“Winners Dream”: An Exclusive Q&A with One Smooth Stone

This week has been memorable for me. October 14, SAP CEO Bill McDermott published Winners Dream. The same day, I interviewed Bill at a press event at IMEX America. The live interview inspired leaders from the meeting and event industry to applaud, as Bill advocated for the power of events and corporate meetings to rally people around common goals and inspire employees to do the impossible.

Even as Bill was immersed in discussing Winners Dream at IMEX and to publications like Forbes, he also took time to talk with me personally about Winners Dream exclusively for the One Smooth Stone blog. As the following Q&A demonstrates, Bill is passionate about instilling in others his thirst for dreaming big, which is exactly what he’s doing as he embraces a mission to make SAP “run simple.” And there is no doubt that he believes in the power of events to deliver on a mission — a belief that comes through in his collaboration with One Smooth Stone during his days at Xerox.

I am proud that One Smooth Stone has played a role in Bill’s journey as he inspires people to double down on their dreams. As he says in the following Q&A, “The journey toward an audacious goal is inevitably more exciting, more inspiring, and more successful than playing it safe or aiming for mediocrity.” Read on and learn more about Bill’s journey.

1. You obviously have a lot on your plate. You just announced the largest acquisition in SAP’s history. Why did you take the time to write a book? What motivated you?

I truly believe that we can learn so much from our own stories, and I didn’t want to wait 10 or 20 years to share with others what I had learned from mine. The most important idea, the main message I tried to communicate, is “dream big.” No matter who you are or where you are from, no one should limit their dreams. That idea is too important to keep to myself.

2. For those who are unfamiliar with Winners Dream: how would you describe the key take-way of Winners Dream in one sentence?

When we dream of greatness for ourselves and others, we begin a meaningful journey that transforms our working lives into our life’s work.

3. Early on in Winners Dream, you discuss how even though your own dad was committed to working hard servicing electric feeders for Con Edison, you learned that “the hard work did not always pay off.” You were exposed to a number of financial challenges your parents faced despite your dad’s obvious work ethic. How did those experiences shape your thinking throughout your journey to becoming SAP’s CEO?

I learned at an early age not to take anything for granted, and that even something rightfully earned can be taken away. That’s why I never feel entitled, or assume past successes will ensure future success. All we can do is keep dreaming, learn from the past, pay attention in the present, and work hard to apply our experience and talents so our dreams continue to come true. The reality is that there is no finish line. No one moment we cross the tape and declare we’ve won. The real win, I learned from my parents and from my own life experiences, is the journey itself and who we touch and inspire along the way.

4. One of the most vivid stories in Winners Dream is how you took over a deli and financed your education. What were the biggest lessons you learned running a deli?

Many of my leadership philosophies have their roots in the deli I owned as a teenager. What was fascinating about writing Winners Dream was documenting how the deli’s tactics and strategies scaled from running a corner store to leading a global company. The deli, for example, taught me about the need to innovate without deviating from the core business, and about the value of trust to establish and maintain relationships.

By far the most overarching lesson was the importance of empathy. Effective leading is about giving customers, employees, even business partners what they need in the pursuit of a larger, shared vision. We as leaders cannot assume we know what motivates our people or what will incentivize customers and partners to do business with us. We have to observe. We have to ask. We have to listen. When we read people, read a room and read markets, we can make more informed decisions and craft more compelling visions. At the deli I put myself in my customers’ shoes every day. At SAP, my customers’ shoes look a lot different, but I still put ‘em on— every day.

5. Another compelling story from the book is how you helped transform Xerox’s worst performing sales region (Puerto Rico) into its top-performing territory. You cite many reasons for the turnaround. What was the biggest reason for the dramatic improvement?

I go back to empathy. When I arrived in Puerto Rico, the sales district was in last place. I was determined to take them from worst to first. To do so, it would have been presumptuous for me to assume I knew what was broken, so when I arrived I asked people a simple question: “What do you need?” The answer I got was not higher pay or better benefits. The district wanted its celebratory Christmas party back! Their year-end party had become a deflated affair to save money in one month; but the message it sent sucked the energy out of the district year-round. So, before we even began to improve our performance, I promised to throw the best Christmas party the district has ever attended. I even hired one of Puerto Rico’s most popular bands. The shift in attitude was amazing, like throwing kerosene on a dwindling campfire. People sensed my faith in them, and the reignited motivation fueled the new strategies and tactics we put in place.

6. Your dream at Xerox was to become CEO. But you left the company before you could achieve that goal. Why is it important to dream big even if you do not achieve what you set out to do?

The journey toward an audacious goal is inevitably more exciting, more inspiring, and more successful than playing it safe or aiming for mediocrity. Quite simply, we cannot hit the bull’s eyes we do not envision. That’s why I tell people to double down on their dreams, and why I strive for audacious outcomes for myself as well as the teams and companies I lead. In the end, it is the journey that we remember—the people, the challenges, the joys—more than the actual outcome. That said, there is no doubt that the bolder the dream, the better the outcome is destined to be.

7. Several times in Winners Dream, you discuss the importance of corporate events ranging from the XBS “Go4Growth in America” meeting to SAP’s annual SAPPHIRE NOW event. (And we were humbled to see you mention One Smooth Stone in you recounting of the XBS event.) Why are events important to you? How have they helped you achieve your own dreams?

I have always believed in the power of pageantry to inspire. Especially in our digital age, no number of re-Tweets can match the contagious passion people feel when they are together, in-person and in one place. These in-the-flesh experiences—when done well—heighten human connection. When people come together for a shared purpose and experience, especially to envision a future or celebrate the past, the emotion unleashed is unlike anything we can experience alone in front of a screen. Well-orchestrated events are like the best theatre: they transform ideas into emotion that inspires us to take action. No companywide memo or video can achieve that same effect.

For me, orchestrating events and attending them is a strategic imperative, but it is fuels me, too. My dreams come true when I am amongst hundreds of hard working, talented individuals who are in-synch, smiling, celebrating a past achievement, envisioning the next one, or both.

8. In the book, you stress the importance of setting bold goals, such turning an underperforming Xerox sales region into the Number 1 region, or making SAP America a $3 billion business in a short amount of time. How do you inspire people with big goals without overwhelming them?

That’s an astute question. My answer: Every bold goal must be accompanied by a rigorous plan of execution. Without a plan, people have no grounding. And no rudder. But a well thought out plan does a few things: It breaks a journey into incremental and measurable milestones; it provides tactics and behaviors that can be learned and replicated; and it stresses the value of fundamental behaviors, such as preparation, diligence, follow-through and hard work. A leader’s job is to give people a vision, absolutely. But the belief in a grand vision must be accompanied by the management of reality.

9. Throughout Winners Dream, you demonstrate an ability to sense and respond to changing market conditions, such as getting SAP to adopt cloud computing. How do you stay ahead of the curve, personally? Where do fresh ideas come from?

I am consistently curious about what people want and how to give it to them. I’m always on the lookout for what tools can help them achieve their goals. But I don’t sit behind my desk and wait for answers. I get out into the hallways and into the field, meeting with our people and with our customers around the world. I also spend time with individuals who are not doing business with us—especially young people—and I talk with them. I ask everyone questions and I encourage them to ask me questions.

I’m also fascinated by the amazing new technologies that have the potential to impact our lives. Every day I ask myself how technology and people’s needs link together. Sometimes the answers come to me in a quiet moment, as I am traveling from one meeting to another. Other times the ideas surface during the meetings themselves, in rooms full of other curious people.

The bottom line? Fresh ideas emerge from the intersection of curiosity, conversation, and contemplation.

10. You have been SAP’s sole CEO since May. What is your dream now?

Your previous question relates to this one. I became sole CEO in May 2014. My vision for SAP and for myself today is to “Run simple.” Listening to the marketplace, as well as my own experiences, told me that execution in business has become too complicated. Too many processes and unnecessarily complex technologies get in the way of realizing great ideas. So today, I am on a professional mission to simplify business.

Personally? My dream is to inspire others to embrace their dreams—which goes back to your first question: It’s why I wrote the book now.

This post was originally published on the One Smooth Stone blog on October 16, 2014. For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing bduffy@onesmoothstone.com

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