Master storyteller

9th November 2020 |   Journal Of Sales Transformation

SAP’s Waldemar Adams explains that compelling storytelling is not just for customer communications – it’s vital when communicating internally.

Storytelling is enriching the pure facts to add the purpose, to build alignment, and also to forge a communication which lasts, that people can remember and recall, and create an emotion.

A long time ago in Germany, a young Waldemar Adams started his own company selling software. He produced his first software catalogue using a typewriter. Since then, he has risen to be one of the most senior leaders at global technology specialist SAP.

“But today I need to explain to my teenage daughters what a typewriter is. I recently did just that,” he laughs.

An entrepreneur and businessperson since his teens, Adam’s work has always involved a mix of technology and selling – “the “how and the why”. And he attributes his success in sales jobs to having “the confidence to know what I’m talking about” and “being able to build trust because people understood that I know what I’m talking about”.

Indeed, Adams wasn’t always in sales. “Technically, I started as a programmer,” he tells the Journal. “The first thing I did was coding, writing programs. That was when I was a teenager. I had already started my first business when I was 16, because in Germany that’s the youngest age you are allowed to found your own company.”

Adams has both written his own software and also sold it to companies. “It was about selling real estate, a database-driven application I sold here in Germany – I’m not sure whether they’re still using it because that was in the 90s.”

Then during university, he co-founded a computer equipment company together with two of his peers. The trio sold PC components for the self-build market over the phone: CPUs, cases, memory, DVD drives, hard-drives, and so on. “That was my entrepreneur time and my start-up time.”

Those days running his own show not only shaped him as a person but provided valuable experience for sales leadership roles in the corporate world. “When you drive your own business you need to solve a problem, otherwise it will stay unresolved, right? So, you need to drive it; you need to feel the responsibility. And that’s a lesson learnt at that time, definitely.”

The whole Master’s experience is like a Thelma and Louise road trip – with a happy ending, of course! It’s a journey. You do not know exactly what is ahead. You have some assumptions: sometimes they’re right; sometimes they’re wrong. And then you need to find your way.

Customer Success Board

Today Adams, 53, is a Global Senior Vice President at SAP, based in Frankfurt. He reports to Steve Shute, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of SAP’s Customer Success Board, a relatively new but high-profile organisation that covers sales as well as sales support.

“The core of it is the sales organisation, but we have also quite recently moved services, partner and ecosystem, sales support, all into that extended sales organisation, which we call Customer Success,” Adams explains. The organisation is multifaceted, spanning numerous functions including the services teams, services sales and services consultants, and the partner team, which drives partner enablement, partner recruitment, everything which is partner-related business.”

SAP’s Customer Success board member Adaire Fox-Martin coined the expression “customer first, SAP second, LOB third”, and this is the mantra that SAP employees now follow, including the salespeople. “That’s our priority: first, to think about what makes the customer successful; then second, what is the best for SAP; and third, what is the best for your team, for you personally. And of course, for some people it’s quite a challenge and the reverse of what certain people did in the past,” Adams says.

Waldemar Adams in his own words

“As you can hear from my accent. I’m a German. Based out of Germany, I live in Frankfurt, and I’m working in the Customer Success Board area at SAP. The Customer Success Board area is relatively new. The core of it is the sales organisation; but quite recently we also moved services, partner and ecosystem, and sales support, into that extended sales organisation, which we call Customer Success.

“In the organisation I’m an L2 . That means my boss, as an L1 reports into the board area member, Adaire Fox-Martin, who runs Customer Success. My boss, Steve Shute is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of Customer Success.
“My direct reports are five people. We are design,

“My direct reports are five people. We are design, launch and also help to execute global programmes. Our main customers are the seven regions within SAP. We have a geographical breakdown: North America, Latin America, APJ, Greater China, and then three different facets of Europe, Middle East and Africa, which add up to seven. We usually work with the regional presidents and with the regional CEOs and their teams to do things, both to improve our business performance and to streamline our operational excellence.

“I’m now four years into this global role. Six or eight years before, I was the head of the EMEA analytics software business at SAP. I had a team of 270 salespeople operating across Europe, Middle East and Africa, selling our analytics, business intelligence, artificial intelligence – so machine learning and financial and risk-management software. That was my sweet spot.”

“We started with this roughly three years ago. Actually, we started with the Customer First business area, and that is also part of this Customer Success board area. So, the theory was there a while ago – and then we built the organisation to make it real.”

Adam’s day-to-day role involves managing five direct reports, who work to design, launch, and help execute global programmes across seven regions within SAP. “We usually work with the regional presidents and CEOs and their teams, improving our business performance and streamlining our operational excellence. Right now, we have maybe 13 or 14 initiatives, but the top ones are demand management (not a surprise in a sales organisation) but also improved discounting or experience management – our experience as a sales organisation.”

Adams also brings with him experience running the 270-strong team that drove SAPS analytics, machine-learning and financial and risk-management software business in EMEA. That was important for his credibility. “Now I’m in the role of driving business performance, improving operational excellence, I know what that means first-hand because I was doing it as a profession. I think this gives me a good balance of doing things in a way that is not too theoretical, so that there is the likelihood that it will be practically applied.”

His prior entrepreneurial experience was also useful in his transition from sales professional to manager. “We see it in a lot in companies, in many sales organisations: ‘Hey, you are good and successful as an individual contributor. Now you are a manager, right! Replicate your success and make other more successful. And we see that is not necessarily the answer.

“It varies in companies, the level of support an individual seller gets to achieve that level. I think, honestly, I was lucky because I had this period before when I learnt my lesson. Everything that I do today is like running my own business and feel that responsibility.

“I think I’m also a good people manager from what I hear and the feedback I get. But being a salesperson and a sales manager is totally different. And I actually did mistakes by promoting good salespeople to become not-so-good sales managers, so I feel guilty contributing to that problem. It’s not easy, right?”

Storytelling is super-communication

“Some people might say: ‘Oh, selling might have negative implications.’ I do not belong to that group of people because why should it, right? You can use the word telling and have exactly the same sentence. You tell your customers about the value and the need and the reason why, and to the same extent you can tell your people about that.

“And communication, that helps to fill a void, right. Because there is a demand. You are an organisation. What is the strategy? What are our goals? What are our priorities? What does my boss want me to do? Yet communication is often just about passing information and facts. ‘You need to achieve 200 million this year. Good luck!’ So that is the information, that is the fact.

“But storytelling is enriching that pure facts to add purpose, to build alignment, and also to forge a communication which lasts, that people can remember and recall, and create an emotion. Because we are not robots, who listen to zero and ones. We are humans and we need the human touch. And that’s not negative.”

The importance of storytelling

Adams has recently completed his Master’s degree in Leading Sales Transformation with Middlesex University and sales business school Consalia. His dissertation focused on the importance of storytelling in the context of written communication internally and with partners. He set out to answer questions around what sales leaders need to know to be effective in their communication to drive business success, and how they can know whether the communication worked as they intended and created the effect they wanted. He focused on the messaging and the structure of the content to help colleagues who are not natural-born storytellers, especially those who are also risk-averse and may be worried that the communication is too personal or strays too far from the core message.

In general, sales teams see very little of their senior leaders. “In SAP, and also in other companies, you have your annual sales kick-off and then you maybe have one or two events where you see them on stage,” Adams explains.

“Most of the time you don’t see your leader, particularly your senior leaders, very often. And usually this is through the lens of your laptop, through the lens of your emails, their email communication. Moreover, this tends not to be an area of focus for sales leaders. There are tons of people who have done great work on communication and storytelling but, interestingly enough, the focus is always the outside world, and most of it is also concerning our presence on stage.

“I love to tell stories, I love to be on stage and present to people, to customers or internally to people. We all adore great storytellers, right, like Steve Jobs for example. But it seems more like an art. It’s not a science. We observe it and we think: ‘Oh, it’s great, but are they like natural born storytellers or is it something you can learn?’

“And yes, you can learn something. There’s a ton of trainings. But most of it is how to show confidence on stage, how to raise your voice, what words to use, or to tell your story – but it’s more on stage and it’s more for the customers. There’s little to nothing that I found about how to talk to other important people: the people inside your organisation, the people inside your team. Is it fair to do a brilliant job at storytelling for your customers, but then with your team you’re sending a boring email? That’s not the right balance.”

How has he developed?

So what does Adams do differently today? In the past he admits to having a tendency to taking a box-ticking approach to problems: “Problem identified, programme developed, problem overcome. Right? So, like, celebrate successes, fix problem, fix it fast.” However, this approach left no space for doubts, for concerns, for failure, which are important elements of learning and growth.

“What I learnt is that it’s OK to have this inner dialogue about failure, about changing your mind, about misperceptions, about adjustment – and also make it not only an inner dialogue but speak with your team about it or with others. That was quite a big change. It was also a relief, and I think I now have a more consultative approach in what I’m doing, involving others in my team or my virtual team more. We now have this collaborative approach instead of me fixing the problem for others.”

Communicating through Covid

“My team is in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, and the UK. And we are used to working together virtually. We are used to being the ‘lonely warriors’, the ‘one-person battleships’. But still we are human beings.

“I can only speak for myself, but I created a virtual happy hour every Friday afternoon at five. And I said it’s not to talk about the job. You do not even need to show up. It’s like you go to your pub and you find some friends or not.

“And most of my guys, we are doing it and we enjoy it a lot. We make some jokes, we tell stories, we listen to stories. Some of it is business-related, of course, because you can never switch it off the daily business. And we also talk about family and the situation and hey, how is it in Spain?

“And I think that’s good. We work with people and not with machines, and that’s why we should respect them. Communications is an important currency for us as human beings.

Communicating with customers virtually

“We also built the Corona Resilience Call Series. We have a lot of brilliant and sharp minds at SAP. We re-use best practices; we create something where we see some gaps. And a lot of that was about virtual presence.

“The interesting thing is we had a lot in our inside salesforce. They were used to doing it all the time but it was a niche of our business. So that gave us a head start because we were able to leverage a lot of their knowledge on tools like Zoom or Team, and others. And then we enriched it with high quality. We even had a session about how to use, believe it or not, the right makeup for a virtual presence.

“Technically it’s easy to handle. It’s more a cultural issue. Believe it or not, but Q1, in the middle of the crisis in APJ, Korea, we did a very, very good quarter. We hit our numbers. And that was really remarkable. And the reason was that, as the customers, their business culture is already to use tools like DocuSign, to get contracts without physically meeting.

“So, even if there was a full lockdown, still we were able to make our business. I found that very remarkable.

“In other markets, it’s less but there is that change. In Japan, for example, before Corona times, it would be impossible to have a virtual meeting because that’s not polite. You do not show respect. But now it’s OK. They also changed and adjusted. Now you can also meet, do a video call with Japanese customers, Japanese colleagues and Japanese customers, and they accept it because they understand the rationale why. And I think that’s a learning curve we need to do. This is really country-specific and culture-specific.

“I actually found it harder in Europe because of the way enterprises are set up. Because you deal in a certain country but then, like in the UK, all of a sudden you figure out, ‘Oh, the headquarters is in Sweden.” Normally you would just take the plane and go to Sweden, but now you cannot. So what do you do? I think that is a special kind of European complexity, which I haven’t seen elsewhere that much, because of the legal entities of our customer organisations.”

Programme mentor

How does a busy senior executive find time to complete a challenging year-long Master’s programme, do a successful job and maintain a work-life balance?

“I also had to structure my daily business to create space for it. I think the programme is so much related to the work. It’s not that you steal time from your sales business; it actually helps you in your sales business. They go hand in hand. It actually improves your real job. But that is something you need to learn.”

Adams is also a mentor for cohort five of the Master’s programme and has three key pieces of advice for participants. “The first is to be your own compass – or for the millennials, be your own GPS. That’s super important. You need to create your own path.

“The second is to listen to your inner story. What is your true motivation? You write it for yourself. You do not write it for your boss or your family or your company. The motivation comes through the inner story you have. And until you have found it, it’s very hard to stay on track. And I have seen people who changed topic three months before the deadline, but it was exactly the right decision. Because then they had something to tell.