Rest In Peace, John Leffler !


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.

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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 https://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 !

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40 thoughts on “Rest In Peace, John Leffler !

  1. Vijay, you seem to have hit a solid note here with this post. I found it recently as a memory of John came to mind. I did not know him well, but from my interaction with him I found him to be a very good, kind man. In the last few years I have developed a hobby as a genealogist, and when I have someone like John come to mind who has passed away that I respect, I like to make my own little memorial, but researching and recording that person’s family history. I think it is important to recognize that none of us becomes what we are by ourselves, and our families, those who have gone before us, play a very important role in that work. I’ve recorded what I could find of John’s ancestry in a few hours here if anyone is interested. The site requires registration to see the work, but the registration is free. I hope it is helpful to the family in remembering those who helped John become what he was:

    https://familysearch.org/tree/pedigree/L5T5-3Z9/fanchart

  2. Pingback: Saying Bye To 2015, The Year Of Yin And Yang | Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small

  3. I had the pleasure of working for John from 1997-1999, as his Administrative Assistant. Everything you said about John is spot on! John was an amazing man, with an amazing heart. He always treated everyone with so much respect, and if you were engaged in conversation with John, he was giving you 100% of his attention, no matter who you were. John encouraged me in so many ways to succeed in life. Because of John, I returned to school, got my Bachelors Degree in Human Resource Management and today, I am a Program Manager for the Marine Corps. Because this man believed in me, and because he showed me so much respect, I had the confidence to do more with my life. I was so saddened to hear of his passing, and so humbled and honored to have known John and to have worked for him. I’ll never forget how his eyes lit up every time he talked about his lovely wife, and his children. He truly lived for them, even with all of the demands of the corporate world. John made me want to be kinder, gentler, and steadfast in all that I do in life. He will be missed by so many. Thank you for posting such a wonderful blog about such a wonderful leader and man!

  4. Vijay, very nice. I think I met John once a long time ago and did not really know him, so this is more to compliment your generous tribute

  5. I knew John as “Mr Leffler” and “coach” during his years coaching our basketball team. I grew up extremely close to his girls and still are very close with them. I really enjoyed your wonderful story and kind words above. It is nice to read about his career achievements and how important he is to those he worked with as well. Thanks for sharing ❤

  6. Thanks for reminding us how great a man and professional John was. I worked with him both at PwC and IBM, and learned so much from him. My thoughts go to his family.

  7. Like most of the readers of this blog, we are shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of our dear friend John Leffler. Our relationship with John and his wife Emi was of a purely social nature. We knew very little of his career at IBM or what he did, but we knew he loved his work. We came to know the Lefflers, through the friendship our son has with their son, Brian. The essence of what Vijay captured in his tribute to John manifested itself not only with his work colleagues but also with many many people like ourselves who fortunate enough to know him. That is just how John rolled. It is worth repeating as someone previously said, John was one of the good guys.

  8. Well put Vijay! I got an email from John on the 30th (on his retirement) so the message from Rick / Lori was shocking! Brought back lots of memories! Worked with him for the last 6 years on several deals/pursuits and specially while managing work at a key biotech client. It was always fun seeing him at SAPPHIRE and he was always gracious with his time! Will miss him.

  9. Thank you for the beautiful tribute Vijay. I only had the privilege of knowing John for a year, but I could relate my own experiences with John. His work ethic and love for his family were beyond compare. He will truly be missed.

  10. Pingback: SAPPHIRENOW 2012 – Interview with John J Leffler of IBM | Vijay's thoughts on all things big and small

  11. Well put Vijay. My experiences with John are identical to yours,…reading your blog brought back so many memories with John. A mentor, a friend and a man I admire. He touched so many people….fostered relationships, created careers (mine) and success, everywhere he went. I will miss him.

    • Hi Adolf – I was in shock when I received the news. I met John 20 years ago in a meeting after Deloitte bought ICS. He was so engaging in a way only representative of John. His dedication to his clients and those he worked with was unparalleled. It is difficult to accept someone who was so larger than life, could actually be gone.

  12. Thank you VJ for such an amazing reflection on John. Your words so perfectly state what meany of us have been feeling in regards to our mentor, friend and his words “family”. His family is in my thoughts and prayers

    • Shelia , the first time I heard about you was when John asked me around 2006 if the SOA stuff in my intel project I was telling him about was in the curriculum that you and Andrea were developing . I think it was at one of his big SAP townhall events . Those were such awesome events and he always made sure that he and all his leaders attended and talked to the staff .

  13. My heart is broken. John was like a father to me in many ways. I always felt protected with him in my corner. I will miss him greatly.

    Just watched that video we did several years ago at Sapphire. Simpler times.

    -kris

  14. I am so sorry, Vijay. This is incredibly shocking and my heart is so heavy for you, Jim, John’s family & friends and colleagues at IBM & SAP. I’m always here for you … especially during this incredibly difficult time.

  15. Like, love, hate, friend, foe, peer, or employee, there was no one who didn’t respect John Leffler in the SAP business. He was a force that built a services business empire first at PwC and then at IBM. He will be missed.

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