How Salesforce's chief medical officer landed her job — one of the fastest growing roles since the start of the pandemic

 

  • The Chief Medical Officer, or CMO, is an increasingly important part of the C-suite. 
  • Insider spoke with Salesforce CMO Dr. Ashwini Zenooz on her experience in the role.
  • The importance of the CMO will be important across industries, and it’s not going away anytime soon.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

The chief medical officer, or CMO, is one of the most quickly evolving C-suite jobs — and not just within the healthcare industry.

Cruise line Royal Caribbean Cruises and food manufacturer Tyson Foods Inc. are just a few of the companies that have added chief medical officers, or CMOs, to their executive teams since the pandemic hit. 

While the role of the CMO varies depending on the needs of the specific company, it typically involves a combination of clinical and strategic duties. CMOs typically create guidelines for workplace safety and healthy office practices. On average, these executives are paid more than $200,000 a year, according to Indeed.

Dr. Ashwini Zenooz, who has been serving as Salesforce’s CMO since 2019, told Insider anyone who’s interested in the strategic side of healthcare should consider this career path.

“The pandemic is really driving home the message that every company now is in the business of health,” Zenooz told Insider. “Every company is focused on not only thinking about how to either stay at work during this pandemic, or, if they have essential employees, having people return.” 

Those are big questions that come with a lot of logistical preparation, and as companies begin to grapple with vaccination policies, the role of CMO has never been more important. 

Connecting the dots between strategy and health 

If you want to become a chief medical officer, you will need a medical degree, as well as experience working in a hospital or as a practicing physician, according to Indeed. Some CMOs also have backgrounds working in hospital administration.

Zenooz, for example, went to medical school and has a background in radiology. Some chief medical officers also have MBAs, or master’s in health administration. 

Zenooz was drawn to the role because of the intersection it offers between clinical work and strategy. She had been working in radiology for over 15 years when her mother fell ill with ovarian cancer. After becoming her mother’s caretaker, she began to think more broadly about jobs she could have in healthcare. 

That’s when she started working as a congressional fellow at the US Senate conducting clinical research. From there, she moved on to hold senior policy development and operational roles at the US Department of Veterans Affairs, eventually becoming its first chief medical officer. 

“It just made me realize that there are so many pieces in healthcare that are so fragmented that we still need to connect the dots,” Zenooz said. “We always talk about it from a clinical component, but there’s a lot to be done from the process and patient experience perspective.” 

She was impressed by how everything from technology to effective communications and management could scale and improve healthcare. That’s what brought her to Salesforce. 

Defining the role of the CMO

Once you have the job, the role of the CMO isn’t always clear cut.

“If you’ve seen one chief medical officer, you’ve seen one chief medical officer,” Zenooz said. “What’s needed for every company and every industry is very different.” 

At Tyson Foods, for example, the CMO role was created to construct a game plan for employee monitoring for the virus at the company’s plants. Royal Caribbean’s new CMO, Calvin Johnson, oversees worker health at the cruise line, but he also works to help establish new sailing protocols for the industry during the pandemic. 

Zenooz said her role was less clearly defined when she was first brought onboard as Salesforce’s CMO and she had many explicit conversations about what her job involves. When she first started as CMO she was focused on products that Salesforce sold to clients. Now, her role is also inward-facing, and Zenooz helps to develop the strategy for everything from mental health concerns to remote working arrangements. 

“When I got here, it was hard to communicate the exact reason why you needed a chief medical officer at Salesforce, but what’s been really incredible is to say, look, if you take all of the critical skill sets and the administrative skill sets of someone with my background and the people on my team, it is now so much easier to have these customer conversations.” 

A growing need for these executives

The coronavirus pandemic has made the importance of the CMO even more apparent. 

“Traditionally, people have not thought about a chief medical officer as a role that might be important,” Zenooz told Insider. “What the pandemic has shown is these types of roles can add a lot of value to a leadership team, especially during times like this. We’re becoming an important voice in the business world where we’re providing guidance for better streamlined systems.” 

But even with the development and rollout of new vaccines, that doesn’t mean the CMO will fall out of relevance anytime soon. 

Going forward, Zenooz said companies have a lot to think about when it comes to contact tracing and testing. She will also be addressing the long-term impacts of the pandemic.

“I think if we continue to roll things out safely and effectively, there is light at the end of the tunnel,” Zenooz said. “But the light is going to look really different than what it looked like before we entered the tunnel.” 

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