At first glance, the pair of speakers invited to the Wharton Leadership Lecture on Thursday afternoon may have seemed like an incongruent duo. After all, Bill McDermott, co-CEO of SAP, performs in the corporate sphere of business software while Mike Tannenbaum, general manager and co-executive vice president of the New York Jets, operates in professional football.
Where they overlapped, though, was their similar style of leadership.
“The most important thing a leader can do is change minds,” McDermott said as he described how defining a vision can guide business strategy. He had formerly worked for a SAP competitor, but subsequently decided to accept a job with SAP, a brand whose potential he felt could be reinvigorated with great leadership. Much of McDermott’s focus has been on developing a winning company culture that’s aggressively decisive and confident in its own identity.
“If you don’t make aggressive moves, that’s the biggest risk you can take,” he said.
Although McDermott acknowledged the necessity of tough calls and had in fact reorganized an entire department earlier that day, he also believes that employees deserve open, face-to-face feedback regarding their mistakes. For McDermott, failure is only a temporary obstacle, and he keeps his vision directed toward the future.
Similarly, when describing his process of draft selection, Tannenbaum emphasized that he only brings in players who fit with the Jet’s culture. “Who you really are in life is how you treat the waiter or waitress,” Tannenbaum said, explaining that he would ask staff members, especially drivers, about certain players to filter out the ones who acted disrespectfully.
For both of the speakers, reading the authenticity of prospective employees is fundamental. When asked about identifying future leaders, McDermott answered that he prefers to examine people’s beginnings and poses interview questions such as “Where are you from?” or “What kind of jobs did you have growing up?”
Having passion for one’s job is an idea oft-advocated to college students, and as the talk neared its end, both speakers reiterated the necessity of passion. Despite the bleak economy, McDermott concluded the fireside-style talk with optimism, assuring his young audience that more opportunity awaited them in this world than ever before.
After the lecture, McDermott stayed to talk to several students, including Engineering graduate student Lu Yao who spoke with him about SAP’s role in China. “I asked him about strategy,” Yao said. “He has a lot of influence and a very international view.”
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