How Paul Marriott is Radically Transforming SAP Asia Pacific Japan

Paul Marriott

He’s just eight months into his role as the boss of SAP Asia Pacific Japan but Paul Marriott is radically changing his 29,000-strong workforce.

Current role: President, SAP Asia Pacific Japan
Tenure: 8 months
Age: 51
Previous roles: COO; Regional President Digital Core; Senior Vice-president, Database & Analytics; Vice-president, SAP HANA; Vice-president, Enterprise Information & Middleware, SAP Asia Pacific Japan.

How do you define good leadership?

I focus on purpose and people. SAP has always had a strong focus on how to help the world run better and improve people’s lives but purposeful leadership, for me, is how do you connect that macro statement to an individual’s belief? If you’re motivated by your belief and your purpose, you’ll deliver on the financial outcomes within an organisation but it will happen more naturally because you’re motivated and inspired. That employee engagement drives customer success.

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Many companies talk about purpose but don’t follow through.

You’ve got to have the vehicles to drive that commitment. For example, I’m very motivated by all aspects of diversity inclusion. If you look at our industry, we don’t have gender equality so we must establish gender equality in SAP and, frankly, within the tech industry. But some of the ways that the roles are designed and the environment that we have today are not always conducive for women. I’ve got pilot programs running with young mothers who want career growth but also want to take a pause for some time out. And when they come back into the workplace they want a flexible way of coming back in. Maybe they want to work three or four days a week but it’s not about working Monday to Thursday, right? There are 40 hours in a [working] week and 160 hours in a month. If you deliver the outcome, who cares when you work the hours? So SAP’s Pledge to Flex is about looking for mechanisms that give more empowerment to any individual and drive their success in the company.

Let’s talk about Pledge for Flex. Companies are grappling with the future of work and many will dictate their model, whether it’s remote or hybrid. But you’re handing the power over to the employees, right?

That’s right. We work on the basis that in a motivated environment people will do the right thing to maximise their wellbeing and work-life balance. If you get that right, you get maximum productivity. It’s a balancing act and we’re looking at a crowd-sourcing model, where we take all of the ideas that have come from the employees and then create it. Pledge to Flex will emerge differently [across departments] based on the outcomes people are trying to drive and the bottom-up feedback from different teams and different demographics. Everyone thought the millennials and the early talents would be super-cool with working from home all the time but they hate it. You’re bringing in new cohorts of graduates and they don’t even meet anyone for months, apart from through a video call. The loss of physical connection is huge in terms of their learning. It’s interesting how we made an assumption about early talents that was completely wrong and that’s why it’s got to be bottom-up.

I know it’s evolving but what does Pledge to Flex actually look like?

We’re looking at models whereby people can work a certain number of hours a week, a certain number of hours a month and flex around that. We’re also redefining “carer”. We’ve had parental leave and maternity leave but carer’s leave is now a flexible definition of how people take advantage of extra vacation days linked to whether it’s [to help care for] extended family or pets and so on. We ran a mental health day that the whole company took off. What’s difficult is if someone takes a day off but no-one else does – it doesn’t stop the electronic communication. I know it’s only one day but when the entire company wound down, employees were able to completely disconnect and that was really, really powerful. We also have “no meeting Fridays”. We take internal meetings out of the diary and that time can be used for development – to work on your own growth – or simply to catch up. It allows you to finish on a Friday and have the weekend without feeling like you’re in constant catch-up mode.

In a YPO survey last year, 34 per cent of CEOs around the globe nominated engagement as their biggest challenge when it comes to managing people. In a fully flexible workplace, does engagement become an even bigger challenge?

Last year, when I was COO for Scott [Russell, the former president], the thing that got the greatest feedback was when we started running all-hands calls in a completely unscripted format. Two or three thousand people joined these calls and we wouldn’t have a clue what we were going to be asked. We got positive engagement because of this unfiltered approach and we maintained that all the way through [the pandemic], with belief, purpose and people at the centre of everything. We also acquired a company called Qualtrics [in 2018, paying US$8 billion for it], which is a really cool engagement platform. Gone are the days of pulsing your employees once a year and waiting three months for the results. We pulse our entire employee base multiple times a year and that gives us massive amounts of feedback at scale on a regular basis.

A lot of businesses worry about collaboration in the new world of remote working. What’s your view on that?

There’s a cohesion that comes from being physically together. That’s where the hybrid model is crucial. We’ve been redesigning our office space to bring people together and drive those types of activities, either internally or with our partners or customers.

Is the office still the centre of gravity then?

I do think the office is still an important physical meeting place. I’ll personally be there but I’m not going to mandate people coming back in – I’m going to let them decide for themselves.

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Some employers are very wary of full flexibility because they simply don’t trust their teams. What do you think that says about their leadership?

I work on the basis that you trust first and then you see what behaviours transpire. If you have behaviours that you’re not comfortable with, you address those. I’m highly inclusive, highly transparent and highly trusting so that’s my default position... We also have a leadership trust index so every single manager at SAP – myself included – has a trust index.

How are you going?

I’ve always had a high trust index but honestly, mine’s dropped a little bit since I came into this role. My partner, who works in HR, has given me a few counselling sessions. She’s like, “Paul, this is good leadership trust”, but the point is, it’s never going to be good enough for me.

There’s a huge skills shortage. Do programs like Pledge for Flex give you the edge in the jobs market?

The existing talent pool – which is not big enough – will gravitate to organisations that provide balance and flex. So I do think it’s important. The other thing we’re thinking through is how do we get to untapped talent pools that we’ve not looked at before? We’ve just launched a marketplace in Japan to help less privileged communities skill up. There’s a lot of digital-skilling initiatives that we’re running around the region. We’ll start competing with other industries for some of that talent as well. I have a talent acquisition team that has strategies to nurture them outside our direct industry. We ran another initiative called Back to Work, which was for women – or men – who had been out of the workplace for a long period of time. It’s a constant fight for talent. It’ll be one of our biggest challenges over the next five years.

Is it the thing that worries you the most in your role?

It is actually. We do great work with the universities and academic institutions to create long-term talent. And we have a digital learning hub, which I’m ferociously advocating that we make more and more available to anybody and everybody.

What’s one piece of advice you’d give a brand-new CEO?

Be very clear about what your belief is and what it is that you want to impact in society over the next three years of your tenure. What environment do you want to create for your people to affect that purposeful outcome? Spend 99 per cent of your time on those two topics.

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Illustration by Marc Némorin

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