What does SAP culture mean to its employees? Malin Liden, vice president of Digital Experience at SAP, describes the values that matter most to her and her team, how to cultivate trust, and why good leaders embrace failure.

Q: What is the relationship between leadership & culture?

A: There’s a very clear connection. At the end of the day, leaders foster cultural values in an organization by setting the tone and setting an example. It’s not something you can mandate, but comes from the group. You have to hold discussions about what culture there should be.

Q: How do you go about that?

A: When I take over a new team, I always have conversations asking, “What do we want to be known for? What makes us excited about working together? What type of team do we want to be?” We put the key pillars down on paper. As the leader, you have to lead by example and display those things. You can do as many workshops as you like, but the culture you’re seeking to create won’t happen without walking the talk.

Q: What else can leaders do to create a strong culture?

A: I believe in disproportionately rewarding what you want to see rather than punishing what you don’t want to see. Even if someone is just making an attempt, you at least recognize that. I also connect things back to the foundation of our culture – I use specific language and try to make it tangible.

Q: How do you cultivate that?

A: You have to make sure people aren’t just telling you what you want to hear – they can be afraid to speak up. You have to moderate conflict carefully. And you have to be consistent. During quarterly reviews, we talk not just about whether you achieved your goals, but how. Were you inclusive? Did your work reflect the values we have?

"If one person succeeds, we all succeed."
“If one person succeeds, we all succeed.”

Q: What values matter to you and your team?

A: It’s very important to me that we stick up for each other and that we’re open and honest. It’s like siblings – they will often disagree and have lively debates, but if someone else criticizes them, you stand united. Our team is our brand and we are all ambassadors. If one person succeeds, we all succeed. And if we fail, we fail together – so we protect and help each other. We also challenge each other and we’re tough in a respectful way.

Q: What are some of the leadership challenges?

A: As leaders, we have a special responsibility to break down walls. If leaders do not collaborate or are territorial, then the same behavior will happen further down in the organization. Second, we don’t recognize the behaviors we want to see to the extent we could. If your goals and objectives support collaboration, then you will see collaboration. With the mindset that we are here to help SAP and our customers, many decisions become very easy and collaboration is a natural consequence.

Q: What about cultivating trust and risk-taking?

A: They are clearly connected. We talk so much about risk-taking – failure is the new black. But among the people who get promoted, how many of them have visibly failed? Not too many. How can people be encouraged to try things if they don’t trust that it won’t hurt their career? We need to talk about it. We need to tell stories about when we failed and how we learned from it. If we don’t do that, that trust component is missing. People can say, “I hear it, but I don’t see it.

Q: How can leaders change that perception?

A: They can talk about their own failures. This can be embarrassing. You can talk about how you’ve made mistakes, but you’re better now because of that. You have to be vulnerable. When mistakes happen, I say, “It’s safer to fail in this team environment because nobody fails alone. We fail together.” And you have to be careful about follow-up. If someone fails, you have to make sure it becomes a positive experience. Be generous with what you learned and share it with others to save them from making the same mistake.

Q: What is something you think people might not realize about leadership?

A: I heard once that introverts are the better leaders because they listen before they act. Listening is huge. It’s undervalued. People tend to think leaders are the loudest, the ones who rally people. But a great leader is often a great diplomat.

Q: What would you like people to realize about culture?

A: That it makes the difference in our success. It is what enables you to take performance from good to great. A really strong culture makes traditional management techniques unnecessary. If you enjoy your working environment, you will do a lot better. The most underestimated thing about a positive culture is the price you pay if you don’t have it. There is a real business case behind it – you will save a lot of money and get better results.

Top image: Shutterstock