What SAP's youngest regional president has to say about impostor syndrome

Q&A: Brian Duffy, SAP's EMEA North President.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 10 Aug 2018

‘If we all of a sudden switched off, nobody would drink, nobody would eat... any product you’re going to touch today, the toothpaste you use, the car you drove in, the clothes you’re wearing, all of these things will have at some moment in time touched an SAP system.’

Brian Duffy certainly has a sense of the magnitude of what he does. But then in many respects that’s a prerequisite of the tech industry in which he’s made his career. The Irishman joined SAP in 2005 after training as a lawyer in Dublin and Chicago, and hasn’t looked back. A year ago, then 37 years old, he became the software giant’s youngest regional president, responsible for the British Isles, France, the Nordics, Baltics and Benelux.

It’s clear very early on that he’s a company man, not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you ask him what he does, Duffy will quickly, almost gleefully, tell you SAP’s mission (‘to help the world’s businesses run better and improve people’s lives...we need everyone to be successful’). Dig a little deeper, and he’ll tell you his job is to enable SAP’s employees to focus on making themselves successful, ‘because that means our customers will be naturally successful. When SAP works for you as an individual, you’re unstoppable.’

On a slightly more prosaic level, he’s overseeing in his region the shift from software to cloud computing, which recently became the largest business line in the global corporation. It’s quite a different sales cycle, he says, not least because it involves selling to chief HR officers rather than chief information officers – the company intends, after all, to facilitate the ‘intelligent organisation’, where integrated cloud-based systems are plugged into every business process.

MT: You’ve risen very quickly. What advice do you give youngsters joining the company?

Duffy: In 2012 somebody sent me the Amy Cuddy TED talk on power posing. I was living in China at the time, about to do an interview the next day. I watched it and thought I am totally going to get this job. I did the power pose and got the job, working as chief of staff for a board member, Rob Enslin, who still advises me today. I was super excited.

Fast forward five months and I’m in the boardroom with the CEO of SAP, with some of the most powerful people in the tech world, and I’m thinking why am I here. What am I meant to bring to this conversation? That’s when impostor syndrome kicks in, and I tell our interns that it shouldn’t happen. You’re here for the perspective you bring. When you’re authentic, your true self at work, that’s when there are no limits and something really special can happen.

MT: What’s your management philosophy?

Duffy: Everybody needs to take a step back and be a bit more human. There’s a lot of noise and sometimes you get distracted by it. You need to truly listen to what someone’s saying.

MT: Doesn’t the growing dominance of data make it harder to be human?

Duffy: Data is a gamechanger for companies. It can be good for the world as well. We launched the One Billion Lives programme two years ago in APJ (Asia Pacific and Japan), where we asked employees to think how we can impact one billion people with our software.

In India, there were two individuals whose parents were diagnosed with cancer. It turned out that in India the data on cancer was coming from Western patients and therefore the treatment possibly wasn’t suited to them. They had the idea of developing an app that allows doctors to collect all this patient data. Within two years we had a million profiles. These are things that can make the world run a lot better.

MT: You were also behind SAP’s charity single – how did that come about?

Duffy: We were planning a meeting in October 2015, at the time of the refugee crisis. We said because of our reach we should do something. On a Friday night I had this idea to reach out to the Imagine Dragons [Duffy is a fan] and see if they’d be interested, which they were. I went to the CEO Bill McDermott the Tuesday afterwards, and all of a sudden I was CC’d on email to Tim Cook - we needed Apple to give all the proceeds to the UN refugee agency.

The idea was on September 20. By October 12, the song was released on iTunes. When we throw SAP at something it’s game on, it happens. Quickly.

Image courtesy of SAP

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