Lessons in Resilience from Bill McDermott

SAP CEO on leadership, emotional intelligence and playing the hand you’re dealt

19/11/2015 Barcelona

Bill McDermott

Bill McDermott: “Whether you have a lucky hand or not, it’s how you play it that counts” / Photo: Edu Ferrer

“Why do we do what we do? We do what we do for the people, the memories, and the great things that we're able to accomplish when enough people care.”

This was the vision shared by SAP CEO Bill McDermott. McDermott joined associate dean, Eric Weber, on campus in Barcelona this week to share his personal leadership journey and some of the challenges he has faced down during his tenure at the German software multinational.

Making Good Better

When McDermott joined SAP in 2002, he was hardly jumping aboard a sinking ship. The company was already being touted in the early ‘noughties’ as world leader in business software.

McDermott nonetheless saw room for improvement, particularly in the area of customer relations, user experience, and human resources; all of which he believed would yield opportunities for growth.

“You can’t spend all your time on what the scoreboard says, or on where you’ve been,” he says. “You have to really analyze where the world is going.”

And analyze is exactly what he did.

McDermott realized that the world was changing – change driven by disruptive growth in mobile technology, and emerging consumer-driven economic models.

His primary objective was to align his management team around innovation by creating new architecture solutions, and prioritizing the cloud – a solution, he says, that empowers companies, clients and people to “think outside their four walls.”

“We're no longer in a ‘business to business to consumer’ economy, we're in a ‘consumer to business’ economy,” says McDermott. “Staying relevant is about identifying the trends and seeing the opportunities.”

That, and building the right teams.

Power to the People

“It’s the companies with the best talent that win,” says McDermott. “Don't underestimate the important role that your people play in your organization.”

Strong leadership is distinguished by the “people part” of what CEOs do, he says. A responsibility that should account for 80 percent of leaders’ time.

“You have to build great teams, coach people, give them direct and honest feedback, nurture them and challenge them. And you have to hold them accountable.” Responsibilities that call for a high degree of ‘emotional intelligence’ from senior management.

SAP as an organization has a high “IQ,” says McDermott. But its success also hinges on its “EQ”: “Knowing how to make the human connections is essential. Identifying and harnessing what it is that helps you connect with your customers, your colleagues, your peers and others.”

He attributes the company’s enduring success on a culture of “deep empathy for humanity. And the importance of authentic human connections.”

Lessons in Leadership

The first non-German citizen (McDermott is from the U.S.) to be appointed CEO at SAP ES, McDermott’s journey to leadership has taken him from the corner store in Long Island – a local shop he opened as a family business – to the likes of Xerox, Gartner and Sieber Systems.

He learnt the importance of human connections, trust and team work at Xerox.

“I was given the company’s worst-performing team to manage. We were based out of Puerto Rico, and right at the very bottom of the league in terms of performance.”

McDermott managed to reverse his team’s fortunes inside of 12 months. By the end of the financial year, Puerto Rico was occupying the number one spot. He credits the turnaround with connecting at a human level with his team.

“As a leader, you should realize you that don´t have all the answers, and that no-one´s perfect. You have to listen to people – they always know. Trust your people.”

Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

McDermott has faced a serious personal challenge recently, losing an eye in a freak accident that could have cost him his life.

Difficult as it was to overcome, the accident has challenged him to value his good fortune. “I lost sight, but in a sense I gained vision,” he says.

“You are the sum total of all the experiences you’ve gone though. And whether you have a lucky hand or an unlucky hand, it’s how you play it that really matters.”

McDermott left the MBAs and alumni with a thought: “Celebrate what you are, and don’t waste time being disappointed in the things you’re not.”

“Be sincere and authentic in how you connect with others. And understand that we’re better together than apart.”