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Bold Leader Spotlight: Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP SE

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William “Bill” McDermott is the upbeat, passionate, and visionary leader of the world’s leading enterprise software solutions company, SAP SE. But before leading a global company, McDermott was hustling, working multiple part-time jobs and combing the streets of New York as a young sales professional. Fast-forward to today, and McDermott has emerged as a victorious underdog and everyman. Our Bold Leader Spotlight shines on his inspiring rags-to-riches story.

Bill McDermott quoted
Knowing what to do with your dreams make the perfect game plan.

From Corner Store to Corner Office

When McDermott was offered the role to be the SAP CEO for North America operations in 2002, he was beginning to reap the fruits of his labor. As a son of a working-class family from Long Island, New York, McDermott didn’t have it easy. Due to the family’s financial status, McDermott learned to appreciate the value of work at an early age. He started taking on part-time jobs, delivering newspaper as young as 11 years old. At 15, McDermott was already juggling three part-time jobs as a supermarket assistant, a handyman, and a waiter at an Italian restaurant.

cartoon of bill mcdermott, ceo of sap
Bill McDermott, SAP CEO, believes that to achieve a lot, you have to have the connection between dreams and details.

At 16, he revived the flailing Amityville Country Delicatessen in Long Island. He bought the snack shop for $7,000.00, added a video game room, and won over his customers’ trust and loyalty.  At a young age, McDermott already knew success came from giving customers what they wanted. The delicatessen did well, well enough to support his college education.

In 1983, after completing his Business Management Degree from Dowling College, McDermott set out to get his dream job at Xerox. Nothing could stop the 21-year old McDermott from achieving this goal, not even the flood in their house on the day of the interview. McDermott was so sure that he would get the job on that day. He also made a promise to his dad that he would be hired on the spot. His tenacity paid off, and he went home to Amityville that night with an employee badge in his pocket.

Steve Grasso quoted
Bill McDermott treats his achievements differently, and maybe that’s why he has achieved success others only dream of.

The Bold Leadership of Bill McDermott

  • A Bold Leader Must First Win from Within

Often, the hardest battle to fight is within. When a leader gives up, the team has already lost the battle without a fight. There would have been many situations in the past when McDermott could have given up the battle, but he pressed on. As a young man who wanted to improve his status, he realized that he had to work harder to be somebody. Starting as a sales manager at Xerox, his determination was on full display while leading a group of young salesmen. He committed to help each member of the team to reach their individual targets.

But the most significant adversity to hit the SAP CEO was the accident that caused him to lose vision on his left eye. He recounted, “There was a moment where your mind is very interested in protecting you. It basically says – lay down, go to sleep. Then your will steps in and said – this is not where your story ends.” The SAP CEO was teeming with inner strength and resolve. Two months after the accident, McDermott was back on his feet.

Bill McDermott quoted
Bill McDermott lost his eyesight but gained better vision.
  • A Bold Leader Must Have a Vision and a Game Plan

Truthfully, a good leader has to have a vision. But McDermott furthers leadership by laying out the actions needed to achieve this vision. From Xerox to Gartner to Siebel Systems to SAP, McDermott’s formula of charting the steps towards the end goal has helped him drive his team towards success.

As a leader who espouses innovation and celebration, McDermott knows that change is a prerequisite to innovation. And for organizations to grow, companies need to embrace change. Change can be difficult, but there is no way around it.

To achieve the vision, a leader must recognize the power of celebration. The everyday grind is stressful because things need to get done. But when a team has a badge moment – McDermott finds the time to celebrate.  Celebration affirms the visions and fuels the team to keep going.

  • Bold Leadership of Humility and Service

McDermott believes in consequential leadership, the willingness to go beyond the call of duty in service of other people. A consequential leader understands that a vision can only be achieved through great people. McDermott’s grand gestures of giving back to employees underscore this belief. He seizes every opportunity to give credit to the immense talent, dedication, and commitment of the employees that he leads in SAP.

Moreover, a consequential leader recognizes the real role of the company in achieving the goals of the businesses and industries that they serve. This sense of purpose has kept the SAP CEO, and the company focused on how to meet the needs of their customers.

The SAP CEO has also made it his mission to give back to the communities. Several award-giving bodies have recognized him for his civic leadership. Most recently, Glassdoor recognized him as the TOP CEO in Canada, US, UK, and Germany.

Surely, with his achievements and accolades, McDermott is at the top of the world. But he also knows how it feels to go through tough times. McDermott’s rise to the pinnacle of success was a journey punctuated by hardships that tested his grit, resilience, and strength. Yes, the challenges were difficult, but it helped and shaped him to become the kind of leader that he is today – humble, honest, compassionate, and empathetic, nevertheless bold and driven.


For more on SAP SE, check out Bold Business’ profile on the company.

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