As VP, Head of Transformational Change and Future of Work at SAP, Kerry Brown is always five steps ahead of the game. Her expertise ranges from talent development to strategizing for a more intelligent workplace. As the business world shifts to the new normal, she shares topical insight for successful transformation
by Natascha Zeljko | 10 Jun, 2021
Change and transformation are some of the greatest topics of our time, especially when it comes to business. In your view, what are the biggest barriers to change, on a personal but especially organizational level?
If I were to define change management, at its simplest it’s an equation of expectations plus accountabilities. The last 18 months have taught everyone that we can transform. Our collective perspective on change is quite different than it was... Similarly, our collective fatigue with change is different as well. Earlier this year, I got asked what companies need to do as they address rapidly shifting circumstances. I suggested that the best approach was to find as many places as possible to provide predictability as resilience is being challenged, both personally and organizationally. In a situation with great uncertainty, it’s helpful to have some known things to rely upon.
All of us adapt for our own wellness and survival. As Maslow's hierarchy of needs outlines how we evolve: from food and shelter through self-actualization. At the beginning of the crisis, everyone was worried about food and shelter, so to speak. Or rather, food and toilet paper. Now they're getting back to thinking about the self-exploration and discovery. There's a similar business hierarchy, Rewers’, which looks at the need to respond, recover and reinvent. Organizations had the same survival response: First it was “Get to stasis.” And then, “Where do we go?” Depending on the industry, the volume of transformation and pace of change varied tremendously. Some changed overnight, either by choice to stay afloat or to reinvent: In service industries or retail, things were turned upside down pretty much in a day. How you manage transformation always goes back to why.
How is SAP transforming itself?
Our customer success organization is contributing to the shift from on-premises to cloud, in a world that's anticipating and expecting a different kind of experience along the customer journey. I would say that SAP at large already has a very customer-focused mindset. What’s changing is how we interact with each other and the rhythm of how we work.
As someone who’s deeply involved in transformation, what fascinates you personally about this topic?
I'm definitely an optimist. When I look at possibilities, the vision of organizations, and the opportunity to impact change, that's exciting. Though even for me, change is easier to talk about than to live through. Sometimes I will find myself thinking: “Oh, this is that place where the process feels really uncomfortable.” But it’s brain candy to me. As I describe it to people who aren't in this world, my job is a kind of ‘industrial psychology’, or ‘sociological influence’. I think human behavior is fascinating. My work is like people-watching on a mass scale, but from a position where what you're doing can also pivot organizations and individuals. Consider what we’re doing: SAP customers generate 87% of total global commerce. What we eat, how we live, how we travel, how we function is affected by what we do. If we do a poor job of this, think of the volume of disruption that we would impart globally. All our customers have trust and reliance on us. That makes our transformation meaningful and purposeful, and important to me.
North America itself is very young. More people have had recent role modeling of doing new, different things.
Countries like the US and Canada, where you live, are considered extremely innovative. Where does this change-friendly mindset come from?
In my experience, Canadians are something of a bridge between Europeans and Americans, as we're a little bit of both. As the daughter of British immigrants, I often find myself sitting in the middle of the two cultures and observing them. I’ve had the opportunity to work in and with many global organizations. Generally speaking, a European work context rewards the ability to provide good, constructive input, demonstrating intellect and value-add. A non-European could interpret that as being critical. Alternately, a North American focus is often framed as: What are the possibilities, what are the opportunities? On the flip side, this could seem wishful, unrealistic, or not grounded in detail to others. Also, relatively speaking North America itself is very young. More people have had recent role modeling of doing new, different things. My parents emigrated to Canada, which in some manner, makes them pioneers. They left their homeland with little money, 500 dollars in their pocket, moved to the other side of the world without employment and figured out how to live. So en masse, the outlook of the continent may be influenced by the fact that many of the recent or current leaders are children of people who were motivated, or had the personalities, to go and do something risky or different. Perhaps that's literally a genetic or cultural factor. Another piece of the puzzle: There’s less tradition, less structure that needs to be broken. With more uncertainty, there's possibility.
If we look further into the future, what will be the predominant issues for companies?
Talent is an area that will be of huge focus. COVID amplified that, because the people many took for granted would be in their building and available suddenly weren’t. In the past, HR often wasn't the space of the most investment or the most innovation. Prior to COVID, we had a pretty static workforce made out primarily of Boomers. Workers were staying longer in fewer places, whereas now you're seeing a shift that COVID has accelerated: Many employees were displaced and had to become the CEO of their own career or their own lives. The average tenure has now gone down. We know through Fieldglass research that many organizations have increased their contingent workforce. In COVID, contractors were the first to go, and they will likely be the first to come back. It’s created a much more fluid workspace.
What is a factor that people still underestimate in terms of cultural change?
How we listen. We have done so much more listening throughout the world in the last 18 months. The Business Roundtable, which is a group of two hundred CEOs acting as advisors to the US president (many of whom are global organizations, so it's not a US-only discussion), changed the definition of corporation two years ago, from being solely profit-generating to focusing on the consumer and the employee. While listening to customer and staff expectations isn't entirely new, interestingly, if you look at the surveys that SAP provided to the marketplace through Qualtrics last year, the response rates were 70-90%; normally, survey response rates would be considered good at 30%. Clearly, right now people are wanting and needing to be heard.
How does this affect your company?
In November 2019, just prior to COVID, we at SAP started developing an established talent program. The focus being the last ten years of somebody’s career instead of the first ten. We want to explore how to extend or reshape work around part-time opportunities or job-sharing, as well as mentoring. That way, people can ‘step down’ out of their career as opposed to stopping all at once, and we can create a different talent mix and development pattern.
In the hybrid workplace, which will stay in some form for all, you'll meet with intention – to sell, strategize, do major touchpoints. It will be discovery-based and delivery-based, not just for presence.
For companies, the decentralized workspace will make it much more demanding to organize and orchestrate people.
Yes, it's going to be tricky, for sure. People will likely become very deliberate about how they spend time. One of the things we lost in COVID is spontaneity. Even if we want to talk to a friend or colleague, it must be organized. There are no unplanned conversations while walking down the hall, in the elevator, at lunch. Spontaneity now has to be intentional. In the hybrid workplace, which will stay in some form for all, you'll meet with intention – to sell, strategize, do major touchpoints. It will be discovery-based and delivery-based, not just for presence. A surprise flip side of goodness, we realized: Workers who were already remote before COVID finally got to see their peers this year. Because we’re using cameras and all these new platforms, things have completely changed for them, and they’re getting a much better experience than when everyone else was in person and they were the one lone remote person. So, we'll continue to meet: We miss people. People like people. But I do think it will vary by role, generation, industry, season, marketplace.
You get a lot of ideas out of spontaneous, or even just face-to-face meetings. Always doing it virtually gets us very tired.
It's exhausting: There's no rhythm, the boundaries of life are very blurred. You eat, work, sleep, socialize all in the same place. I'm an extrovert, I recharge through human interaction. Zoom fatigue is real for everyone, because the things that feed your soul just aren’t there, whether it is downtime or thinking time or social time. Interestingly, the world’s efficiency has gone up, because we are all much more accessible virtually, all the time. Early on in COVID, the rules of engagement changed. At the time, my coaching to managers was: “Connect with your people so that they can trust that things are OK, and know that they have a job.” And to employees: “Connect with your manager so that they know you're working, that the right things are getting done.” Those rules of engagement are going to evolve as we build the next new norms.
I do have some advice for new talent: Find a buddy, find mentors. People who will give you lessons that you didn't think you were looking for.
Let’s go back to the question of promoting new talents. What advice would you give to young professionals?
The ‘young’ talent is older than we might think. If you look at global demographics, the workplace was targeted to be 50% Millennials by 2020, and 75% by 2025. I'm Gen X, and there's a nickname for us. We are the Prince Charles Generation: We will never be king. We've spent 20 years chasing the Boomers' jobs, and then Millennials are getting them much more quickly. Now, the first Millennials are getting to their late 30s and early 40s. So young talent is well established, with plenty of younger talent following.
But I do have some advice for new talent: Find a buddy, find mentors. People who will give you lessons that you didn't think you were looking for. Think of the professors, teachers, friends or colleagues that you've had in your life: Building that network is super valuable to give you different voices and places to learn from. Experts in work and sports coaching both propose that you are a reflection of the five people you spend the most time around. Perhaps consider who it is that is part of your personal advisory board.
Be open to opportunities and find your ‘side hustle’. What I mean is, while you have your day job where you need to build skills, capabilities, experience, a reputation, and your brand. And, if that is what absolutely feeds your soul, that's fantastic. If not, find a side hustle, which feeds your passion – as another way to develop your brand and demonstrate your talents.
Sometimes, I have the feeling that this young generation is so purpose-driven that perhaps they overestimate the function of a job.
If we look back, the Millennials’ parents were Baby Boomers, who started working in the 60s; that was a time of growth and creativity. Then, as now, when you infuse the entire workforce with new ideas, optimism and possibility, it adds to the natural phenomenon of youthful enthusiasm (and I don't mean youthful as in uninformed). Frankly, the information age is constant and rapid, and the newest generation of the workforce has been constantly and widely informed throughout their lives. Sustainability has changed in the world. Climate change is a major global consideration, one that young people are very dedicated to. While I don't think their commitment to sustainability or purpose will necessarily fade as they age, they may, like generations before them, adjust their expectations of work with experience. What might be idealism now will hopefully produce action as they become increasingly selective in their choices or their expectations. A lot of research includes a myth-busting aspect about how different Millennials are or aren’t from previous generations. Ultimately, their priorities seem quite similar to those who came before them: buying a house, getting married, having a family... Now, granted, as the marketplace has disrupted the workplace, might we see a corresponding change in tenure? Keep in mind that Gen X was the first cohort for whom pensions generally went away. With pensions, the contract between an employee and an organization used to be long-term. It was a marriage, and it's more like people date now.
Let’s end on a personal note: Why do you love your job?
Well, when companies decide to use SAP, they're typically making a significant investment for their organization. So, they put their smartest people on that task. Then those people ask us hard questions because they want to be successful. So for me, again, this is brain candy. I get to engage with intelligent people trying to solve important problems, people who are really committed. Most recently, I've had the opportunity to assemble a global team made up of smart, diverse colleagues who are excited to address our own opportunity to transform our customer experience. That makes it really fun and rewarding.