As the Senior Vice President of Engineering at Salesforce, Ritu Bhargava talks about learning to say no, preparing for hard meetings, and being loyal to your organization.
Every few weeks as part of The Heartbeat, I ask one question to a founder, CEO, or business owner I respect about their biggest leadership lesson learned. This week, I interview Ritu Bhargava, Senior Vice President of Engineering at Salesforce.
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CLAIRE: Hi everyone. I’m Claire Lew and I’m the CEO of Know Your Team. We make software that helps you avoid becoming a bad boss. And I have the absolute privilege today to welcome today on The Heartbeat, an incredible boss. I have Ritu Bhargava who is the SVP of Engineering at Salesforce, an organization that I’m sure everyone who’s listening knows of. They have over 29,000 employees, and I actually learned that Ritu’s team alone has over, I believe, 200 people which is larger, I think, than many of our companies in some ways. And so, I happen to meet Ritu, we both sat on a panel earlier this year here in San Francisco. And once we got to chatting, I realized I had to have her on the podcast. So, an absolute honor to have you here today, Ritu. And total aside, I learned that you were on the US Cricket team. I just feel like I really need to mention this to everyone.
RITU: That’s true.
CLAIRE: It is true. And I learned that the US Cricket tournament is going on right now in the World Cup. If you weren’t impressive enough, we have got to add to the list. But I’m not here to talk about Cricket today, unfortunately. The thing I wanted to ask you, Ritu, was this one question that I’ve been asking leaders who I respect and admire. Here we go. You ready?
RITU: Okay, let’s do this.
CLAIRE: The question that I’ve got for you is what’s one thing, or it could be several things, that you wish you would’ve learned earlier as a leader.
RITU: There have been a lot of learnings around the ideas that I’ve been working. Each of them has come at a time when I was ready to either take on a project or it was just something that gave me big butterflies in my stomach. And it wasn’t in that moment, but it happened when either I failed or I failed miserably. And so I would say the biggest thing so far is learn to say no. I wish I learned that before because you want to impress and you want to say yes to everything and you want to overcome it and perhaps even over deliver. And usually, I’ve just learned that if I say no more, I can focus on fewer things and do them really well.
RITU: And I have found that people will, for example you’re on a project and people are like, “I want this and this and this.” And usually, as leaders, we get overwhelmed by the requirements of a big project. And then I’ve learned that if I said no to five things — and you have to be careful. You can’t say no to everything, but what are those things that you can’t live without. And so, when I say no to those things, it helped me in focusing on things that I could spend more time on and do a really good job. And so, if you were to look at every year or every two years, I’ve got a big project at our company; a big product launch, a big Salesforce launch. If you were to go and ask what was that one thing that I delivered, people would know, “OK, this is the year that Ritu did this,” or, “This was the year that…” That was because I said no to like five other things.
CLAIRE: That’s so interesting. I find this actually to be a really sharp insight, even though it sounds obvious on the surface. “Oh yeah, say no more than you say yes.” I feel like, for many of us as leaders, we’re like, “Oh, duh. Do we do that in practice?” Oh my gosh, it’s really hard to do. And what I really loved of what you shared is that at the end here of thinking about the one thing that you are really proud of and that’s actually the culmination of not sort of taking on too much but actually saying no to a lot of things. Is there a specific project that comes to mind, or a year where you were like, “I finally sort of did it right,” or, “I finally kind of gave myself…” What is it? A few questions here. Is it courage to yourself? How is it also that you sort of figure out how to put a foot down and say no?
RITU: I think a lot of it also comes from the credibility or the work that you have done leading onto when you can start saying no, because early on in my career, I didn’t have that leverage or the courage or people could just say, “Who are you to say no to me?” Starting on, you have to serve the time. You have to absolutely serve the time. You have to put in the hard work.
No one looks at you at 2:00 AM or 3:00 AM and you’re the only person working. Or like the 7:00 AMs and the 9:00 PMs that I’d be the first person or the last person to come and leave office. So in that moment, no one gets that — but you have to understand if you serve that time, then you’ll have to be very aware that now is the time that I can risk it. I can have the courage to put some [inaudible] out there and not like either spoil my reputation or the things I’m known for or my credibility. And so, it depends on some people that comes early in your career, some people that comes later. And it’s nice to know what is that — sometimes it doesn’t come and that’s fine too. But you’ve got to know it, but the fact that I say no can get me there.
CLAIRE: Absolutely. It’s really interesting your observation, that ability and that courage you want to build up over time. It happens at different times for different people. And then this idea that there has to be some level of credibility that comes with it. And I just appreciate your honesty around that. So it’s not like just start saying no to everything willy nilly. Or when you haven’t been delivering, it’s like, “Well…” Your work product has to be there. One thing I am curious maybe to challenge you on or what I’d sort of love to sort of poke at and take a devil’s advocate point of view is do you think it’s required to sort of have the stripes of the late hours putting in the work, so to speak? Do you think that could backfire in some ways too? Because then at what point — could your boss be taking advantage of you because you’re trying too hard to establish that credibility? I’m curious what you think about that. Is there a little bit more nuance than just like you must serve the time?
When I say ‘serve the time’, it’s more about what is your output and value add. And I know these are overloaded terms, but at the end of the day, if I can deliver value in two hours or six hours or five hours or 15 hours, frankly to me, as a leader, and also there have been times where frankly as I’ve grown higher and higher, sometimes the value that I add is in that moment and not like in the 10 hours that I’ve put in to something.
And so, the reason why I said hours is sometimes your job just gets more complicated and sometimes you just don’t get it. I fortunately value attitude and hard work in terms of value add more than just your capability. And I’ve seen a lot of people being very capable but not one thing to put either themselves out there or take a stance or to put the hours, whatever it takes. And if they’re super smart, probably they’ll get it in two hours. I’m not saying no to it. And people like me who are not perhaps the smartest would be like, it’ll take me six or eight hours, or I’ll have to do some homework when no one else is watching just to be more ready for the next day, whatever it takes. And so, going back to what you asked earlier, last year, I had a big year. There were some problems in the product that were going on and my boss was like, “I want you to help me with fixing this problem,” without giving too much detail. And it was not a fun project.
CLAIRE: What do you mean by why wasn’t it fun? I’m just so curious. What do you mean by that?
RITU: For an engineering organization or an engineer or an engineering leader, fun is usually around building a new product, building in technology.
CLAIRE: That’s the most fun.
RITU: Yeah. Or working on something that you can showcase after you’re done to say, “You know what, this is something I did.” Or I can tell my friends about it, or I can learn something, like a new language or whatever out of it. This project was grunt work of just fixing some problems that existed. It was nothing new. And I think no one would even know they’re doing that. When quality is not there is when you notice it and when it’s there, it’s just there.
CLAIRE: Yes, I love that.
RITU: It was not my work, but it required me and I talk of myself as a cat herder and it required me to kind of just do the herding day in and day out. If you ask me what did I really do? I worked 16 hour days, cat herding.
CLAIRE: I’m sorry, I don’t mean to laugh, but it’s like, no, that’s not fun. That’s not fun.
RITU: No, it’s not. But it’s funny. What happened is after six months, we fixed the problem and customers started, “You know what, it was like a big win.” They’re like the CEOs. I went into this CEO’s office and I go to present what we did. And he was like, “Wow!” I’m not saying that I was the only person who was involved. There were like hundreds of engineers and other leaders involved in it. But I was the face of it who was also when others were putting in time, I was putting in time and they’re putting in energy and ideas, I was doing that. So, that lasted literally six months. Then after two months and the boss comes and tells me, “I want you to do another of those projects. There’s this other product that is broken, and you did such an amazing job on that project. And that product, I want you to fix this.” And I was like, “You know what? No, I won’t.” I said I won’t.
RITU: I was like, right now there’s an opportunity to do A, and there’s an opportunity to fix for the past year and a half. And there was another project before that that I had done that was similar. I said, “I just got out of that project, grunt work. You know what, I would like to do something else. I served the time. I have delivered.” It was a big risk. I had to prepare. I can tell you I have personal goals and I’ll keep on talking about these personal goals. Literally, at some level of management, all you get with your manager is 15 minutes a week between like hi, hello, bye, how are you, how was your day. He’d be five minutes late, you happen to be five minutes early, 15 minutes is all you have. And in 15 minutes, I had to pitch why I would say no to A and why I could do B better than anyone else. And it was a hard one. And it’s like the whole concept of crucial conversation, hard conversation.
CLAIRE: How did you approach this? Please do share for everyone who’s listening. Everyone’s sort of, I’m sure, perking their ears and going, “Wait, how did she have this conversation?” I’m so intrigued.
RITU: I think a lot of it is every hard meeting that you go into, for me, I always practice about what would a bad meeting look like for me. And so, at the end of 20 minutes or 15 minutes or at the end of this podcast, what does successful mean? And it could vary from time to time. It could just be like, for example, I could be very nervous about a meeting just for showing up and not like breaking down and being emotional about a topic could be success. Or it could be success means the highest stakes of saying the outcome of this meeting is that he should at least start thinking about why I deserve that project. And you have to be realistic about not to say yes, because knowing if the stakes are high, you can just tell your boss, “Hey, I don’t want to do this,” but you have to learn that some of these might be like three or four conversations off. But the success of that first meeting for me was he should at least not say no.
CLAIRE: I love that. So very real. A very pragmatic sort of very tuned in definition of success is key.
RITU: Yeah. And so, I practice and I wrote down my talking points. He won’t [inaudible].
CLAIRE: Love it.
RITU: I go down talking points, which was not more than 10 minutes. And that moment, of course, to be able to pivot. But at the end of it, just still knowing what do I want to get out of it? And so, that’s been like a theme across every single meeting. It’s just high stakes, a crucial conversation. If whoever has not read that book, it’s actually a good read. It’s called Crucial Conversations.
CLAIRE: It’s so funny you mentioned that, Ritu. It is literally one of my favorite books of all time. It’s indispensable, the framework that they share.
RITU: My absolute favorite question starts with a why. And so, if you’re leading with a why and you know you’re going into a crucial conversation and you know what you want out of it as to what success looks like at the end of that crucial conversation, I think that’s pretty much what has helped me.
CLAIRE: Absolutely. I think something that’s resonating with me as I was listening was very much the simplicity of it. And this idea that, not to get a little meta here, but even in the conversation to say no, you’re saying no to a lot of things of sort of what you’re considering in your set of things to consider. It’s like, two things. It’s the definition of success and the real why that’s driving this. And also, then drum roll. I have to ask, how did your boss respond? How did the conversation go?
RITU: I had practiced and I had anticipated what he would go after. And so, even before he even talked to that, I drew it on the board, which was like, I could share it, actually because I thought he would say, “You know what, you do not have the skillset or you do not have the experience to do that job.”
RITU: And to be really honest, that job required my [inaudible] to be three times of what it was. In that moment I was not just asking for the job, perhaps I was also asking for a solution because responsibility comes, but I was not really worried about the promotion. My why was not the promotion. It was not, because if you’re going after just the promotion without the why, it kind of never works out. And so, the why that I was going after was I’m going to help you solve this problem. And I drew why I was the best person to help him succeed and that no one can say no to. If I can be your [inaudible], let me help you. Let me help you. And I’m not being dishonest that it helps me too. And then it’s a partnership beyond that. It changed the conversation for him. And he said, “You know what, let me think about it.” Three meetings after that, I did get that job.
CLAIRE: Huh! Incredible, Ritu. My God! I’m sure everyone who’s listening to this is taking notes. I know I am, at least mentally.
RITU: Before that, I do want to underline one thing, it was very hard. I’m saying it maybe as if it was just like a linear success curve.
CLAIRE: Oh, it just didn’t work like that, right? Step one, step two, step three.
RITU: There were a lot of sleepless nights for the 10-minute conversation. I can personally tell you I would have prepared at least 20 hours.
CLAIRE: For a 10-minute conversation?
CLAIRE: I think to your point, the stakes are high because the perception, and this is what I’m so enjoying about our conversation, that saying no is just so much more complex than just the two letters. It’s the dynamic that you have with the person you’re saying no to. It’s understanding all the potential outcomes and fallout and weird unintended consequences that happen. It’s understanding even your boss or the person you’re saying no to, the sort of their temperament, like how people who are in these positions usually aren’t said no to very often. So, navigating that is difficult and I think it’s tremendous that you spent the time and did the diligence to have that conversation. But clearly, it worked out.
RITU: Yeah. And it works out. I could argue it works out at every level. Here’s another example. I was asked to come to that panel that you and I were part of. I was like, “No, I don’t want to do this.” It’s like [inaudible] and then there were like five other requests that I got and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to say no to this and yes to this and it’s OK and I’m going to take a chance.” And sometimes, you just need to go over there and look at it. You may not have conclusive evidence of what you want to say yes and no to. But I’d also like to add the aspect of your gut check of just going with it, and that moment has also helped me, like what is the worst that can happen? What is the worst that can happen? I was like, “Fine, I’m going to say yes to this panel. What is her worst that can happen? My two hours are going to get wasted.” OK, fine. In the grand scheme of things, what is the least that I can get out of this? I’ll meet like maybe one person. And see? I met more than one person.
RITU: You asked me that we should do this podcast and I was like, “You know what, sure.” Again, what is the worst that can happen?
CLAIRE: Right. I so appreciate that. I think one thing that some, actually not some, I would say a lot of leaders, especially emerging leaders and new managers will often approach me and tell me is how difficult it is for them to say no, to begin with. You’ve talked about sort of using your gut, you’ve talked about having a why and sort of having a clear objective. But for the person who feels like they don’t have that leverage, for the person who loves to please, what advice do you have for them for sort of recentering and figuring out and putting your foot down for saying no? What would you say to someone who’s like, “I just have a really hard time saying no. What words do you have for me?”
RITU: I would say that a lot of no’s are proceeded by a lot of ‘yesses’, so again, I’ll keep on going to that. My boss, they’re like a thousand, ‘Yes, and…’ but the ‘and’ there could be a no at the end, right? So for example, if you said, ‘yeah, sure’, or I could say, “Hey, I want to do this podcast.” Or I could say, “Yes, I will do this podcast and” suppose I wanted a favor out of you or I wanted something out of this or it could be anything. I said, “Yes, and you will actually have to smile a lot.” I don’t know. I’m just making this up.
CLAIRE: Yeah. [Laughs]
RITU: Or, “Do you want to do this?” I’ll say, “Yes, and…,” It’s like if you build with what you’re trying to say no to. I know it’s a little complex here, but kind of making the no a yes for you, as to why it could be a yes for you.
CLAIRE: Making the no a yes for you. I love that.
RITU: For example, other examples not related to work. I hate a lot of chores. We all hate chores. We don’t like a lot of things that we do on weekends that are just like boring stuff, like laundry, groceries, or whatever it is. And even at work actually, when I have to do something like that, I always look for, “Oh actually, if I go to the grocery store, I could get my favorite chocolate.” Or if I went and did my laundry, I could perhaps listen to this podcast I’ve been meaning to listen to while I’m doing laundry. Or that little things like the candy or a gold star that you’d get for a little incentive [inaudible].
CLAIRE: Making the no a yes for you. I mean, chocolate does that for me every single time, let’s be real. You can’t wrong with that. Ritu, I want to be respectful of your time here, but I’ve been dying to ask a question or just sort of jumping here just based off your extensive experience because I think it’s pretty incredible. I mean, you’ve been at Salesforce for seven or so years, right? And you’ve risen to this immense leadership position. And one of the things, we sort of touched a little bit about this on the panel, but what would you sort of attribute to the things that you’ve done well in sort of navigating your career development and then are there other things where you’re like, “Huh! I don’t know if I would’ve done that now that I know.” Just curious what you think is sort of attributed to your personal leadership success.
RITU: There are a couple of things. But I guess as you grow in your career, people started recognizing you for those things. One is I do not promise anything that I cannot follow through on. Even if it is a little thing. There was like, “By the way, what about that little pass for this concert?” Or it could be like, “Can you send an email to that person for me?” Little things add up and people start knowing that she follows through. It’s kind of hard though, because how many people do you meet in a day? And literally as you grow higher, there’s so many favors that people keep on asking you. And that’s why I’m saying, “You know what? No, I cannot. Sorry.” And so, that’s one aspect of it.
And the other is hard work. I absolutely cannot, for me, there’s just no substitute for it. There’s absolutely homework, hard work. I cannot even tell you, it’s just my thing because I know if I put in the effort and the right intention to make it possible, even if I fail, it does not matter. Even if the outcome of it is not success for others, it’s like again, going back to defining that success for me.
RITU: So, the outcome then stops impacting me because for me, having put in my 150% for it to be a success for me. And then finally, I will just say that at some point, you do get lucky of being at the right place at the right time and recognizing that when you are there, when to step on the gas and just go for it and when to say, “You know what, at this point, I just need to wait and watch and it’s OK.”
CLAIRE: I dig that so much. That’s, I think, a real sort of, I don’t know, ability to be in tune with just how things are going. The dice isn’t going to always roll in your favor and yeah, dice are involved. Luck is a part of the journey in becoming a capable leader. One thing that I’ve actually been thinking about recently is actually how much luck plays even in the teammates that you are surrounded by, which influences your ability to be a successful leader. If you inherit a team, for example, and get on lucky, there’s some people you really clash with, that is so much harder than getting pretty lucky. I feel like luck is actually really involved in hiring. When I think of the people that I’ve hired, I’m like, “Oh, yeah. We did a good job recruiting. But there’s a bit of luck there.”
RITU: On that one though. I would say there’s one thing that I rely on heavily across the board. It’s what I call as Org IQ. It’s not just EQ.
CLAIRE: Yeah, tell me more, please.
RITU: It’s not just emotional quotient but it’s like Org IQ. Org IQ being the ability to read a room, the ability to read your interview panel, the ability to read your manager, the ability to read your peers, the nonverbal cues. Just being like a little bit in tune with how do you know what’s the temperature of the room is right now? And working with it. And you have to really be aware of your interview panel. Walking into this interview panel, there’s this girl who had this off comment and you don’t want to read too much into it, but being in tune to those things have helped me a lot. Especially as you go higher, there are a lot of meetings you go into and lot of things that do not get fixed.
CLAIRE: But there’s a lot happening in those interactions. Exactly. I think it’s one of the most overlooked aspects of leadership. There’s actually a lot that focuses on, as you were saying, sort of the emotional ability to sort of gauge the people around you. But I think the interplay of dynamics, the organizational dynamics, the dynamics between people, that’s hard. We don’t pay enough time and attention to it.
RITU: And you’d be surprised, a lot of people who want to be from senior manager to director, that’s a big jump. From director to senior director to VP, especially. A lot of people do not understand how important it is to be in tune with what is urgent because no one will tell you beyond the point as to what’s important. No one will tell you what’s on fire. No one will tell you as an executive or as a senior leader, you need to focus on this. You need to know and you need to be ahead of it to kind of let you be that leader because no one tells you anymore that you need to do this or that.
CLAIRE: I totally agree. My truly last question here, because you’ve said something so interesting and I’m like, I have to ask you this. So, how do you do that? How do you get ahead? How do you take that temperature? How do you sort of fill in the gaps and give answers before the questions are even asked?
RITU: Here’s something that happened to me 10 days ago. So, if you have the time, I’ll tell you the story.
CLAIRE: Oh, we have got the time.
RITU: OK. People know there was a big [inaudible] outage that happened and it was a service disruption. Obviously, all the documentation and everything is there. Somehow I’m going to get into the details of it because it was a big deal. And I had taken that week off because I hadn’t had the time to discuss literally 200 things that I need to get done. Fortunately, [inaudible], called the electrician for this. It’s just like things you never get to. And I had taken the time to just focus on myself. I was calling it my sanity week. This happened on Friday. Saturday comes, Sunday comes, and for the life of me, I just couldn’t be home. I just couldn’t be home. I canceled my PTO and I showed up to work. And my boss was like, “Why did you come to work? You were on PTO. You should be off.” I said, “I think you need me right now.” And he did not ask me. No one asked me. And it turned out to be the best decision I made. And this is as real as it gets. A week later, last Friday, my boss and us, a lot of executives and engineering teams were working on the clock, done most of it. On Friday at 5:00 PM, he did not call me, we had not met. It’s like that little place. [Inaudible] he doing fire fighting. Me doing the firefighter here, my other peers doing firefighting. No communication, like zero communication between my boss and me. On Friday evening, I walk up to his desk and he looks at me and he says, “Hi.” I was like, “I think we should hug.” And he was like, “You know, that would be perfect.” And so, I gave him a hug. This is like unprecedented. I’ve never hugged a boss.
RITU: Oh my God, this has been like a brutal 10 days. And he had like some personal issues and professional issues, all like perfect storm going on in his life. And there have been some defining moments, but this was like a whole different level of defining moment with my boss. I just knew that he needed me. And most days what I did was literally I’d go in, I don’t have any direct impact on what was going on, all I did was I order lunch for the team that was working and just show up for lunch every day and just talk to them and just calm them down every single day. And that was what I was doing. And you would think, why did she not go on her PTO for this? This week, I cannot tell you, people are like, “Oh my God, that was the best thing you did for us because we were [inaudible] what was going on. We hadnít eaten forever, we all were working. And you were just there.” At some point, I was with my peers, you need these engineers, I have these five engineers who know this, this and this. He’s like, “How did you know that I need help on this, this, and this language?” And I was like, “I know the problem. I’m just offering help.” And he took me up on that.
CLAIRE: Wow. Incredible, Ritu. What a story. And it’s also amazing that this happened 10 days ago. So, very fresh. What I was hearing when you were sharing was just this power of attention that you’re applying, intense attention to people needs and emotions, like energy level, understanding and attention. And a second part which is going to sound really cliche but an enormous amount of empathy. So, understanding, for my boss, he’s going through A, B, and C. I can’t imagine what is it that I can do? For the engineers on the team, they’ve been working around the clock, what would that feel like and what can I do in my role? So, attention and empathy, just playing such a big part in your ability to get out ahead and solve those problems before someone even asks you to solve them.
RITU: Yeah. And more and more, I think managers and leaders need to understand that less and less is going to explicitly be asked of them. As a true leader, the anticipation and caring, just caring enough and anticipate is a big deal. It’s an absolute great company to work for. They don’t pay me [inaudible]. I can take time off whenever I want, but this is when they needed me. And every leader, every manager, senior manager, director knows instinctively when they’re needed.
CLAIRE: The moment of crisis.
RITU: It’s not even crisis. And there were managers on my team, I have 30 managers reporting into my organization and I was like, “Hey, I need a [inaudible] to help me.” There were five people who raised their hand. Only one of them did not ask what was the help needed. He was just like, “I will help.” Because at that time, no one knew what help was required. You’re an engineering manager, you should be able to jump on. It was not like totally rocket science that I was asking him to work on. And you know what, that guy, he does not know this, but he is priceless to me now.
CLAIRE: There you go. I’m just so, so — I don’t even know what the right word is — marinated, I guess, in all the wisdom that you have shared with me and for everyone who’s listening and watching. It’s been completely invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing everything from how and why someone should say no to being a leader who anticipates and pays attention and solves these problems before people even ask. So, thank you so much. It’s truly been inspirational to talk to you and we appreciate it.
RITU: Of course. Thank you so much, Claire. My pleasure.