Even after becoming CEO of SAP, the world’s largest software firm, Bill McDermott never stopped learning.
He kept searching for ways to enhance his.
In his first meeting with Colin Powell, McDermott asked the four-star general one of his favorite questions, “Please, if you would, share with me one of the biggest moments of your career.”
Powell responded by recalling a 1988 meeting in the Oval Office with President Ronald Reagan. At the time, Powell served as Reagan’s national security advisor.
Powell discussed his frustration with squabbling among government departments. Such fights prevented Powell from solving an immediate problem he faced.
As Powell spoke, Reagan seemed distracted and kept looking out the Rose Garden window. Finally, Reagan stood and interrupted Powell.
“Colin, Colin, the squirrels just came and picked up the nuts I put out there for them this morning,” Reagan said.
Powell figured that was Reagan’s way of saying, “This meeting is over.” So he excused himself.
Hearing this story, McDermott assumed that Powell might feel insulted that the president was ignoring one of his key aides. But Powell drew a different conclusion. “Bill, he taught me a very valuable lesson,” Powell said.
Powell interpreted Reagan’s behavior as an implicit rebuke—that the president expected Powell to handle interagency squabbling on his own. As a result, Powell never again tried to upwardly delegate a problem to the president.
Taking Powell’s story to heart, McDermott sought to lead SAP by pulling back and giving key managers more autonomy to make decisions and solve their own problems.
— Adapted from Winners Dream, Bill McDermott and Joanne Gordon, Simon & Schuster.