By: Bill McDermott
CEO at SAP
All leaders have one thing in common: Followers.
Followership can be won in grand moments, through a galvanizing speech or how a crisis is handled.
Not for me. The leaders I’ve chosen to follow throughout my career earned my intense loyalty and commitment in small, un-orchestrated moments between us. Through quiet, unexpected conversations that never made headlines.
The first CEO I ever followed was David Kearns, the chief executive of the Xerox Corporation from 1982 to 1990. I’d admired David’s integrity and commitment to excellence since the day I joined the company.
It was a phone call, however, that turned me from an admirer into a follower.
I was a young Xerox salesman making cold calls in Manhattan. One afternoon I walked into the office of an executive I’d never met. “Hello, sir,” I said, extending my hand to shake. “I’m Bill McDermott from the Xerox Corporation.”
“How dare you bother me!” he bellowed. “Do you know who I am? I’m David Kearns’ neighbor!”
Apparently, his company was already a Xerox customer. The irate man followed me out the door, screaming as I tried to apologize for my mistake. When he insisted he was going to call Mr. Kearns himself to get me fired, I stopped walking.
No one had ever threatened me like that.
“Sir, I understand what you’re saying,” I said calmly, “but please understand something from my point of view.”
“What’s that?” he demanded.
I have been thrown out of four offices today that were twice as nice as yours. Have a good day.”
Going down the elevator, I figured I was as good as fired. There was only one thing for me to do.
As soon as I could, I called David Kearns’ office. Amazingly, I was put through. I still had never met the man!
When I heard his voice, I introduced myself and explained the situation, including my final insult. “Mr. Kearns, I apologize if I’ve offended the Xerox Corporation. If I messed up, I accept the consequences completely.”
“Bill,” he said, “I want you to know that if that jackass calls me, I’ll let him know you’re my best guy out there. Keep doing what you’re doing, kid.”
In less than a minute, David Kearns earned a level of devotion that doubled my enthusiasm and loyalty not only to him, but to the company, and to my job.
Another leader that won my followership was Hasso Plattner, a co-founder and the chairman of SAP.
In 2002, Hasso interviewed me for a job as head of SAP’s failing North American business. Instead of an office, he invited me to his California home, where I spent several minutes playing catch with his handsome dog, Claude, before joining Hasso in his dining room to talk business—as Claude slept under the table.
I was not convinced I should join SAP when I arrived, but as we chatted I was moved by how personable Hasso was, how sincerely interested he was in my family, and how closely he listened. He spoke about the company as if it was a member of his own family, with love and concern for its well-being. There was a sweet sincerity about the man. A humility. He felt real.
Hasso’s vision, then, was to revive SAP’s North American business. On the spot, I adopted his vision as my own.
That day, Hasso’s humanity won me over. A few months ago, it happened again.
After I suffered a life-threatening accident, one of the first calls I made after hours of surgery was to Hasso. His response was quick and compassionate. “Bill,” he said, “This is one time where you have to take care of you and let us take care of business.” I was assured that he believed I would rise and come back from my injuries.
Followership, I’ve learned, is earned one interaction at a time. Face-to-face. Voice-to-voice. And often during times of challenge.
This is easy to forget in our digital age, when it’s so easy for leaders to share their messages with millions. But rarely does a well-planned tweet, post, or TV appearance replicate the emotional wave that washes over us when we’re addressed as individuals in unscripted conversation, and we experience forgiveness, empathy, interest, and caring firsthand.
These are the moments when hearts—and followers—are won.