Last month, a packed hall of students met Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP. With nearly 77,000 employees and 300,000 customers in 190 countries, SAP is the world’s business software market leader. Bill is also the author of “Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office”, where he shares his journey from teenage entrepreneur to global CEO.
Bill began his professional career at Xerox, where he worked for 17 years and rose through the ranks to become the company’s youngest corporate officer and division president. He joined SAP in 2002 to lead the North America business, and became the company’s co-CEO in 2010 and its sole CEO in 2014.
However, as a businessman, Bill started his journey at 17, just a little younger than our undergraduates, when he bought his first deli with $5,500 in loans. His promise to his creditors then – if he failed to make any of the repayments as scheduled, he would lose the deli. He paid them back, within two months, a total sum of $7,000, including interest. The deli paid his way through college, and was sold once that purpose was achieved.
If life was a deli, this is what Bill took away:
Start with a Dream
“What do you want? You need come to terms with that question. When you know exactly where you are and where you are going, you will not panic in the face of others, challenges or setbacks.”
Bill told the story of the time he went for his interview with Xerox. His home was flooded, so his brother had to physically carry him from his house into the car to keep his clothes and shoes dry. As his father drove him to the station, Bill promised his father he would return that evening with his Xerox employee badge. Of that vision, Bill said, “I had a dream, I envisioned it fully, I got on the train, and I came home on that train later that day with what I went to get.”
“Start everything with a dream, and build your life and emotions on that dream. Enjoy the journey along the way. And remember, no one can hurt you if you are faithful to your dream.”
Bill said his first deli succeeded because he appreciated each person who walked into it every day. For example, he figured that many of his blue-collar customers received their pay checks on Friday but were broke by Monday, so he started to extend them credit. He also realised many of his customers were senior citizens who often did not want to leave their homes, so he started a delivery service.
“We live in a world that requires connections. Have empathy for your customers and empathy for those around you – try to sense what matters to them, and do something about it.” He added, “But they are not only customers. The people you come across in your life will shape you. Learn from them. Learn, even from your enemies, they can make you better.”
Register your Ambition
He shared an incident when he was passed over for a promotion in Xerox. Instead of allowing someone else to dictate his career, he drove to the corporate office and talked to management. He did not go with the intent of reversing their decision, but to understand how he needed to improve his performance. He registered his ambition. A few months later, when a similar position opened up, he was asked to fill it.
The decision to leave Xerox was a difficult one. He wondered if it was the right thing to do. He said, “Sometimes, decisions are not measured in moments; sometimes it takes decades to play itself out. So give yourself a break. Have self-confidence, have the patience and faith to see things through.”
In fact, he also suggests: “Make minor failures often, make medium failures sometimes, and make large failures rarely. Do not regret the things you fail at; only regret the things you fail to do. Remember, the people who do not fail are the ones who are not making enough decisions.”
Bill wrapped up the session with a dangler: his next book about how you respond when you get knocked down. He learnt it the hard way. In July last year, he lost the use of his left eye in a serious accident. Undaunted, he continued to work throughout his recovery and hold the reins at SAP.
For the students who could look at the future many years down the road, he had one more nugget: “For me, at 21, it was about getting there; now, it’s about leaving a legacy. I am heartened by the comments from readers of my first book about how it has helped them. I hope my new book will do the same.”