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Author's profile photo Don Mahoney

We All Lead: Thoughts from the Energy & Natural Resources Leadership Acadamy

Last week, I joined Peter Maier, Dieter Haesslein and the rest of the Energy & Natural Resources (ENR) leaders in Walldorf for the first of a two-part Leadership Academy facilitated by professor Roger Lehman from INSEAD.  The fact that we were dedicating 2.5 days to the topic of leadership was tangible evidence of SAP’s commitment to developing people – in particular, its leaders – and seeking to do better and achieve more through its people.  In this blog post, I’d like to share some of the highlights which I believe are most applicable to our current situation at SAP.

ADAPTIVE LEADERSHIP (…or What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There)

Hyperconnectivity, supercomputing, cloud, smart sensors & appliances, cyber security…  These technology trends are changing everything, and are disrupting the way we and our customers need to think about business models, business processes and even the way we work.  This is the fuel of the Digital Transformation.  One fact seems clear in the midst of all the change and uncertainty in the world today:  “What got you here, won’t get you there”.  Controversial Canadian Management professor, Henry Mintzberg once noted “When the world is predictable, you need smart people.  When the world is unpredictable, you need adaptable people” (who, hopefully, are smart too…;-)  Given the fast-paced and unpredictable climate we at SAP and most of our customers are operating in, we all need to be smart and adaptable.  This is true not only in the way we work, but also in the way we solve problems.

There are generally two types of problems:  Technical problems and Adaptive problems.  Technical problems are usually easy to identify, and typically lend themselves to straight-forward solutions which can be solved by assigning an expert to the challenge.  The changes required here are often constrained, and can frequently be implemented quickly and often by top-down dictate.  Adaptive problems, on the other hand, are often difficult to identify, frequently challenge the beliefs, priorities and norms of an organization, are not typically solved by “experts”, but rather by experimentation and deep involvement of the very people experiencing the problem – and therefore can take a long time (if ever) to resolve.  In general, most of us are “wired” toward technical problems and their cut and dried solutions.  As a consequence, many of us have a tendency to approach Adaptive challenges as if they were Technical problems, with predictably poor outcomes.

Key Take Away:  What got you here, won’t get you there.  Take time to assess your challenges, and make sure you’re not approaching an Adaptive Challenge as if it were a Technical Problem.  If an issue doesn’t go away, tends to crop up again and again, or is generally difficult to articulate… chances are it’s an Adaptive Problem.  Approach it accordingly.  As we help our customers envision and pursue their Digital Transformations, recognize that is the ultimate Adaptive Challenge.  Enjoy the experimentation and get those most directly involved in the challenge intimately engaged.


This topic reminded me that people are typically much more willing to cooperate with, reciprocate and support you when they’ve been involved in the process of reaching any particular decision than if the decision has just been handed to them.  The notion that “we may not get our way, but we at least had our say” is a great maxim to keep in mind – especially during Adaptive challenges when controversial (and frequently unpopular) decisions may need to be made.

One anecdote we discussed involved a union worker dispute at an anonymous company.  In the first instance, management simply dictated terms which they believed the workers needed to accept.  They had assessed the changes necessary to recover and sustain financial health, and believed they had been fair in considering “reasonable” sacrifices necessary from the workers.  The union rejected the proposals.  In the follow-up, management engaged an approach called “Fair Process”, where those involved in the changes were engaged in framing the problem as well as in the process of exploring and eliminating options; deciding, explaining and setting expectations prior to acting and executing.  Having so engaged the workers, they collectively reached set of sacrifices – supported by some 80% of the workers – which in fact were *more stringent* than those originally proposed.  The difference was Fair Process.

Key Take Away:  Whenever a change involves people… involve people!  Also, for the vast majority of us, the Law of Reciprocity typically pays big dividends.  Give before you get.


If you have not yet seen the TedTalk by Simon Sinek called “Start With Why”, you should watch it.  It’s an inspired talk that reminds us that we all aspire to be part of something bigger than ourselves, and are much more inclined to respond to and gravitate toward others with a *mission* we believe in.  Using the concept of “the golden circle” and drawing from examples like Apple, Martin Luther King and the Wright brothers, Simon asserts that the teams we work with, and the customers we serve all need to understand and care about our WHY, before they’re willing to follow us or buy into our WHAT.

Key Take Away: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it”.  So always have a WHY.  And always *start* with WHY.  People will buy your WHAT when they buy your WHY.


How many times have you felt frustrated or even paralyzed by the apparent conflict created by Accountability without Authority?  Here I am being held accountable for certain outcomes, yet I have no staff, I have no budget and no “legitimate” power to affect those outcomes.  No-win situation, right?  Not so fast.  Did you know that there are at least 20 different kinds of power?  Ever heard of Network Power? (power that emanates from a person’s connections).  Or Expert Power? (power that comes from possessing expert knowledge or insight which is critical to an organization).  Or Reputation Power? (power based on past success which provides credibility and allowance).  The list goes on.  One of the “a-ha” moments for me occurred when reading about “Use Power:  the use and practice of power in itself building the perception that we are powerful”.  Ever notice during one of those random break-outs we’re all asked to participate in, there is usually someone who initiates the facilitation, who starts taking notes and distilling the concepts into concise summary points.  The very act of taking leadership, gives that person a measure of power.  Who does the team look to for the report-back?  Who garners the leadership association among the group?  The person who first used the power.

Key Take Away:  Don’t get stuck with a one-dimensional definition of power which only includes “Legitimate Power”.  You’re way more powerful than that!


Our world is marinating in change.  We’re faced with much unpredictability and those who will be able to make the greatest contributions during this time are the ones who are both smart *and* adaptable.  Applying Adaptive Leadership, engaging in Fair Process, marshalling the power of “WHY”, and finding ways to Lead without Authority are vital tools to have in our bag.  If we all engage this way – from top to bottom and back again – I believe we’ll achieve the transformation that we’re challenging our customers to achieve, and make SAP an even more satisfying and inspiring place while we’re at it.

Which of these do you employ most in your own leadership style?  Are there other tools you’d add to the bag?

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