My wife and I got engaged this day 13 years ago . She had to leave early for work and I called her as soon as I woke up to wish her happy anniversary. As soon as I hung up, my phone rang again. It was my friend and ex-colleague Jen from IBM. She was in tears and she gave me the shock of my life – that John Leffler is no more !
A huge flood of memories have been going through my mind since that call. And the sense of disbelief has not fully left me yet. I had spoken and exchanged texts with John late last week. Dhanya and I had saved the bottle of champagne John had sent us for Christmas for a special occasion. We had met in Phoenix a few months ago for a nice dinner (that is where this photo was taken – sadly, the last time I met John in person) and he told me that he had started using twitter after I started pestering him about it a few years ago.
We were planning to meet for dinner again in New York in a couple of weeks. We even had some plans to collaborate on the work front after John’s retirement from IBM.
As much as we will all mourn his untimely demise, I think it is more important to celebrate his life. He was a one of a kind guy – as a human being, as a family man, as a top consulting executive, as an SAP industry veteran, as a mentor and friend to many of us , and as a leader. Here is a blog I wrote about him few years ago http://andvijaysays.com/2012/06/08/sapphirenow-2012-interview-with-john-j-leffler-of-ibm/
I had known John for close to ten years now I think – but it is for the last five or so years that we got to know each other closely. Before that, I had the opportunity to present some of the cool innovations my team was working on from time to time and he was always supportive. But I did not know him very well then other than as the top leader of IBM’s SAP business – and he certainly did not know anything much about me either.
Our friendship really started with a call I got on a late afternoon in December of 2010. I was home after a long week at a project – and John had just finished an exec meeting in east coast with SAP CEO and IBM CEO. My name had come up in that discussion briefly – and that was the reason he called me. John asked me to fly to SFO the next day to meet him for breakfast.
I will never forget that breakfast. John showed up on time – but with his phone pressed to his ear, and talking animatedly to someone. He motioned to me that he needs 10 minutes more. When he finished his call – he spent about the next 20 minutes apologizing to me for not starting the meeting on time ! For context – at that time John ran a multibillion dollar global SAP business at IBM, and I was just a newly minted Associate Partner. It was a big deal for a junior dude like me to even get a few minutes with John – many senior partners in the firm would never get that opportunity with John’s busy schedule.
Our meeting was supposed to be for an hour – but Joanne, John’s most trusted EA, had extended it to 90 minutes. John asked me about my background – not just my career, but my school and college life, my hobbies, how I met my wife and many other things. That took all of the scheduled 90 minutes. John had not looked at his phone or watch this entire time, and had given me his full attention and I was worried that I lost a golden opportunity by just doing small talk with the big boss.
So I politely asked him for a follow up meeting – only to be told that the 10 minutes he was on phone when he came into the executive lounge, he was just asking Joanne to cancel every other meeting he had for the day to spend time with me. So we spoke for another 5 hours or so till we had to leave for SFO for our flights home. We ate lunch together at SFO terminal and he gave me his trademark big hug as he boarded his flight, and said “You are not someone who works for me now, you are my friend”.
And he truly became my friend – and an excellent mentor and coach. He was my sponsor for my partnership appointment process, and he was the executive sponsor for the largest deal I ever closed at IBM. Any time I would need help with a customer or someone at SAP, John would gladly jump into a plane and come help all he can. He did not teach me how to sell or how to be an executive (though I did pick up plenty of tips and tricks by watching him at work) – instead, he taught me – by his own example – on how to deal with everyone as a good human being, and I will be grateful to him for ever for that.
He was the ultimate people person. Every time I have eaten at a restaurant with John, be it an airport eatery or a fancy steakhouse – he would ask the waiters for their names and will introduce them to everyone at the table. Every time he met a customer – he would convince them that their friendship and long term success was more important to him personally than the short term business opportunity at hand (I remember Tom Rosinski telling me over beers that getting John to the customer meeting was pretty much the one sureshot way of winning any deal.). To the best of my knowledge – the man never did anything with a short term gain in mind. Treating people as people – not as vendors, customers or employees – that is what set him apart in my mind.
When I decided to leave IBM – there were two guys that I absolutely hated calling with the news because I truly felt that I was letting them down after they supported me all the way. One was Ken Englund, who I regard in the same high esteem as John. And the other was of course John. If I remember right, I caught John when he was coming out of a Church on a Sunday. I told him the news, mostly with profuse apologies. He took a minute to digest it . I totally expected him to yell and scream . Instead, he told me that he thought I made an excellent choice and that he is happy to be my reference if Bill McDermott or Vishal Sikka wanted to give him a call. For the record, Ken did exactly the same when he heard the news from me too. And about 2 weeks after I joined SAP, John flew to Palo Alto to take me out for a nice dinner to celebrate.
When I decided to leave SAP, John was one of the few people I called on for advice. He offered me a job in IBM in 10 seconds – but once he understood that MongoDB is where I am headed, he took the next two hours understanding what the company did and what my role will be. For a second time, he offered to be my reference. And yet again – he took me to a nice dinner in NY city to celebrate my new adventure.
He would pick my brains every couple of months on industry trends and SAP market. Some times he would call to just chat about random things . Irrespective of whether I agreed with him or not ( we disagreed often – and he would then tell me that I and Matteo were usually the ones he thought will give him contrarian views the most) , he always made it clear that he genuinely valued my input. He would always ask about my family as well in every single call – even though he had never met them in person. I have met John’s wife a few times at IBM and SAP events – an amazing , very pleasant and friendly lady, who clearly supported John fully during his demanding career. I have not met his children yet (he would talk about them a lot and tease me about what is in store for me and Dhanya as our daughter grows up) – and I hope to meet them very soon. I can’t begin to imagine what they are going through. I know they are incredibly proud of John – and they should absolutely be proud – he was already a legend when he lived. You will be in our prayers .
Talking about family – several colleagues at IBM and SAP, across the ranks, were family to John. This is true in reverse too. I spoke with , emailed and texted many of them today after I heard the news. We are all devastated . John had touched so many of us in his own special way. While we all grieve – we are all honored and blessed to have known John. And he will continue to live through all of us .
Rest in peace, John ! And thank you for everything you did !