Meet the Women Steering the Ship at SAP SuccessFactors
Reading time: 14 mins
A unique and inspiring aspect of the SAP SuccessFactors organization is that the three individuals at the helm of product direction and delivery are women. What’s even more impressive is the influence these women are having on their customers and employees. President Jill Popelka, Senior Vice President Meg Bear, who runs the Product, Engineering, and Operations organization, and Senior Vice President Amy Wilson, who heads the Products and Design team, work in harmony as a dynamic, determined, talented, and accomplished team achieving impressive results. As proof, in the first half of 2020, more than 400 companies have gone live with SAP SuccessFactors solutions, despite the challenging global pandemic. In addition to expanding its customer base, SAP SuccessFactors continues to appoint a growing number of women to leadership roles, having recently added Chief Revenue Officer Maryann Abbajay to the executive ranks.
Together, Popelka, Bear, and Wilson — and Abbajay going forward — are leading the charge in bringing products to life for their customers. As they do this, there are moments of transcendence, according to Bear, such as when customers express genuine gratitude after a successful go-live or send a note of appreciation that the team went above and beyond to help them. Bear also witnessed two customers at a user conference literally high five each other after attending a new product roadmap session that Wilson had presented, in awe because of all the great functionality built into that release. Bear remarked, “I was just blown away. It was as if that was the best thing that happened to them in their entire lives. I had never seen customers high five themselves for something that someone had made happen for them. It was amazing.”
In the male-dominated field of SAP technology, these women are launching and delivering new product ideas and innovations and shining with bright spots of achievement. Their leadership combined with the hard work of their employees is having a palpable effect on customers. After the software is developed, sold, implemented, and delivered to end users, the result is changing people’s lives. For example, in one instance, an SAP SuccessFactors customer in the Latin America region — María José Villanueva, Chief Human Resources Officer, Mariposa Corporation in Guatemala — approached all three executives at a global event to share that she had been able to deliver learning to people over their mobile phones who had never gone to college or experienced the ability to learn on a regular basis — and without having to go somewhere and pay for it. This customer said to them, “You’re changing people’s lives. I’ve seen them online on the weekends and at night trying to learn and improve themselves and grow in their careers, and you’ve given that ability to them through your learning solution.”
To learn how the SAP SuccessFactors culture came to deliver these results, SAPinsider recently interviewed Popelka, Bear, and Wilson in an up-close-and-personal conversation. What follows is a summary of what transpired in their words. Also check out the video interview SAPinsider conducted with all three women here.
Q: What got you interested in technology?
Meg Bear (MB): I took my first programming class in middle school learning BASIC to help me navigate the brand-new Commodore 64 my dad gave me. But by the time I got to college, I no longer saw the computer science discipline as a good fit for me — it felt very introverted and isolated — so I opted for economics instead, because I loved the idea of trying to figure out how and why things work. When I got out of school, like everybody else, I tried to find my first job and was recruited by an enterprise-focused manufacturing software business, and when I started at that technology company, I realized that I found my people. I loved the ability of technology to help business, and I discovered I had a unique ability to connect with both engineers and business problems, which was a valuable skill in this field. And I loved the industry because it was changing all the time. So even though I kind of fell into it by accident, I fell in love right away.
Amy Wilson (AW): Growing up, my mom was a math teacher and my dad was a statistics professor, and I loved math. I initially went into engineering at college, but when I got there, I realized that I didn’t like it. I also briefly majored in computer science where I was in classes with 95% boys who seemed like they spent their entire lives programming on their Commodores. I felt like I couldn’t possibly keep up with their background, and like Meg, I felt extremely isolated and different. So, although I liked computer science, it just didn’t feel like the match for me. At that point, I did a complete 180 and switched over to psychology before finally ending up in economics, which I found to be a perfect in-between of math and psychology all wrapped up in one. A couple years after I graduated, I saw an opportunity to get into tech and take all the skills I had learned from all those disciplines and apply them to business software — in particular, the people side of business software.
Jill Popelka (JP): In school, I studied liberal arts and majored in international studies because I was so passionate about understanding global cultures, political science, world history, and how people have evolved. When I graduated, the consulting industry was on fire, and there was a real need for people who understood technology and wanted to make an impact. I wanted to have an impact on the world so I thought that might be my path to get there. As I got into consulting, I realized that I had a knack for translating technology speak into a more understandable language that helped people really see what technology could do for them. I became super passionate about learning what businesses needed and then applying an understanding of technology to drive those business outcomes. I was excited about the business value technology could deliver to the world and about figuring out how to help engage teams to do that. It all started with a love of international studies, a passion for adventure, and a desire to help make the world a better place. It might sound cheesy, but it’s true.
Q: Was there any individual who inspired you to persevere or sponsored you throughout your career?
JP: A huge launchpad for my career was when Adaire Fox-Martin [Executive Board Member at SAP] asked me to leave the US market and work for her in Singapore leading the consulting services business in the Asia Pacific Japan (APJ) region. She not only took a chance on me, but once I got there, she guided and empowered me along the way and was always offering help and support. And while I didn’t call on it often, I always knew it was there if I needed it. Having someone who believes in you and who you trust to stand up for you, if needed, makes a huge difference.
MB: Sponsorship suggests that someone in a position of authority is not just giving you support for an idea for your career, but also helping to make it happen. People — male or female — don’t get to a senior-executive level without that kind of support and sponsorship. Within our current organization, Michael Weingartner [President of SAP Cloud Platform at SAP] has been a huge supporter and sponsor for me. Thomas Saueressig [Executive Board Member at SAP] has been amazingly thoughtful and open to not just our day-to-day business needs, but also helping us to have a critical place within SAP. But even outside of SAP, I’ve been really lucky from pretty early on to have people who have seen ability in me that I might not have recognized and helped me figure out how to lean on that more than I might be comfortable with on my own.
AW: One of the first best examples of sponsorship for me was actually Meg Bear, back when she was my development counterpart during a prior employment where we both worked for the same company. I was leading product strategy, and we were in completely different organizations, and yet we were tied at the hip. Meg was extremely supportive, offering advice, talking me up, sharing space with me, and giving me a voice so I could be much more effective in my work. Having that kind of female sponsorship and partnership was extremely important to me, especially at that time in my career.
Q: What is unique about the culture that SAP SuccessFactors is creating for its employees and customers?
AW: What really took me aback when I came on board with SAP was the collaborative spirit amidst a very large and geographically dispersed company. Particularly within SAP SuccessFactors, which is a combination of acquisitions, everyone has a variety of different backgrounds — people who have been with SAP forever, people who have been with SAP SuccessFactors forever, people who came from different acquired companies, brand-new people, etc. For employees to be all over the world with all sorts of diverse backgrounds and all looking to do the same thing — do right by the customer and help each other — I found that truly extraordinary.
MB: I’m relatively new at SAP SuccessFactors. But since I started in October 2019, I’ve been blown away by how supportive and connected the leadership is with everyone, especially as we’ve shifted through the pandemic. Our leaders have led from the heart with amazing alignment, and that’s not only differentiating, but also speaks to me personally, because it is not just what I value, it’s how I want to live my life. I also like how we truly feel like a global company — in terms of the perspectives, ideas, mindset, and openness to understanding different points of view, realities, holidays, calendar days, and cultural expectations — which makes it a great place to foster ideas and innovation. I enjoy how across every level, there’s a desire to collaborate, share, and be open about what’s working (or not) and to problem solve and improve processes. That’s what builds not just winning products, but great places to work.
JP: Operating effectively in a big matrix organization like SAP starts with trust. You must have the expectation and belief that everyone has the right intention and is truly lined up to deliver for the customer, while looking out for one another as one team working toward a single goal. Leaders need to create an environment of psychological safety for all their teams through ownership orientations, a strong spirit of accountability, and transparent communication. That’s an important element of what we do, and while we always strive to do better, we are getting to the point where we are successfully creating that foundation of trust and always challenging one another to drive toward those business results that are so critical for our customers and also for SAP. For example, we had a series of live interactive webcasts across our various regions at the beginning of the pandemic — and will hold another round before the end of the year — so our employees could speak directly to our global and respective regional leaders and ask them questions. That complete transparency between the executives and employees shows how that behavior of trust is modeled from the top and how important it is that we work closely across geographic boundaries to deliver our innovative products and create raging customer success.
Q: Would you share a career or life achievement you are extremely proud of?
JP: Meg, Amy, and I are all hardcore about how this business, our employees, and our teams are working, but we also mix in a little bit of life. You can’t do work without life. For instance, I recently dropped my daughter off at college. And it was a huge moment for me to see this independent, driven, purpose-filled woman start the next phase of her journey on her terms. And I found that Meg and Amy were the people I was sending pictures to because I knew they would be excited for me. When we can celebrate our kids’ achievements together, it makes the work even more meaningful for me.
AW: For me, what gives me the warm fuzzies is more of a series of hundreds of proud moments — each time I am able to help people come together, where each person is leveraging their own strengths and I can make them feel special. So, it’s really a lot of great dealings with employees and customers where I can bring them together in an inclusive way and then we collaborate to deliver something great.
MB: Every product that we are working on, in any given moment, that’s the thing I’m most proud of. And then years pass, and that product becomes normal, and the newest thing we are doing is what I’m most proud of. What I love about this industry is that it’s not a place where you can stand still on an achievement. You have to earn it every day with the customers and the teams you build. And you have to continuously disrupt yourself to have the skills and ideas that will support the customers and future-proof them for what they need to do tomorrow. I am extremely proud of how we have done that up until now, and I think the best pieces are in front of us.
Q: What advice can you offer women who are just starting out in technology — or really at any stage of their careers — to help them climb the ladder to success?
JP: Never stop learning. Sometimes if we’ve been doing something for a while, we think we know it, but no matter where you are in life, if you can be open to new people and new opportunities, you’re going to learn something and find a new way to bring your unique value to bear and offer your gifts every single day. What I would say to young people is that we need you. For females who are questioning, “Am I really going to start this career?” or “Is this what I want to do?” we absolutely need you, and we need you ready and curious and learning every day.
MB: I would add: Don’t let yourself stay in a comfort zone. Continuously challenge and push yourself to try new things. When you’re faced with something you’ve never done before, have confidence that you will figure it out. There will be more new life experiences than there will be predictable pattern recognition. Anybody starting or growing a career today needs to double down on that adaptability, build up self-confidence, and come to learn that the experience of being lost is not something to fear. It can be scary, but you have to plow through imposter syndrome to achieve a level of capability. This journey is best lived with practice, so focus on lifelong learning and challenging yourself, your skills, and how to apply them.
AW: In parallel, it’s important to understand that pretty much everyone around you is making it up as they go along. When people are doing something they haven’t done before, imposter syndrome causes them to think, “I’m not qualified to do this. I can’t do it.” But the truth is that no one is perfect. Even if there are lots of people blustering around you, rising to the challenge, and acting like they know what they’re doing, it’s probably not the case, and it’s really important — for women especially — to keep that in mind. As you’re struggling to make your way and thinking you’re an imposter, try to remember that you’re not any more of an imposter than anyone else, because they are making it up as they go along too.
Describing Each Other’s Leadership Styles
When asked to describe their own leadership styles, Popelka, Bear, and Wilson chose to talk about one another instead — a testament to their admiration and respect for each other, and their close-knit relationship. Here’s what they had to say.
On Meg Bear: According to Popelka, Bear is highly intelligent with an incredible sense of humor and is constantly striving to remove obstacles without settling and to get to the best answer, which always takes into consideration various contributing perspectives. “Meg is always ready to empower team members to make their own decision the right way. She’s huge on understanding her team’s power alleys and where they play best, and then ensuring they can work in a way so that the whole team benefits from it,” says Popelka. “Meg expects excellence from all of us — from design to operations and from sales to support — and knowing that Meg has those high expectations makes me better.” Wilson adds, “What sets Meg apart is she has a brilliant, unique way of applying candor to everyone — from her own manager to her entire 2,500 person team — and she’s able to do it with wit and realism so that it comes across as true and authentic. It’s so refreshing, and people love it.”
On Amy Wilson: Bear says that Wilson is the most creative person she knows, and that because she understands people better than they understand themselves, she figures out how to give them the right space and guidance to become something they never thought they would be. “People who work for Amy blossom in such unexpected ways because she not only sees their potential, but channels it to a powerful place — and she does that with products and strategy as well,” she says. “She sees what’s missing and where the opportunities are, and then brings a story together that people can follow.” Popelka describes Wilson as unimaginably gifted, clairvoyant, and an amazing communicator who can gently educate and engage people by sharing a new layer of contexts to help them better understand. “There is nobody who has informed me more on how design and development processes work today than Amy, and she probably doesn’t even know it — or recognize all that she offers to people every single day,” says Popelka. “It’s a revelation how she sees a design for the future, explains it to everyone around her so effectively, and then brings it to life.”
On Jill Popelka: As a leader, Bear says that Popelka is extremely biased to action, that she is motivated and uplifting, and that she leads with not just integrity, but with heart. “It’s so obvious to every single person that Jill is a great human and strong leader who truly cares. She changes the energy of every group she’s around and helps everyone feel like we’ve got a great plan that we can deliver on,” says Bear. “That energy she brings is visible to our customers and employees, and it makes all the difference in a business like ours.” Wilson adds that Popelka is inspiring, supportive, fun, compassionate, curious, and fiercely competitive — but in the sense that she wants her colleagues to hook arms with her and cross the finish line together — with the power to light up every room without even being in it. “What’s been amazing during this pandemic is what an incredible difference it has made to have Jill at the helm of our business,” says Wilson. “Jill has a way of truly understanding each person and each organization’s struggle and how we can come together to do better. In every single interaction she has, she makes everyone feel extremely important and special. Her leadership just lifts every single person up every day — she is truly living her early ideas of changing the world and improving people’s lives.”