Polly Sumner has had a fun couple of weeks. Or so she says. But to me it sounds exhausting. “Last week I was in Germany meeting retailers. This week I’m in New York meeting leaders of the financial sector. Yesterday another company came to me and said, 'I’m a retailer of steel and metal – how do we use technology to shape the next 10 years of our business?' And on Friday evening I fly to Australia.”

For someone who doesn’t mind being described as a product of the 1950s, that is a pretty intense schedule. And I make a mental note to never complain about jet lag ever again.

Polly has been the chief adoption officer at Salesforce for the last 10 years, the latest chapter in a career in technology that spans more than 30 years. The chief adoption officer role, she says, “is really about customer success and ensuring that each customer gets maximum value from Salesforce products and services.”

It’s a crucial role. A 2015 study by Genpact Research Institute reported that 70 percent of technology projects fail, and with global spend on new technology trending upwards, it’s never been more critical to see value from these initiatives. Polly’s role, in which she meets customers daily, makes her more knowledgeable about the realities of the technology landscape than most.

After three weeks of trying to find a time in her busy schedule to talk, we managed to connect during her train ride from New York to Philadelphia.

It’s a cliché, but it really is all about the people.

We all know that the real answers to our problems lie within our customers, but it’s rare that we actually spend time with them in their world. As someone who is with customers every day, it might be surprising that the big question to Polly isn’t about technology at all, but people – how do you find the right talent?

“Private and public companies of all sizes are asking the same questions,” she says. “What’s the most important role I can create in my company? How can I hire the right people? They are looking for people that can think outside the box and have a different set of skills.”

Isn’t it hard for those sorts of people to thrive, I ask? Isn’t it almost a romantic notion that true creativity can exist in a traditional corporate environment? Don’t large companies crush that sort of spirit?

Polly is unmoved. “Before you get to that, you have to be an individual who says I’m going to spend the first three months of a new role listening and learning. And if you are invested in that process before you start to express your ideas, then you’ll have more chance of being successful. You have to be humble.”

“You also have to be willing to surround yourself with people who think differently than you. And that’s uncomfortable to a lot of people because you’re going to get disagreements. You have to challenge yourself to have empathy and understanding about what other teammates are saying. There is immense value in that.”

As we talk, a topic that keeps raising its head is the idea of listening, something that appears in every business and personal development book ever written. “Before you can listen you have to find out where the truth is hiding, and that’s often harder than you think it will be. That’s where we sort of get stuck,” Polly says.

“My last 40 years have been about trying to get through the people that muddle the message in the middle – people who are reporting what their boss wants to hear, or what my boss’s boss wants to hear. It’s too inwardly focused; no one is talking about the customer.”

Business are so focused on this today because the world is shifting and CX is becoming increasingly important. As we discuss CX, Polly becomes more and more animated. “We are in a post-industrial world. It’s no longer just about your product, it’s about what experience do my customers want. It’s the customer revolution. And the big question is: can the industrials keep up?”

Let family be the focus

Polly is a very active public speaker and she often talks about her mentors, her 11- and 13-year-old grandchildren who she says “haven’t been conditioned to approach problems in a particular way.” They are a “constant reminder to not get caught in a process,” and always “challenge my perceived barriers to success.”

Polly moved 9 times before she was 11 years old. Her first experience in sales was “finding my brothers’ friends in the new towns we were living in.” They would send her out to “knock on the doors of our new neighbors” to see if they had children with similar interests. “I’d had to go back and give them a report and they’d tell me which ones they were going to go and meet. So at the age of six I didn’t have any fear of being a salesperson.” But the secret to becoming a successful salesperson is not a lack of fear. “When I began my professional career, it became about how passionate am I about a product. And if you can’t be passionate - you won’t be able to sell it.”

Although Polly has built a career in technology spanning over more than three decades, she didn’t do it by allowing business to consume her life.

“Tomorrow I’m playing hooky and taking my 83-year-old mother to see her 90-year old sister,” she says. It’s refreshing to hear that even C-level execs sometimes skip school for a couple of hours.

When asked what her favorite book recommendation is, she suggests the Diary of Anne Frank, not to “go all dark” but as a reminder of “human spirit” and “what mistakes we have made in the past.” It’s certainly not the bland business book list that many C-levels would reel off.

Polly gets excited about innovation. Our conversation meanders into discussions of how the Coast Guard in San Francisco is using technology, her grandchildren’s schooling, self-driving cars, self-flying planes, and robots.

It’s difficult to interrupt a C-level Salesforce executive, especially as an over-polite English person, but I had to, otherwise Polly would have stayed on the phone in the Philadelphia train station all night (with no loss of energy or enthusiasm, no doubt).

And with that, Polly needs to go to get to her hotel before an 11 p.m. call with a someone in the UK, and it seems the schedule never lets up. “There’s always a line outside my door with people saying, ‘let’s do this, let’s do that’ – it’s super interesting.”

We say goodbye twice, before launching back into a conversation about innovation within the financial services sector. As we end the call, Polly sounds more energized than when we started. And me? I need to lie down.