Book Review – Winners Dream: A Journey from Corner Store to Corner Office, by Bill McDermott


Today is the 5th anniversary of this blog – just got that notification from WordPress, as I was finishing this book by Bill McDermott . It is a great read and there were plenty of little nuggets of wisdom in this book that I found very useful.

It is fascinating to read that Bill knew very early in his career that he wanted to be the CEO of a large company. Not many people I know – including many who are big company CEOs today – have had that realization of their destiny till much later in their career. Even before I read the chapter on how he met his wife and how great she has been as the CEO of his family, I knew he had a fantastic support system. For someone to have a career like him, that is a basic necessity . My own limited accomplishments in my career would not happened without the sacrifices and support of my wife. And consequently I could relate to his pain of dealing with his wife’s fight against cancer, and his elation when she successfully defeated the disease. I have never met Bill’s wife – but I look forward to meeting her one day, hopefully with my wife.

Bill is a sales machine and he is a master of corporate theatre – that is a good combination for a CEO. He is impeccably groomed at all times and the book clearly tells me that is his DNA. He feels comfortable in formal attire – and there are some former bosses at IBM I know who are like that. It clearly works for him – it is part of how he earns and shows respect. I can clearly see how this has influenced the people around him – for the most part, they are all impeccably groomed too.

His penchant for pageantry is something he is unapologetic about throughout the book. This is one area where I am not convinced that it is a sure shot strategy for success, especially at SAP where a lot of staff is of the non-sales type. SAP has an annual field kick off meeting and an annual developer kick off meeting. The former is all about luxury, the latter is all about frugality. To the best of my knowledge there is no equivalent of winners circle for the good people who build all the cool things SAP salesforce sells to get to winners circle. I would seriously urge Bill to look at that side of the house too. The solution might not be a winners circle for developers – but it is something for the CEO of a tech company to spend some attention on.

I absolutely love the emphasis he puts on developing people around him. He is all about team and helping remove roadblocks in their path . That is not some hollow talk – I know this to be true first hand. Towards the end of my tenure at SAP – I emailed Bill about something I needed to discuss with him. In the weird matrix that SAP is organized, I did not report into him. I was part of the engineering side of the house. In less than two minutes – I had a call back from Bill to get into a plane and go talk to him the next Monday. That meeting was amazing – I had his undivided attention and he offered two solutions and a follow up meeting to discuss how things were progressing. Couple of months later, I ran into him at Palo Alto – and he came and asked me for an update.

When I left SAP – he said two things. First he asked me if there is anything he can do to make me stay ( there was not , and I had already given my word to my new boss). Second he asked me to get settled at MongoDB and ping him back on how SAP can work with my new company. And when I pinged him back in a couple of months – he (and my great friend Steve Lucas) made the collaboration work, resulting in Lumira and Data Services now having interoperability with MongoDB.

Bill says in the book that when he took on as President of North America, he had a condition that Germany did not micromanage him from across the pond. I am glad that they did not. But this is an area where I think SAP is not letting Bill perform to his full potential. SAP organization is all about extreme checks and balances. There are three boards – managing board, executive board and supervisory board. Bill is part of the executive board, as are the heads of sales, products, support etc. I think Bill will be way more impactful in his job if he were a CEO in a more traditional capacity, like how IBM, GE etc operate. At this point – the one person who can decide across the board is Hasso as the chairman of supervisory board. And of course there is only one Hasso – there is not another person like him on the planet. But when he retires – I hope they give Bill a traditional CEO role.

Also – prior to Bill taking over SAP Americas, he says they went through 5 leaders in quick succession. It looks like that history kind of repeated after Bill moved to bigger roles at SAP too. Just shows what a hard job that is.

I enjoyed reading about the acquisitions of Sybase, Ariba, Hybris and SuccessFactors. While I think SAP significantly over paid for most companies it bought, and the integration with the mother ship was not smooth – I absolutely think they were strategic to SAP.

Sybase was acquired as a mobility company – but mobile business never really flourished at SAP ( I think SAP should have acquired a few more companies to have a meaningful shot at mobile business, and maybe they should have tried harder to keep Sanjay Poonen to run it ). But in the bargain – they got some very talented database people which helped the cause for Hana.

Similarly I do not think that SuccessFactors changed SAP DNA all that much – but SAP never would have become a known name in cloud without buying them. Ariba is an all around fantastic buy – and probably the most strategic amongst the four. Hybris, similarly is a pretty good addition to SAP’s portfolio. In all four cases- I appreciate how Bill trusted their CEOs upfront during the M&A process, even while knowing none of them will stick around.  It is a good reminder that business is always done between two people and not two companies.

Now a few things I wish the book spent some coverage on. May be there is a second biography later that will cover all of these.

1. I did expect some light to be shed on the influence of Vishal Sikka on SAP – but there were just some passing references.

2. Since Bill is all about developing a generation of leaders, I wish he spent some time talking about succession planning. There are amazing leaders under him like Rob Enslin, Steve Lucas , Bernd Leukert etc who all have what it takes to be CEO – if not at SAP, then elsewhere.

3. One issue – perhaps controversial and hence why it is not covered – is diversity in senior executive leadership levels. I would love to hear Bill’s views on diversity and what he is doing at SAP to encourage diversity, especially at senior levels.

4. SAP has an unusually large portfolio – and honestly I don’t think there is anyone in the company who knows all the products that can be sold. I would have loved to hear his thoughts on portfolio optimization, especially since he has stated that inorganic growth is a must have. With twenty thousand plus developers – it is very easy to waste precious engineering fire power by spreading everyone thin across a wide portfolio.

5. Finally, what is it that Bill himself wants to do next ? I am sure he has a long innings left at SAP. But what after that?

All said, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read and the next time I get an opportunity to meet Bill, I am getting my copy autographed.


Published by Vijay Vijayasankar

Son/Husband/Dad/Dog Lover/Engineer. Follow me on twitter @vijayasankarv. These blogs are all my personal views - and not in way related to my employer or past employers

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