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People

He fits the Bill

At 16, Bill McDermott worked three jobs and saved enough to start a business so that he could pay for college. The CEO of software giant SAP spoke to a lecture theatre packed with NTU students about how he overcame the tough times and the secrets of his success, and took their questions
by Chrystal Chan

CEO of SAP, Bill McDermott

You were 16 when you bought a deli for US$7,000 and used the earnings from running that to pay your way through college. How did you manage to do that?

I wanted to be somebody. That meant I had to work hard to get there, which is why I took on three jobs when I was in school. The opportunity to buy the delicatessen meant I could trade in those three jobs for my own business, a way of simplifying my life. I had all the vendors deliver the stocks to me on a consignment basis with the understanding that I would pay them back, even if it meant they would charge a little more. I learnt then that trust is the ultimate human currency.

How did this experience shape your career?

Here’s a secret: The little one has to do what the big one is either structurally unable or unwilling to do. My problem was: How could I get young students to walk past my biggest competitor, 7-Eleven, to my store, a block and a half out of their way?

I observed them. I noticed there were 40 people waiting in line to get into the 7-Eleven, but there were only four people inside. I asked them: “Why are you waiting here? There’s enough space for everyone in the store.” They replied that the store was worried they would steal things. I told them they were free to come to my store, where they wouldn’t have to wait outside. I also built a mini arcade so they could play video games. The key is to treat others with respect and trust. One of the young people later told me that if they wanted to be treated with respect, have fun and eat good food, they would come to my store. When they wanted to steal stuff, they would go to 7-Eleven.

Some say youths in Singapore tend to be too comfortable. How do we jolt the young out of their comfort zones?

We all make our own opportunities. You don’t deserve to be labelled as not energetic or passionate enough. On the contrary, there are so many things this generation is doing, can do and will do. The hard part is finding out what your passion is. Get started on something. Don’t sit around and wait for the perfect thing. The perfect thing won’t come until you begin doing some things. That way, you’ll learn not only what you like to do, but also what you don’t like to do, and that will steer you in the right direction.

Many NTU students are looking for the next big thing to start or invest in. How would you encourage them to take the plunge?

If you have the dream as well as the capability to build the perfect thing, pursue it. But the truth is, most people don’t have that level of clarity at this stage of their lives. What I would say is go for something that interests you that is roughly right. A job that you might have fun in that is roughly right. You will figure it out as you go. Not everything will be perfect at the beginning. Don’t be afraid of failure. If you start something and it doesn’t work out, know that this is the time in your life for such experiments.

In your book, you mentioned wanting to wait for a comfortable job. However, you also had to make many decisions that could put you in an uncomfortable position. How do we balance this?

Throughout my life, I have been in many uncomfortable spots and that’s how I learnt the value of that. Take, for example, tough assignments. When you do well in these assignments, they have an exponential effect on your career. The skill set, goal orientation and commitment to excellence is the same with the tough ones and the easy ones. The only difference is that when you apply these to the difficult tasks, you can get from down here to up there much faster. When everything is going well, I constantly remind myself to stay humble, hungry and thirsty for the next idea. Challenges are in fact blessings. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

CEO of SAP, Bill McDermott, standing in a suit

What advice would you give fresh grads starting out in their first jobs?

Your first job probably won’t be your last. There is no room for small dreams. Listen to your inner voice and trust it. Dare to dream as big as you can. Then find a company that is in alignment with that big long-term dream. That is important as you need the learning experience, you need to be trained and you need to fail. Play to your strengths. What are you great at? Technology? Go join the tech department.

You climbed very quickly in your first career with Xerox after you graduated. How did you get so successful?

I am a work in progress, not a finished project. When I started at Xerox, I wanted to sell more than anybody in the world. Fortunately, I had some customers who liked the service I provided. They told their friends and I got some success that way. More importantly, I learnt that it wasn’t my destiny. My destiny is to be a leader because I love helping other people be their best. Leadership comes down to one thing. You can get anything in this world if you help enough other people get what they want. By thinking like that, I was able to progress very nicely in the company.

For those of us deciding whether to go into entrepreneurship or to remain in a company, what is your advice?

My teenage entrepreneurial stint was a means to an end for me. I wanted to put myself through school to get my dream going. Ultimately, my dream was to work for a great company with a great brand. I happened to grow the company I fell in love with, and that company became like a family to me. You can actually be an entrepreneur in a giant company too. Size and entrepreneurial spirit are not mutually exclusive. I still think of myself as a teenage entrepreneur, but the difference is I get to be in a big pond where one idea can do massive things.

The full lecture theatre at Bill McDermott’s talk in NTU

You told us to not be afraid and step out of our comfort zone. Where did you get your confidence?

My mother always told me to trust myself. At a leadership meeting when I was at Xerox, I spoke to about 1,000 young people. I told them the best managers work for the people and that we can do well if we work on your terms and not on mine. After the meeting, another manager told me: “Bill, you must never let them know that they have that much power.” To which I replied: “No, the important thing about leadership is that you don’t have the power. They have the power and you have to give them an environment to do amazing things.” Never let people hold you back.

What do you think is the one most important thing about leadership?

Live your life in a super authentic way. The world will know the difference between being artificial and being real. Remember also that you are not here to take, but to give. It is not about you. Don’t take credit. It’s the team that needs it. Leaders of consequence are givers, not takers.

What were some of the toughest moments you had to go through in your life?

I think the human struggles are always the toughest. I was seven years old when my younger brother passed away. Seeing my parents struggle with the loss of a child was one of the most difficult things I had to endure. From that, I saw the strength of a parent. I also gave out newspapers door-to-door when I was a teenager. I was up at the crack of dawn with a huge stack of papers that I had to distribute to every door on my route and make it back in time to catch the school bus. It was tough then, but looking back on it now, I can see how incredibly rewarding it was. I also remember the day I watched our house burn down. I recall my mother saying: “This is a great moment. There’s nothing in that house more important than what’s standing here outside the house.”

Win this!

Inspired by Bill McDermott’s success story? We have five copies of his best-selling autobiography, Winners Dream, up for grabs. Download the HEY! Shake app and shake your phone when you see this story on a TV screen on campus for your chance to win the book.