Soccer team in a huddle

Train of Dreams

Feature Article | October 31, 2014 by Paul Taylor

SAP CEO Bill McDermott talks about his most memorable milestones along the way to becoming a leader of consequence.

The night before a young Bill McDermott had an interview for his ‘dream job’ with Xerox, a nor’easter storm hit Long Island flooding the modest McDermott home, which backed onto a canal, with four feet of water.

Dressed in one of the two $99 suits that he owned, Bill was carried downstairs and out of the house to the car where his dad was waiting to drive him to the station for his trip into New York City, by his brother Kevin, “so I didn’t stain my suit.”

On the train into New York, Bill read-up about Xerox’s then chief executive David Kearns’ quest for quality and decided that one day he too wanted to be a CEO – an ambition realized years later at SAP after an amusing incident at the Portola Valley, California home of SAP founder Hasso Plattner.

Bill arrives early for his interview with Hasso and is shown into the backyard and asked to wait. Immediately a golden Labrador retriever (which he subsequently discovers is called Claude) towards him bounds toward him ready to play fetch with a Nerf-like football.

Bill obliges, throwing the ball which Claude retrieves and deposits at his feet – glistening with saliva. Now that’s a problem. If Bill throws the ball again with is right hand he risks greeting Hasso with a slimy handshake, and he doesn’t want to wipe his hand on his suit. Bill’s solution? Throw the ball with his left hand preserving his dry right hand for the Hasso handshake.

Bill McDermott’s book, ‘Winners Dream: A journey from corner store to corner office,’ is packed full of stories like these which give it a humility and accessibility not found in many of ‘rags-to-riches’ CEO accounts I have read.

Yes, the book also has a big message – you have to dream first and work hard to win big.  But it is also one of the most honest and readable business books I have read, in part because it doesn’t sugar-coat the realities of his Long Island childhood, or his ascent up the corporate ladder.

In many of his stories Bill McDermott exposes his own vulnerabilities while drawing lessons from his own experiences, and from the down-to-earth wisdom of his blue collar parents. Personally, I found the first half of the book the most compelling. But I think almost everyone will find something in ‘Winners Dream’ that they can relate too.

As an SAP employee, I can hardly represent myself as a neutral observer. But, after watching Bill McDermott, answer questions from his audience at a recent Goldman Sachs event where he introduced the book, I can say with confidence that he is the real deal – a Long Island boy who made it from a corner store in his hometown, to the corner office in SAP’s Waldorf headquarters.

As U2 rockstar, Bono, says in the cover notes: “Bill McDermott sees ambition and compassion as comrades in the workplace rather than competitors. That’s rare. He claims it’s just common sense….but I claim it’s the Irish in him.”

Winners Dream: published by Simon & Schuster: 318 pages, priced at $28

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