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For SAP Canada COO Leagh Turner Tech Workplace Diversity Is Personal

Joining SAP as an account executive in 2008, Leagh Turner brings a long history of thinking about customer engagement to her current role as Chief Operating Officer in the Toronto office.

Today, SAP is facing the same challenges as every other technology company in the world, with globalization dictating the need for a company’s workforce to resemble not only its existing customers, but new ones too.

To that end, SAP has implemented several initiatives meant to bring more women, visible minorities and variously abled people into its workforce.

The Autism at Work program, for example, which was piloted at SAP India, has seen six employees hired into the company’s Vancouver office and three in Montreal, slotting them into jobs as software testers, programmers and data quality assurance specialists.

People with autism have skills particular to programming and spotting the kind of pattern differences ideally suited to quality control.

Meanwhile, the GIRLsmart program is a collaboration with UBC, which reaches out to girl students at the Grades 6 and 7 level, intended to let young women know that careers in technology are waiting for them.

And their collaboration with Vancouver’s Templeton High School is part of SAP North America’s Corporate Social Responsibility strategy, aimed at encouraging students into tech careers. In partnership with BCIT, the program pairs students with SAP employee mentors who support students who might not otherwise choose a career in technology.

The Templeton program had 25 participating students this year and plans to have 40 next year.

Things are changing, but slowly, in the tech sector. While workplace diversity is often sold as a feel-good option, the reality is that simply rolling with the status quo represents a cluster of missed opportunities that threatens the relevance of companies who are okay with the way things are.

And although the ways that different sensibilities affect a business’ bottom line may seem ephemeral, there is no longer any doubt that diversity not only strengthens a company’s bottom line but also future-proofs their workforce in ways that are easy enough to predict if you admit that those effects are real.

You’d have to buy into at least one type of essentialism to believe that developing a relationship with a customer is somehow a female trait when applied to business, but one way that things have changed over the past several years is through an increasing emphasis on customer engagement, whether applied to marketing or software-as-a-service or the always-on cloud economy.

Now ubiquitous, both for start-up companies and for legacy giants, “customer engagement” is no longer a meaningless buzzword. It has come to be regarded as table stakes for companies that wish to survive in the 21st century.

When talking about bringing that approach to her earliest days working for Xerox, Leagh Turner pragmatically insists that the new normal is not so much a replacement for the old normal, but a return to the way things should have been in the first place.

“If you’re going to go out and have an empathetic conversation about what you need to do to help, you need to actually be able to understand it, relate to it, and translate it internal to an organization like this that can provide a solution for it,” she says. “And you can’t understand it if you don’t have a relatable workforce.”

SAP Canada Chief Operating Officer Leagh Turner
SAP Canada Chief Operating Officer Leagh Turner

Cantech Letter sat down with Leagh Turner at the recent Sapphire Now conference.

While tech presents itself as a disruptive force that will wipe away the legacy dinosaurs, it’s strange how the difference between talking that talk and walking that walk has resulted in a white male monoculture, particularly in start-up culture. The tech sector doesn’t even come close to representing reality. Why is that?

It’s a real problem, and not only because it’s not right. It actually precludes us, in some instances, from relating to our customers, who may be more representative of reality. So it’s super important that organizations like SAP have not only a great aspirational global mandate to effect change, but that we’re doing things every single day to actually start to permeate the water table a little bit and start to get some ground-up change happening. I came to IT, I suppose kind of inorganically. I was in the throes of post-secondary education, like a second and third degree, because I liked education. I liked learning. And then a crisis happened at home involving my father, and I needed to go to work. I had a girlfriend who was getting a job at Xerox. And I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll go do that.” So I went with her and interviewed and got a job. I thought, “This is wonderful. It’ll pay the bills and it’s a super thing to do.” What I found is that I really enjoyed talking to people. I couldn’t care less about the photocopier that I was selling. It didn’t matter to me. I liked what people were wrestling with and I liked trying to find a way to help them. So in many ways, that job and this job are exactly the same job. How do you help people who are struggling with stuff? Technology really is an answer to that. It’s never been my love. I don’t even really understand it. I never have. But it’s an opportunity to provide help and support for change.

That would have been an insightful shift back in the day, when the rationale behind marketing in general was just selling a product. A photocopier is a photocopier. Sell the photocopier. Whereas understanding the customer, developing a relationship with the customer, customer engagement, is becoming the new normal. That was a mental shift that you had already made.

It’s really the only interesting work, in my mind. And it’s the reason the workforce needs to change. Because if you’re going to go out and have an empathetic conversation about what you need to do to help, you need to actually be able to understand it, relate to it, and translate it internal to an organization like this that can provide a solution for it. And you can’t understand it if you don’t have a relatable workforce.

When did you come to SAP?

I joined SAP going on eight years ago. I came over as an account executive, like so many people do. I had a sort of longstanding customer relationship that SAP could benefit from that drew me here. And I was hired by the same guy that I work for today, eight years later, who’s done different jobs and I’ve done different jobs with him and in support of him in the company. And it’s been an amazing ride, because it’s a really cool company in the midst of a lot of change.

That eight-year period has been a really significant time of change for SAP. You’ve seen a doubling of the workforce in Canada, if I’m not mistaken? Not to mention a cultural transformation.

Yes, it has doubled. And you actually explained the shift quite well. When I came to SAP eight years ago, we were unquestionably the best applications company on the planet, like a system of record for ERP for large-scale companies that wanted a systematic way of doing things. And eight years later we are transforming, in my mind, from being a company that has the answers to a company that can understand the problem and work with our customer to theorize the answer. Then we have such a plethora of assets that we can apply to that problem, in no prescribed way, to solve the problem that potentially the customer didn’t even know existed. So we need a new workforce to be able to do that. You can’t have people that like prescribed answers to go out and have those conversations every day. You need people that are good, that have amazing intellectual curiosity, that are willing to deal with the unknown. So we’ve really retooled our workforce in a pretty significant way, to go out and have those conversations and to engage differently. And we’ve had to bulk up the workforce in order to be able to do it, too. Previously, eight years ago, we needed good solution engineers to demonstrate a product. Then we needed good salespeople to go out and identify acknowledged demand.

“The way to get real challenging debate happening, and to stretch and grow this company for our customers, is to get people with vast opinions brought from different parts of the world and different inherent biases, so that we can really become something different. It’s a critical element of what we do.”

It feels like we’ve gone from a business culture a little more than eight years ago where it was important for accounts people to know how to play golf, basically. A lot of business got conducted on the golf course. And this is all gone now. It’s like a vanished…

Way of being. It really is. It’s antiquated. It’s the way of the dinosaur. I would argue, when I came to SAP, that it had started to change. But certainly when I was at Xerox, that’s 20 years ago, that was exactly the way that it operated. You needed to have great relationships with people that trusted you and a good product, and you were as good as done. The reality is that in this really strange, disintermediated, mega-fast world, our customers are wrestling with problems that they don’t know yet know they have. And they’re looking for partners to help them identify the issue, understand what they have to be able to support the improvement of that issue today, and work with them to devise a roadmap to go and solve for it. I think that we’re uniquely qualified to do it. We just have to figure out how to engage in that way, in a repeatable and more low-cost model.

To that end, how does the diversity initiative drive what you plan to do over the next several years? It feels like the workforce has to evolve along with the technology itself.

To the early part of our conversation, we don’t now accurately resemble the real world today, and we recognize that. So SAP is doing some standard big-company things, where they’re saying, “Hey, if 17% of our leadership team is female and we’d like it to be 25% by 2017, then that’s a global mandate and we should go make it so. Make a bunch of programs that trickle down in order to grow women in leadership.” But I think we’re doing really innovative things to be able to become that company, as well. As an example, we recognize that there is incredible diversity in thought, and at one end of that spectrum is that people with autism have amazing skills that are highly applicable to technology, particularly as it relates to code development. We have a really neat program called Autism at Work, wherein SAP will have 1% of its global workforce on the autism spectrum working in our business, in order to be able to do work that is impossible to source elsewhere. So that’s neat diversity of thought that’s starting to be appropriated into the, as I said, water table of the business. In order to be able to grow young women’s interest in IT, which traditionally is declining. Even though the number of graduates in technology has increased over the last several years, the percentage of women in that population has decreased markedly. Why is that happening? Well, maybe it’s because young women aren’t aware that they can have careers that aren’t technology based, like mine. I never became attached to technology. Never found it interesting. Still don’t today. But I really love talking to people about what they’re wrestling with and trying to figure out how to solve it. If we can show young girls that that’s in fact a job opportunity for them, then maybe they’ll stay in it longer and convert to careers in our business. So SAP is working with UBC in creating this program called GIRLsmarts, where we go into Grade 7 classrooms together and talk about what technology jobs look like. We talk about what amazing assets girls organically bring to bear that can be used in the technology industry. While that may feel like seed work, because at Grade 7 they’re a long way from a career at SAP, it’s about the realization that you can have a job here that’s really fulfilling and is organically tied to who you are, without being super tech-geek. So I think we’re doing some neat things, as I said, to start to permeate our consciousness, to make people aware that diversity is really important so that we can be relatable to our customers. Bringing new thinking into our workplace also has the added benefit of changing the way that we currently work and think. So not only is it growing people and creating more diversity for our conversation with our customers, but it’s exposing to our current team, “Hey, diversity is a good thing and you’ve got to learn to work with different people,” and as a result it’s making us more pliable, which I think is good.

“How do you help people who are struggling with stuff? Technology really is an answer to that.”

There’s a myth that technology is value free. Different ways of thinking, coming from fundamentally different worldviews, inform how technology works and affect that paradigm of how technology works, along with for whom it’s made and by who it’s built by. It sounds like, by creating a program that targets high-school students, that you’re focusing on developing the pipeline for bringing new people into tech.

Once you get people in, through the pipeline or whatever you want to call it, you’ve got to recognize good talent in diverse pockets of the business, whether that’s gender diversity or age diversity or ethnic diversity, recognize that you want to cultivate a different kaleidoscope, find great talent in that kaleidoscope and nourish it. I’ve been part of programs internal to SAP that are doing just that, which is amazing. There’s an amazing program, which is in its second generation, called LEAP, which is a women’s leadership program where they take 25 women leaders and expose you to different areas of business and different mentorship opportunities and different outreach opportunities in the community, in order to try and build a bigger kaleidoscipe for you so that you can go out and have a stronger voice in this organization. So that’s been really cool. So we do a lot, not only for the people who work here, but to your point to fill the pipeline. We’re a little farther along than advertised. We have this really cool program called the Sales and Presales Graduate Academy, which goes out to university campuses around the world. We recruit people directly off campus. We bring people with no sales or presales or industry and value engineering skills into our business. We parcel them off to Dublin, California. We run them through a very thorough training facility. We circulate them into areas of the business on rotation, and we bring them on as full-time field workers of some capacity after an 18-month stint in that circulation. And it’s done remarkable things for a variety of areas of our business, in that it opens people’s minds to how young minds are working. It means that we engage with our customers differently as a result of the provocation they give us as part of the day-to-day. And it’s lightening the way that we think. It’s helping take this 42-year-old, what was heavy, capable, fulsome technology and making it lighter and breezier and more consumable in everything we do. And that’s really neat. We’re feeling it culturally.

What are the consequences, and the missed opportunities, if the status quo is allowed to continue, rather than taking a proactive approach?

The bottom line is this. People hire people that look and act like them. If we don’t hire more people that look and act differently, it means that when we get in a room, we can start to think about what the right answer is with and for our customers. Systemic groupthink is something that you get sucked into when everybody looks and acts the same. The way to get real challenging debate happening, and to stretch and grow this company for our customers, is to get people with vast opinions brought from different parts of the world and different inherent biases, so that we can really become something different. It’s a critical element of what we do.

Would you say that the cost of doing nothing is irrelevance?

Yeah, you’ll go the way of the dodo. I don’t think anybody could ever say SAP isn’t evolving and changing. We live in a culture of constant change in this organization. But really focusing on changing the physical populace of the business is a really important thing. Otherwise, you’re effecting change without the ability for absorption.

Why is it that big legacy companies are talking this way? Why is all the talk about disruption and changing the world coming from start-up culture, which is overwhelmingly white dudes? I feel like things are changing in the tech sector, but not from the direction that talks the most about change.

I sometimes think, if I were to go do something else one day, how would I begin? And as ridiculously pedantic as this sounds, I would begin by assembling a team of people who were really, really smart and who came from completely different walks of life, to help us think through what we could possibly do. You can’t do that if you’re doing it with people who see the world the way that you do.

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