Three Marketing Lessons from Bill McDermott’s “Winners Dream”

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Everyone loves a winner. But what are winners made of? According to Winners Dream, new book by SAP CEO Bill McDermott, winners know how to dream big, empathize with others, and sense and respond to change. McDermott’s book matters to marketers not only because he believes in the power of marketing to rally people around a dream, but also because his leadership lessons form a north star for anyone who aspires to be a CMO. Here are three marketing lessons from Winners Dream.

1. Dream Big

Winners Dream tells the story of McDermott’s journey from operating a corner deli in Long Island to becoming global CEO of a billion-dollar global brand in Germany. The core tenet of Winners Dream is that successful people consistently set ambitious goals for themselves. For instance when he goes to work for the corner deli to put himself through college, McDermott decides he’s going to own the deli, not just become the most reliable employee. After he graduates from college and interviews for a job at Xerox, he tells his interviewer, “Sir, one day I would hope to become CEO.” Still later, when he becomes president of SAP’s American operations, he startles the company by declaring that within three years, SAP America will earn 10 times as much growth as the organization has achieved in its past few years. You get the idea: no one leaps out of bed to win a silver medal.

Dreaming big sounds inspirational (and challenging enough) when you have only your own dreams to worry about. But how do you get others to rally around a dream, too? Here is where effective marketing comes into play. When McDermott is a high-ranking executive at Xerox, he takes on the challenge of inspiring the company’s under-appreciated Xerox Business Services (XBS) division to accelerate its growth. He needs to communicate to XBS employees that they are valuable to Xerox and that great things are expected of them. His answer is to create an internal branding campaign, Go4Growth, whose centerpiece is a high-concept kick-off meeting in San Antonio. The idea of a high-concept event bothers some Xerox executives because of the cost and effort required. But cost and effort are just the point: XBS employees need to see that Xerox is willing to invest in them. So he hires one of my clients, One Smooth Stone, to create an event with pageantry.

The event not only defines ambitious goals for a large group, it also sends the message that they are valued and that great things are expected of them. As he writes, “By the time our people left San Antonio and returned to their corners of the country, I believed, they would feel like valued members of a national team. And they’d produce. The alternative, circulating a memo or throwing a halfhearted kick-off, may have saved a chunky line item that quarter, but it would never unleash the level of engagement that we needed to sell an additional $2 billion of document management services.”

Lesson: if you want to inspire people to dream big, make a grand statement. Cold-cuts at the Ramada Inn don’t make winners dream.

2. Empathize

Time and again, empathy, or the ability to put himself in the shoes of someone else, serves McDermott well. When he owns a deli, empathy means finding an unmet customer need by asking, “Why is Sunday night in my deli always so slow?” and then taking the time to find out more about how his customers live. He discovers that his working-class customers often spend their Friday paychecks making ends meet over the weekend and are broke by Sunday. So he begins extending his customers credit, which creates more revenue for him in the long run and helps his customers. But first he has to put himself in their shoes.

Empathy helps McDermott achieve a breakthrough when he assumes management of the worst-performing sales territory at Xerox, Puerto Rico. Instead of first imposing his own way of doing things, he first tries to understand the wants and needs of the Xerox sales team in Puerto Rico. He discovers that the sales team doesn’t want more money or incentives to get better. They just want Xerox to reinstate a first-class Christmas party. At first, McDermott is surprised: an office Christmas party is the key to getting an under-achieving sales territory to improve?

But the more he investigates the request, the more he realizes that holding a great party is a must. It turns out that Xerox has demoralized the team by not only scaling back the party, but also expecting the sales territory to contribute to the costs of the party. And to the Puerto Rican team, he learns, a party is more than a fun celebration — it is a time of bonding and sharing with families. So reinstating the party carries more impact and symbolism than might have been expected.

The story has a happy ending: McDermott promises a first-class Christmas party for the Puerto Rico territory, and he also promises the team that it will become the top-performing region. By delivering on the first promise, he shows that he means business about the second one. And the team delivers, going from worst to first in a year.

The lesson of empathy is also applicable to marketing — perhaps more so than any of the three lessons described in this post. Putting yourself in the shoes of your customers and prospects is a simple yet effective way to earn the attention of your audience. Asking “Why should anyone care about what we have to say?” builds loyalty with your audience. Asking, “How can I cram as much of our company’s offerings and products into our new website copy?” prevents you from empathizing with others and wins no one’s interest. Empathy is about your audience, not about you.

3. Sense and Respond

As he grows into his role as SAP co-CEO (and then sole CEO) at a global level, McDermott consistently asks a question that vexes many executives: we might be doing well today, but are we headed in the right direction? In doing so, McDermott helps SAP stay ahead of the market. For instance, in 2010, he realizes that his customers want better and cheaper access to software without needing to store and maintain software on their own computers. They want cloud computing.

“This proposition was scary for some,” he writes. “But the more I observed the shifting marketplace, the more I believed SAP had no choice but to lean into the cloud. if we ignored it, SAP would not matter tomorrow.”

Thus inspired, McDermott helps lead SAP into an embrace of cloud computing as well as mobile — a strategy that helps SAP adapt to changing customer behaviors.

My favorite part of this passage is the sentence, The proposition was scary for some. Being able look ahead and ask, “What do we need to do to remain competitive tomorrow?” creates discomfort. And when you feel discomfort, you know you are doing what you need to do. When you feel comfortable with the current state of business, you are vulnerable.

An ability to look ahead and change is a hallmark of many leaders and innovators such as Netflix, which is rapidly transforming itself from a movie rental company to a content creator. Sensing and responding also distinguishes a marketing leader from a marketing manager. Marketing managers take direction from leaders and execute. Marketing leaders think beyond click-rates and lead volume and have the courage to ask, “Where is our business headed, and what products and services do we need to make sure we make it?”

A Book for Leaders

Winners Dream is written in a conversational style free of jargon and overcomplicated analyses. McDermott wrote the book with Joanne Gordon, who does an excellent job capturing his storytelling style and expressing his voice. (Check out YouTube for a video of McDermott speaking at an event — this book makes you feel like he’s in the room talking.)

Bill McDermott has not written a book for those who execute. Winners Dream is for leaders.


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