Leaders at SAP showcase how they live the company’s leadership principles through their stories. Gonzalo Benedit talks trust and empowerment.
“To me, trust, like friendship, is a gift that comes with responsibility,” says Gonzalo Benedit, Chief Operations Officer, SAP EMEA. In this interview he reveals some insights into his own experiences and shares his opinion on leadership in the digital age.
What has been your biggest leadership challenge?
Probably my biggest leadership challenge was learning that there’s no shortcut to building a high-performance team. What I now know is that talent is an important hiring criterion, but what’s essential is actually a desire to impact the organization coupled with an unstoppable attitude.
I’ve also learned that it’s important to take the time to really get to know people, understand what makes them tick and then align them to their strengths. In doing this, you start to see beyond the parameters of a person’s experience to their real abilities and this is where really cool stuff starts to happen! You can suddenly see who’ll benefit from being pushed outside of their comfort zone, or how someone with a non-traditional background might fit into a certain role and unlock new potential, both in themselves and within their team.
It isn’t always easy to find the time to connect, but it’s the only sure path to building a winning team. With a winning team, impossible is nothing.
What do you do to ensure there is trust on your team?
To me, trust, like friendship, is a gift that comes with responsibility. But trust represents the balance between empowerment and accountability. Practically speaking, this requires very good communication that is direct, open and bi-directional. It starts by clearly communicating goals and setting ambitious but realistic expectations. By listening to the ideas, feedback and questions from your team, you create an environment where your team trusts that they have your support and know you believe that they’ll do the right things for the business and their own teams.
What does it mean to be a leader in the digital age?
Being a leader during the fourth industrial revolution is all about embracing the axiom, ‘change is the only certainty’. The truth is, none of us can predict what will happen five, ten, twenty years out. The pace of change in the digital age is such that entire industries and value chains are being disrupted overnight.
It’s impossible to be on top of every new trend, innovation or economic shift, never mind all of the far reaching implications of these. Luckily, that’s not the benchmark for leadership in the digital age. What is? Curiosity and openness to new ideas. These, I believe, will be the qualities that will define great leaders in the digital age. There is no escape, you either innovate or you die. So you must always challenge yourself and focus on delivering more genuine value to your customers. SAP has always done this well because we take an empathetic approach to our customers, but we need to remain focused and committed to putting this at the centre of all we do. Agility to adapt to new realities is critical to survive and as leaders we must steer the organization to execute fast.
What do you personally do to become that leader?
To become a leader in the digital age, I try to do four simple things:
- Double down on early talent. SAP has incredible programs like the Sales and Presales Graduate Academy that brings top early and young talent into the organization. I’ve had the opportunity to speak with a number of these employees and their passion, energy and new ideas never fail to inspire me.
- Embrace diversity. It’s pretty simple: in today’s world, the greater diversity of people, cultures and experience you expose yourself too, the more powerful your plans and execution will be.
- Reverse mentorship. Too often we fall into the trap of thinking that mentorship is a one-way street where a senior person shares his or her lessons with a more junior person. I like to spin that on its head whenever I’m in a mentorship session and ask ‘What don’t I know?’
- Ask questions. This is such a simple thing to do, but it’s often overlooked. Especially when we’ve been successful, it’s hard to ask ourselves ‘What could we do better?’ We don’t want to look like we don’t have the answers. But as we’ve discussed, no one can have all the answers and what’s worked in the past might not be what’ll work in the future. So challenge yourself to ask questions, keep exploring and never be afraid of looking like a beginner.
How do you support your employees to acquire skills and competencies for the digital age?
In addition to the things we’ve already talked about, I encourage the COO Organization to spend as much time with our customers as possible. That means two things: firstly, it requires spending time with other business areas within SAP so that we can replicate the great success stories and learn more about what we need to improve and how. Secondly, it means getting out and spending time with our customers in the field.
These days the reality outside is incredibly fascinating. And the more we know about our customers the better prepared we will be to give them clear advice on how to evolve their businesses and that is precisely our responsibility. I strongly believe that working with businesses across all of the diverse industries that SAP serves is one of the greatest opportunities to continue to learn, grow and stay curious. It is this diverse set of experiences and knowledge to draw upon that is critical to building and maintaining our position as strategic advisors to our customers as they navigate through their digital transformations.