumer-focused design with enterprise technology. “I was so emotionally invested because I was so excited,” she says. But she worried she “wasn’t going to be picked.” 

Jones was a somewhat unlikely contender for the role. For one, she didn’t work for Slack, the workplace productivity platform Salesforce acquired in 2021 for $27.7 billion. The 43-year-old was a Boston-based executive vice president overseeing Salesforce’s experience cloud, commerce cloud, and marketing cloud products—all key pieces of Salesforce’s product offering to enterprise customers. Slack didn’t fit that bill. It represented just 5% of Salesforce’s $31.4 billion in annual sales, and the omnipresent messaging tool didn’t overlap much with Jones’s duties. 

What’s more, Butterfield was departing after reportedly clashing with Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff following the acquisition. (Salesforce declined to comment; Butterfield didn’t respond to a request for comment.) The next Slack CEO needed to take the reins from the platform’s founder, patch up the arranged marriage of Slack and Salesforce, and boost morale among Slack’s workforce even as its new corporate parent instituted 7,000 layoffs, Slackers included. A Salesforce incumbent hardly seemed like the pacifying pick. 

Yet it was Butterfield who publicly endorsed Jones for the job. In late 2022, Butterfield announced his exit—which Salesforce had kept quiet for weeks—and Salesforce named Jones as his successor; she reports to Salesforce chief product officer David Schmaier, not Benioff. In a departing note to Slack workers, Butterfield called Jones “one of us.” Jones says the line referred to her “obsession around customer focus.” But the note was also an effort to win Jones support from a Slack workforce that had the potential to mistrust its new outsider CEO. 

Jones entered the CEO role in January with a mandate to close the gulf between Slack and Salesforce culturally and commercially—to endear the two workforces to each other and effectively pair the companies’ tools to better meet today’s business needs. Plus, she has to convince a skeptical Wall Street of the business case behind the acquisition, Salesforce’s most expensive ever. It’s a daunting task, but Jones happens to be an expert bridge builder—personally, as an all-too-rare Latina tech executive, and professionally, as a veteran of integrating acquired businesses into their larger parents. Ultimately, her success could turn easy-to-use Slack, whose rat-a-tat notifications punctuate the modern workday, into the interface for Salesforce, a pioneering but clunky customer relationship management provider. Enterprise customers everywhere would cheer such a transformation, says Wolfe Research analyst Alex Zukin: “Nobody would ever have to use Salesforce again, and yet everybody would always be using Salesforce.” 

Born in São Paulo, Jones grew up in a small neighborhood within that big city. Her father worked factory jobs. Her mom was a cleaner. At 13, Jones won a school contest to earn a spot in a computer programming class—her first time accessing a computer. Programming ignited her passion for technology and software development, which seemed like “magic” to her.  

Jones earned a scholarship to attend the University of Michigan, but almost didn’t get to go; she failed the Test of English as a Foreign Language required of international students the first time and just barely passed on her second try. When she arrived in Ann Arbor, she was still far from fluent. She missed the weather in Brazil; she lost “a ton of weight” her freshman year because she didn’t like french-fry-heavy Midwestern cuisine. “It was like, Oh, my God, what am I doing here?” she recalls. 

That transition was one of the “hardest things” she’s been through, Jones says. But she made friends in her unfamiliar surroundings, survived that first year, and became fluent in English. She earned a computer science degree and secured an internship at Apple, where she and fellow interns ate lunch next to Steve Jobs in the cafeteria. 

She intended to move back to Brazil, but she got a job at Microsoft as an Excel software engineer and met her husband, an American, in Seattle. (He still works at Microsoft, whose Teams program competes with Slack. “We don’t talk about work,” Jones says.) Microsoft employed people from all over the world—but “not a lot of Brazilians and not a lot of Latina women,” Jones says. She didn’t think much of it at first, but eventually she began noticing little slights, like when “nobody really heard what I said in that meeting,” she says. “I became more conscious over time.” So when Slack employees feel as though Salesforce doesn’t understand them, she has an idea of what that’s like. 

At Microsoft, she helped integrate virtualization startup Softricity, acquired in 2006, into what became Microsoft Intune, a management tool. Later, she oversaw the post-acquisition integration of another Microsoft target: collaboration software platform Groove Networks—an East Coast team acquired by a “giant company on the West Coast.” “There’s always patterns that are not too different,” Jones says. “The biggest one is just understanding each other’s language.” From Boston, Jones helped Microsoft “understand what’s so great about this team.” Feeling like she’d done all she could at Microsoft, she left in 2015 to try her hand at consumer technology at speaker company Sonos before jumping back to enterprise at Salesforce in 2019. 

“There’s always patterns [to integrations] … The biggest one is just understanding each other’s language.”

Lidiane Jones, Slack CEO

In her new CEO role, Jones set out to make Slack more like Salesforce (a moneymaking enterprise tool) and to make Salesforce more like Slack (a creative platform that earns not just begrudging users but genuine fans). 

One of her earliest efforts to breach the cultural divide between Slack and Salesforce teams was a companywide memo featuring five tips for using Slack effectively. It went viral internally and, Jones says, sparked goodwill across teams. Jones advised brevity, consistency, authenticity, and, yes, a healthy dose of emojis. (Her favorite is a custom Slack logo emoji, its colored lines replaced with hearts.) They’re “incredibly effective in separating key points and adding dimension to your posts,” she wrote. 

The business integration challenge can’t be summarized so succinctly.

Jones believes that Slack should be “the front door of Salesforce”—the product Salesforce customers check first. “For every job, you start your day, you open Slack, and you figure out, What should I do now?” she says. “If you’re a salesperson, which accounts should I target this month? Why? Which products are most valuable for these customers?” For Salesforce customers, who rely on the product but can be frustrated by its less-than-intuitive user experience, operating via Slack’s friendly and colorful UX would be transformative. Jones adds: “Salesforce is amazing at leading large enterprise relationships, and we want to bring more of that to Slack.” 

“Salesforce is amazing at leading enterprise relationships, and we want to bring more of that to Slack.”

Lidiane Jones, Slack CEO

Slackifying Salesforce is also a matter of redefining what counts as “creative,” Jones says: “If you’re a marketer, that’s a creative job. If you’re a salesperson or engaging with people, that’s a creative job. We can bring the sensibility of design across the portfolio.” 

Jones says she’s a genuine fan of Slack, having fallen for it while at Sonos. The programming-nerd CEO spends some of the little free time she has building Slack features; her latest is a tool that summarizes a channel or a thread on command.

Jones isn’t just trying to convince her own employees of the Salesforce-Slack synergies. Wall Street thinks Salesforce overpaid for the workplace communications platform and questions why Salesforce customers would fork over extra money for the tool when they likely already have access to rival Microsoft Teams. Salesforce’s stock is down 17% since the deal closed, and activist investors have pressured the company to be more efficient. Slack right now doesn’t complement the Salesforce suite the way the architects of the deal intended, analysts say. Benioff’s big talk in the high-growth days of 2020—he said Slack would put Salesforce on a path to a double its revenue to $50 billion—didn’t help set measured expectations. However, Wall Street is more optimistic about Slack’s long-term prospects. 

“[Slack] hasn’t been the growth driver they expected it to be,” says Baird analyst Rob Oliver. “But I don’t think that says much about the long-term value of Slack.”

“[Slack] hasn’t been the growth driver [Salesforce] expected it to be. But I don’t think that says much about the long-term value of Slack.”

Rob Oliver, Baird analyst

Jones admits the earliest integrations between Slack and Salesforce weren’t particularly sexy; they were tweaks like authenticating Slack and Salesforce systems so users can move seamlessly between the two and access customer relationship management data on both platforms. She says that investors—and others—may be skeptical because the company hasn’t released flashier synergies yet. “The market just hasn’t seen a lot of integrations come to life,” she says. Oliver agrees: “We’re starting to see some of the beginnings of the fingerprints of that plan.” 

Slack does have more exciting integrations up its sleeve, Jones says. In May, Salesforce announced Slack GPT, a suite of conversational A.I. capabilities that mines Slack’s expertise: its knowledge of the people who make up an organization and how it functions. Slack could brief a user on the traits of a colleague they’re about to meet. Users could ask Slack, “What should I know about [them?] How should I prepare? What are two key pieces of information about them?” Jones says. Integrating that technology throughout Salesforce—not just in Slack, but in customer relationship management software, for example—could extend the tool beyond colleagues, to customers. “What’s the context of all that knowledge an organization has?” Jones asks.

The Groove Networks acquisition Jones oversaw at Microsoft had a relatively positive long-term outcome: While the startup ditched its own name, its Boston-based workforce is still Microsoft’s Office Collaboration team a decade later. So is that what Slack’s future will look like? Jones says Slack will remain an independent unit within Salesforce “for the foreseeable future.” “It makes sense because it’s such a great, recognized brand,” she says.

Slack’s brand gives Jones more visibility in her role than she might have if she were simply running a productivity software tool at another giant tech corporation; she’s taking advantage of that spotlight to talk up the business case for Slack at Salesforce. As for the competition? “I don’t hear a lot of people telling me they love to do their day-to-day jobs in Teams,” she says. 

This article appears in the June/July 2023 issue of Fortune with the headline, “In focus: Lidiane Jones.”

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