By Tim Clark

What does it take to win? According to European football legend and SAP ambassador Oliver Bierhoff, who made an impromptu visit yesterday in SAP’s New York office, it takes much more than a sound strategy.

Bierhoff is now a retired German football striker and scored the first “golden goal” in the history of major international football for Germany in the Euro 96 final. Bierhoff’s golden moment in sports history remains a shining example of how to overcome adversity when everything is on the line.

SAP Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Becher asked Bierhoff if his golden goal was the result of a pre-determined set play from the coach. Bierhoff’s response was a true classic and elicited a few chuckles from the dozens of SAP employees in attendance.

“It was pure luck with a little luck from the goal keeper. I just had to pay him.”

Jokes aside, Bierhoff said his golden goal was the result of listening to his coach, teamwork and pure instinct – a combination that resonated with SAP Co-CEO Bill McDermott, also in attendance.

“Sometimes you have to be instinctive,” said McDermott. “The hardest thing for corporations to understand is the will and desire to take chances and be accountable for the chances you take. You shouldn’t look to others for a decision; someone has to be the decider. Oliver, that is something you molded in this world in 1996 and is something we’re still talking about today.”

Sports and business play nice

Relying on instincts and taking chances are important, but Bierhoff also believes communicating a sound strategy for people to follow is also necessary to be successful in sports and business. “Leaders also need followers,” said Bierhoff. “Some will always be afraid of change so you must have the guts to follow through and make tough decisions.”

Playing off the theme of sports and business, Becher asked Bierhoff – now manager of the men’s German national football team – if soccer players make good business people.

“For sure, there are a lot of similarities,” said Bierhoff. “With soccer you understand very early what pressure, criticism, success and failure means. As a coach, you get immediate feedback.”

“I think Bill McDermott would agree that Wall Street also gives pretty immediate feedback,” Becher quipped.

While McDermott understands the challenges of meeting Wall Street expectations all too well, the importance of clearly defining a company vision and strategy to external markets is just as important to employees and managers at SAP, which is not an easy feat.

“Self interests come into play which means some managers are publicly compliant but privately defiant,” said McDermott. “Problems don’t happen with people en masse, it’s management, and it’s the biggest challenge and opportunity especially at SAP. We all play on the same SAP team, I have no more right to the jersey than you do.”

McDermott said leadership is becoming more important than ever, especially when a company like SAP has to change strategy. Companies that choose to ignore industry trends will be half the size a few years, preventing them from becoming “a championship team,” according to McDermott.

“At one time in 1998 we thought we were the best,” said Bierhoff. “We failed, it was a big crisis. So it’s the same in sports.”

Aim for a winning strategy

Becher reminded the audience that “we are the cloud company powered by SAP HANA,” a fundamentally different strategy that poses a risk for SAP’s leaders to get lost in the details.

“I think every leader owes their followers a good vision and strategy,” said McDermott. “If you don’t, no matter hard you work, you will dig yourself into a deeper ditch.” As an example, McDermott said SAP must re-invent its service business via the following three steps:

  1. Discover the “business dream” with the customer
  2. Deliver the dream for the customer
  3. Ongoing innovation without a finish line

“The skill set to do one of those things is different than others,” said McDermott. “But it is all accomplished together from the good work set up by others.”

Bierhoff said this type of teamwork is also essential in sports and it’s best to avoid pointing fingers when something goes wrong. “If the defender starts to think he is the striker that is also bad,” said Bierhoff. “It’s a team effort.”

But even when the team is doing well, don’t get too comfortable, warned McDermott.

“Don’t celebrate too long, don’t lick your wounds too long, always focus on getting better.”

Photo: Joe Wallace