Co-CEO of SAP Gives Advice to Students

February 13, 2013

Bill McDermott talks about social responsibility and trust

Bill McDermott is a man who found an interest in business at a time when most of his peers were more focused on getting a driver's license. McDermott ran a deli in his late teens. After putting himself through school, he spent 17 years at Xerox, becoming the company's youngest corporate officer and division president. In 2002, McDermott joined SAP, one of the largest software companies in the world. In 2010, McDermott was named SAP's Co-Chief Executive Officer. He recently returned from the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. McDermott came to Fuqua as part of the Distinguished Speakers Series and Global Week. We asked McDermott about his journey and what advice he has for others in a Fuqua Q and A.

1. Why is it important to talk to students about what you have learned in your career?

"The students are the future of our company and every other company. These are the future leaders of the world. As much as we share what we know, we learn even more by the great questions and the insights from the students. We are also trying to keep the company young and change the demographic to build a company that is sustainable, not just for quarters or years, but for decades."

2. You are recognized as a leader in corporate social responsibility. Why did that become such a focus in your career and what do you hope to convey to students about that issue?

"Why do we do what we do? You don't just go to work or lead teams or run companies for the sake of delivering an absolute result. The purpose by which you lead, drive change, create innovation, and paint the picture for a brighter future is all about giving something back to people and making a lasting impact in the world.  You can't do that if you are just focused on commerce itself. You also have to be focused on the community and giving back. I've always believed that the true measure of a person is not what they take from this world, but what they give to this world."

3. Some business leaders have lost trust in recent years. How do you build a company the public considers trustworthy?

"Culture makes or breaks companies. The shadow of a leader is long and you have to make sure that you build culture based on values. For example, having a zero tolerance policy for anything that breaks the promise or breaks the trust I think is an essential element in any company. The other thing in companies that is really important to trust is information. Because when people don't have transparency and they don't have the insight as to what is really going on, they are left in the dark. When they are in the dark, and the only headlines that you can get these days seemingly are the bad ones, you are setting yourself up for failure. That's why we believe that HANA and the breakthrough innovation we've had on bringing data to everyone and democratizing information across the enterprise, particularly provisioning it on the mobile, is such a key aspect of leading and running a well-run company these days."

4. What advice would you give to students?

"Get involved with technology. No matter what you choose to do in your field of endeavor, technology will be in one form or another the basis for the business model. If you are in the health care industry you are going to need technology to more and more take care of patients and cure things that were previously incurable. If you are in the business world, business model innovation and way things need to be agile, global, and fast are really going to evolve into the breakthroughs of business leaders in the future. All of this has technology at the epicenter of change and transformation and you want to be a transformational leader."

5. What do you know now that you wish you had learned earlier in your career?

"After 17 years with one company that I truly loved, I looked at leaving that company (like going through what I'm told a tough divorce must be like because I loved it so much.) What I've learned is that it is right to change when you think it's time to change, even though change is hard. What you learn from change and ultimately conquering change is that the journey really is the reward (not any particular job, or income horizon, but actually going through the ebbs and flows, the rhythm of change and becoming a global citizen.) You can only do that, by putting yourself out there and taking some risks and sometimes it will hurt. My new expression on that is 'it hurts so good' because something about that made you better."

6. You mentioned being a global citizen. Why do you think that's important?

"I don't think people who haven't traveled or haven't experienced a global economy fully comprehend how beautiful the people of the world are and how beautiful the world itself is. I think by traveling the world and experiencing these things, you realize that people are basically good everywhere. The world is a dynamic and ever changing place and it's intellectually interesting no matter where you are. Also, there is a great place here called the United States of America that people all over the world and citizens of this country will appreciate even more by a diversity of experiences."

7. What is your advice on leadership? 

"Leadership is probably a skill that the world needs more of.  When you go to a Duke Basketball game and you see Coach K run that floor, you know that's a leader. He is in charge and the team follows. They follow because it's the right plan and it's the right vision. I think that every good leader owes their team or their company a winning vision and a strategy. A bad strategy just causes people to dig themselves into a deeper ditch. You can't outwork a bad strategy, but when you have a winning plan and a winning strategy, you can change the world."

8. What did you take away from the World Economic Forum in Davos?

"I think Davos this year was very encouraging compared to last year. If you think about last year, there was a tremendous European debt crisis that people were quite upset about. There was an election year in the United States and tremendous economic uncertainties, up to and including speculation about fiscal cliffs and budget deals and so forth. This year, it seems like the world has accepted that we are in execution mode and getting out of those issues. There was much more optimism around the economies of the world and the fact that things aren't so dire. I would say it was a much more optimistic place this year than it was last year.  When you think about optimism, it's a free stimulus. So for the leaders out there in Duke University, when you have your choice between being optimistic or pessimistic, choose optimism every time."

Watch McDermott's talk to Fuqua students

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