Bill McDermott is a fantastic storyteller with tremendous energy. The CEO of SAP enthralled an audience of students, alumni, faculty, and staff at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business with tales of his life experiences. From his first entrepreneurial venture, to his most memorable sale, to his an overhaul of the worst branch at Xerox, to what he learned from a terrible accident, McDermott had his audience on the edge if their seats.
“The one thing I talk a lot about is always having dreams, goals and wanting to be the absolute best at what you do for a living,” he said. “Pushing to be the best at what you do is so invigorating. … You gotta win, but you gotta win the right way. Winning the wrong way is losing in the end and your character will reveal itself. Keep that in mind as you climb the ladder.”
More than 250 people crowded into Frank Auditorium in Van Munching Hall to hear the SAP CEO speak on Feb. 11, 2016, as the first speaker in the CEO @ Smith spring lineup. SAP is the largest enterprise cloud company in the world with business networks that transact nearly $1 trillion in commerce annually. Under McDermott’s leadership, SAP unveiled a strategy in 2014 to help businesses of all sizes run simple in the digital economy.
McDermott bought a delicatessen on Long Island to put himself through college, give back to his family and have some financial independence.
“The most important thing I learned early on is that the little ones have to do what the big ones can’t do or choose not to do,” he said. He talked about how he had to go after markets that larger stores ignored, including senior citizens and teenagers.
From the deli he moved to a lower-level position at Xerox. He elaborated on the day he got hired, saying it was intimidating at first going up against Ivy League graduates.
“I knew it was my day because I wanted it so much more than they wanted it. I wasn’t going for a job, I was fighting for my life. If I get this job, my life goes one way. If I don’t, who knows where my life takes me,” he said.
He was in the final stages of his interview when the manager told him HR would call in a few days to discuss an offer. McDermott went out on a limb and said, “Sir, I haven’t broken a promise to my father in 21 years and I guaranteed him that I was coming home with my employee badge in my pocket.”
This bold move earned him the following response: “Bill McDermott, as long as you haven’t committed any crimes, you are hired.”
That one moment was magic, McDermott said. “The celebration and accomplishment and joy at having an opportunity like that stays with me at every moment in my life.”
McDermott’s life has been full of unique and challenging experiences. He moved to Puerto Rico shortly after his first son was born to turn around the failing branch of Xerox. With substantial changes in how he motivated his employees, McDermott and the Puerto Rico office did a complete 180, going from worst to best.
“It wasn’t about being No. 1,” he said of the accomplishment. “It was what it meant to the women and men of consequence who became winners and never forgot it.”
As CEO of SAP, McDermott knew he had to have an enduring mission.
“Companies don’t want to buy software, they want to buy an outcome. They want their business to run better,” he explained. “We were just talking about the technology. We had to change that. So we created a customer focus for SAP and completely changed the culture.”
McDermott ended his talk with a sobering account of an accident that almost took his life last summer.
“I learned so much on so many levels. Healthcare is a really interested topic in our society. The first responders, the salt of the earth human beings, are just unbelievable. I learned so much about the electronic medical system. I learned that doctors and surgeons communicate by voice and text, but that never makes it into the system,” he said of his new passion for affecting change in the healthcare system. “We need to support the men and women who do great work, but put technology at the heart of it.”
He spoke of resilience in the face of tribulation. “When you get knocked down, what are you going to do when it is time for you to get back up again? Get up, get out and get on with it. You can make it through the worst things and they can become the best things.”
CEO @ Smith is a dynamic speaker series designed to connect our community of students, alumni, faculty, and staff with leading business practitioners and innovators. The next event in the series will be on April 26, 2016, and will feature Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriott. Details will be available soon at www.rhsmith.umd.edu/ceos.
- Jessica Smith, Office of Marketing Communications