9th November 2020 |   Rainer Stern

How will leadership change in the digital future?

How will leadership change in the digital future?

Imagine… You are strolling on a boardwalk by the beach. The warm rays of the sun are tickling your nose as you savour the beautiful scenery. Suddenly, darkness takes over, the sun vanishes, and there is a mist in the air. A tornado! A huge swirling spout of water, this massive monster heads relentlessly towards you. There seems to be no escape.

If you have ever felt as helpless in a dangerous situation, you can comprehend how many leaders are feeling in today’s turbulent times. We are all confronted with fast-paced changes sparked by technologies that were not around only a few years ago. They are creating disruption in markets all around the globe: quantum computing fuels big data, the Internet of Things fuels artificial intelligence, and deep learning fuels robotics.

In this context, I am convinced that digital transformation not only has an impact on businesses; it also has an impact on leadership. My experience shows that the more digital technologies influence the behaviour of people, eventually resulting in different behaviours by companies, the more unforeseen and unplanned challenges will hit today’s and tomorrow’s leaders.

In this article, I will tell the story of how we were hit by the storm and how we needed to transform in a way we would have never expected.

Today’s sales managers need to be both innovation leaders and coaches

For five years we have been running the “SAP Academy for Sales Leaders”, a global programme to equip first-line sales managers with the skills and tools they need to become better innovation leaders and coaches, drive innovation in their teams, and successfully develop team members. Since 2017, we have held 32 workshops in different locations in Silicon Valley with a total of 750 sales leaders representing 51 nations. Every year we optimized and adjusted the content based on our new sales strategy.

The most important aspect of the Academy was measuring the business outcomes of the teams of Academy participants compared with those that did not participate over the period 2017-2019. The averaged numbers are significant:

  • Increase in number of opportunities by 57%
  • Increase in pipeline value by 97%
  • Increase in win rate by 38%
  • Increase in revenue by 46%
  • Increase in average deal size by 65%

After years of running the Academy, we felt that we had figured out how to deliver impactful leadership training. It seemed like an easy ride on a sunny day. And then darkness surrounded us….

COVID-19 requires a new growth mindset: VUCA Prime

I wanted to ensure to deliver a similar experience to our onsite version of the programme: high interactivity between participants and expert speakers.

Within a few days my sales leadership enablement approach was hit by the international travel freeze because of the pandemic. I realized that face-to-face workshop delivery not only has many disadvantages (such as inflexible timing and significant ecological footprint); it was simply no longer possible. How could we react? What should we do?

I remember one of my team members saying: “We no longer need to talk about the VUCA world, we are right in it! Now we need to transform ourselves with VUCA Prime.” VUCA Prime is a leadership framework which was first introduced in 2007 by Bob Johansen at the Institute for the Future (IFTF, Palo Alto). The framework calls for leaders to address Volatility with Vision, transform Uncertainty to Understanding, replace Complexity with Clarity, and counter Ambiguity with Agility. What a clear guidance to lead us out of the storm!

We called our new approach “Leading Sales Teams in Times of Crisis” and transformed the Academy into a new programme to address what is relevant for sales in the new reality.

Transforming delivery

It became obvious that delivery needed to be completely virtual, so we chose the upcoming standard platform Zoom for web-conferencing and web cams. Still, I wanted to ensure to deliver a similar experience to our onsite version of the programme: high interactivity between participants and expert speakers. The web conferencing solution allowed us to implement polls, breakout rooms, chat, online annotations, building word clouds, and so on.

The engagement with our customers has changed and became more empathetic and human; therefore, sales leaders need to enable their sales teams to become more aware of their customers’ current mood and situation.

Using online conferencing as a delivery model required us to focus on selected topics with highest priority. Based on the learning analysis which we conducted with sales leaders in all regions, we realized that we have two opportunities. First, we can potentially address many more participants in a shorter timeframe with 90-minutes sessions. Second, we could deliver a series of topics that would provide participants with more reflection time in between sessions. This approach would help them to foster experience exchanges between themselves.

I underestimated that we had gained much more flexibility with the new delivery model. It allowed us a higher speed to customer, much shorter lead time, and less administration by eliminating venues and travel arrangements. Plus, we achieved a much higher level of scalability compared to our past onsite approach through train-the-trainer enablement. This enabled other learning team members, and even an extended network from other units (operations, HR, industry sales, partner enablement), to deliver the series themselves.

Transforming content

There was a second major transformation in terms of our instructional design for content in the context of virtual delivery. The main themes and guiding principles were around faster optimization and adoption based on local and regional requirements, shorter content pieces, and highly interactive elements. See Figure 1 for an outline of the provided session themes as well as the presented content.

Key session themes in a virtual context.
Figure 1: Key session themes in a virtual context.

Leadership theme 1: You as a leader

Being aware of your own state of mind as a leader makes you see the world from various different perspectives and provides you with more options – something that is needed during the uncertain and unpredictable times that we are in. Leaders learn that that they are talking from a state of mind to a state of mind. There are no unresourceful people, but unresourceful states of mind. This awareness helps leaders to reflect on their own state of mind and to lead with a resourceful state of mind rather than looking for old methods that wouldn’t work anymore.

Leadership theme 2: Focus on your customer

The next step is to apply this state-of-mind awareness to our customers so as to understand what their current mood. Are they unaware? Are they in survival mode? Are they adapting? Or are they already thriving? It’s crucial to understand the state of the customers’ mind in order to approach them in the correct manner, especially to become part of their inner circle and to become their trusted advisor. It seems counterintuitive for sales managers, but it’s very important to “not sell” if the customer is still unaware or in survival mode. The engagement with our customers has changed and became more empathetic and human; therefore, sales leaders need to enable their sales teams to become more aware of their customers’ current mood and situation.

Lifelong learning happens now across teams, organizations and even countries.

Leadership theme 3: Focus on your team

It’s imperative for sales leaders to work with VUCA Prime in order to provide their teams with a clear vision, understanding, clarity and adaptability to guide them through these uncertain and turbulent times. Creating an environment where people feel safe to share their concerns and anxieties – but also their innovative ideas – is a crucial task for any leader who wants a high-performing team. Bringing psychological safety and accountability into context helped our sales leaders to better navigate their teams through these turbulent waters.

Leadership theme 4: Leading and empowering your sales team

Reflecting on the state of mind of the leader, the customer and the team, we included the second-line and executive management, exploring how sales leaders need to balance between their teams and their leadership: what is important and relevant to whom and how they can “translate” the strategic and global messages from leadership to their teams in a measurable and tangible outcome. We focus on empowering sales managers to manage potential pipeline gaps in a productive manner.

Transforming our sales learning community

Third and lastly, our transformation journey included our sales-learning community. The aim is to excite each cohort’s participants and make them more eager to learn and hear from one another. Equally important is the transformation of our own team: we have designed the interactive elements in each session in such a way that we can learn from the insights provided by the participants. This approach helps us not only to continuously adjust and optimize the content of the programme; it also enables us to provide insights back to the organization.

With this transformation towards an engaged sales learning community we now see three opportunities:

  1. Communication can be run by cohort – for example, by providing additional insights to the group, fostering communication among participants.
  2. Peer-to-peer learning is part of SAP’s culture and it can also happen at a larger scale across cohorts for all participants of the programme. Using our infrastructure – like collaboration or video-share tools – our sales leaders now proactively demonstrate the importance of learning from one another. Lifelong learning happens now across teams, organizations and even countries.
  3. I believe that we now have created a community of sales leaders who want to continue their learning journey in a way that is relevant to them (peer-to-peer learning). Participants feel that they belong to this community and are part of something special, which increases their motivation to learn. This in turn provides us with the chance to use this community to deliver targeted new content to them on a continuing basis.

Our path forward

In the future, extended virtual learning is here to stay. Most sales leaders have realized that learning and personal interaction can be very well facilitated using virtual tools. The advantages we have seen are obvious.

At the same time, we have received demands for selected personal face-to-face workshops which foster networking and deeper experiential learning interactions. Interestingly, these requests differ a lot: from a local sales unit covering a specific industry, to a whole region offering a sales leadership summit for all sales leaders across countries, to global programmes with a mix of leaders across all regions worldwide.

The challenge will be to find the right balance to meet these demands. Based on recent experiences in 2020 I am convinced that we are much better equipped to provide more flexibility across our local, regional and global organization. In the end, the tornado has brought us closer together.

Global Vice President at SAP | + posts

Rainer Stern is Global Vice President SAP, Sales Acceleration and Leadership Programs. In over 25 years at SAP, he has been responsible for sales in various customer segments across different countries and regions. As the Global Account Director for Siemens, he experienced the high demands of complex organizations in a global environment. Rainer’s passion for excellence and repeatable sales success was critical to leading several key transformational programmes at SAP. These global programmes covered all Account Executives, Sales Managers, and Global Account Directors. Most importantly, they provided sustainable measurable business impact.