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This is the time of year when I reflect on the year past, and look forward to the year coming. 2013 has been a year of change, transformation and lessons – I don’t think I’ve ever learnt as much in one year. So here are my learnings from 2013 – perhaps they will help someone.

Cultural sensitivity is paramount

We think of the USA as the land of the free, and in many ways, it is. But, it is a country where cultural sensitivities are much stronger than you might expect. For example, if when in a restaurant you dare ask the busboy (who clears the table), for a glass of water, you will be met with a blank stare, whilst in Europe, all servers are equal. Even more interestingly, in the secular East Coast of the US, it’s not acceptable to say “Merry Christmas”: instead we say “Happy Holidays”. Contrast this to a conference call I had with Israel earlier this week, where they wished me a “Merry Christmas”, despite not celebrating it themselves.

In business the same is true around the world; you have to adapt to the culture of your customers – indeed you can use it to your advantage. I have been working with SAP and it is self-evident there: there is a culture of consensus-thinking. However if you take this to the extreme, consensus-thinking becomes all you do and the most successful people at SAP combine consensus-thinking with quietly getting stuff done. Friend Vijay Vijayasankar describes this very nicely in his blog.

My advice is to pay attention to the culture of your customers and balance fitting in, driving change and being part of the landscape. I remember this vividly at a meeting with one customer in their office. “How did you get this meeting room? We can’t even book this meeting room!”. My secret: to take the time to get friendly with the people who managed the booking service.

Be adaptable to your weaknesses

I don’t know if you’ve read the book Strengths Finder 2.0; if not, it makes an interesting perusal. The principle is to know your strengths and your weaknesses and to focus on your strengths. What I didn’t learn from this is that sometimes you need to be adaptable to your weaknesses.

For instance, I find it easy to tell a story with a customer, to design a project or to see the weaknesses in a plan. By contrast, I find the administrative side very hard, like completing the commercial details of a Statement of Work or getting Vendor paperwork through the system. However it turns out that when you are starting up a business, this stuff is unavoidable and rather important.

You may find that it is exhausting to work on your weaknesses but sometimes you have to adapt and put all of your energy where you find things hardest – at least in the short term. Then, you need to bring people on board that compliment your strengths and weaknesses. I love working with great project managers for this reason.

Become an expert

I remember an intimate talk from a Texas Oil Billionaire when I was at university, though I have since forgotten his name. He told a story of how a private jet salesman came to see him, and he immediately asked the wingspan. The green salesman couldn’t answer and he threw him out the room, citing that you need to know your product. The story goes that the salesman came back a year later with an expensive cowboy hat (yes, it’s a stereotype, but the tycoon was a hat collector) as a gift. He recounted that he had learnt everything about the jets, and had since sold over 20 in the last year. The Billionaire went on to purchase one of his own from him.

So pick your topic, and become an expert in the real world and apply your expertise. In my case, it allowed me to become SAP’s Big Data Boss whilst showing customers how we can apply Big reference Data to their corporate data to garner information.

Remember that the last 10% requires 90% of the effort

And also remember that work which is 90% complete is generally worth nothing. When you think you’re nearly done, you probably have the same amount of effort left. This is definitely true of a project I’ve worked on in the last quarter, which is complete in content terms, but the content hasn’t been disseminated well. As a result, around 5% of the true value has been had. I now have to follow up and ensure that the content is disseminated to make sure the customer gets all the value.

It is even more self-evident during a sales process. “Almost done” means “not done” and “not done” means no value to the customer. The customer must spend money to gain value, and this means getting the process over the line. I attended SAP’s Americas town hall earlier this year and I loved the rallying call from Americas President Rodolpho Cardenuto: “There is no Q5”.

Anyone who is a runner will know how this feels, especially if they have run a marathon. An inordinate amount of blood, sweat, and tears come in the last mile of the 26.2 mile course, but all of the sense of achievement comes with it.

There is no such thing as the greater good

I was in the followup to a customer meeting with a SAP sales manager, and I said that we needed to get some specific product problems solved, and it was for the greater good. He looked at me and replied: “there is no greater good”.

In another encounter just a few weeks back I gave advice to a SAP HANA Startup: protect your Intellectual Property, especially against SAP. They may not mean to take it intentionally, but they have many thousand developers and someone might see it or independently come up with the same idea. He said that he had similar advice from SAP CTO Vishal Sikka.

And so I’m not sure I agree with there not being a greater good, but I do feel that there is something in this in business. Your customers, suppliers and partners may have common interests, but your interests will almost always come second to theirs. Be sure to look after your own interests, protect your Intellectual Property and look after yourself.

Final Words

I did want to say a quick thank you to both Henrique Pinto, who suggested posting on SCN (rather than my blog), and Bill McDermott, who wrote a most excellent blog with a rear view perspective of 2013, who inspired me to write in this particular forum. Also a quick thank you to everyone that I worked with in 2013 – the most excellent Bluefin team, my partners at SAPAmerica who worked with me, especially in the Financial Services team and everyone else in the community that I touched.

Hopefully my learnings from 2013 have been useful to someone, though I suspect that you have to learn many of these lessons yourself, and with your own blood, sweat and tears. I’m looking forward to hitting 2014 with renewed vigor and helping businesses be more successful, and working with you all some more. Happy New Year!

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8 Comments

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  1. Tammy Powlas

    On this:

    Cultural sensitivity is paramount

    It depends on where are you at as well in the U.S.

    I was on a project years ago in Texas and the big thing in the morning was to stop and chat and discuss NASCAR.  It took me a while to adjust, as I am the type that wants to “get to work”.  I finally adapted to the environment but it was a good lesson learned.  Work got done in its own time, and this is good advice.

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    1. John Appleby Post author

      Oh yes I couldn’t agree more! I don’t know holiday traditions across the US but I suspect as you head into the mid-West, Merry Christmas becomes more prevalent.

      I like the NASCAR example and there are many different communities in the USA, which is what makes it such a diverse and interesting country.

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      1. Tammy Powlas

        The Merry Christmas thing is new to me this year as well. I am on the East Coast too.  I only heard on the radio this year that you’re supposed to say “Happy Holidays”

        I wonder if this is just a recent thing.

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        1. John Appleby Post author

          I’m not sure – you are a bit further down the East Coast than me, which may have an impact. Where I live, it is extremely secular.

          For example in the building, there was a vote on whether there should be a Christmas tree. A “holiday” tree was agreed upon, which has a single set of lights and a bow at the top.

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  2. Henrique Pinto

    I’m glad you decided to write here more often. 😉

    I’m sure your (excellent) blogging in SCN will reach and inspire even more people it does today.

    Cheers.

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  3. Carsten Nitschke

    Very nice insight. I liked very much the piece on culture and adapt to your weakness. Culture is very important but we should not forget our roots either. This is a piece on which I could get rather emotional, but I will stop myself here. Being sensitive is very different than giving up your own values / traditions / customs….

    Focusing on ones weaknesses is very important and probably the single most forgotten thing by professionals. It reminds me that there are a couple of things that I should take care of these days where things will be calmer.

    Thanks for the inspiration and a very happy and prosperous 2014! I am looking forward to see more posts of you again in 2014. I hope they will remain as “John Appleby” as they were in 2013. This means educating and provocative at the same time!

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