SAP CEO Bill McDermott On The Wisdom Of The $99 Suit

How far would you go to land your dream job? When Bill McDermott was interviewing for his first gig at Xerox, he went through a flood. Literally.

Sometimes you just want it more--like enough to go to a flood to break into your dream job. That's how Bill McDermott, the CEO of SAP, got his start in technology. As he tells Fast Company, getting your start means knowing what you want.

If you know anything about Amityville, it's pretty much on the Great South Bay, but then there are these little canals that go up and down the streets. Behind my house was this canal. At the end of my street was kind of the Great South Bay. When you would get these Northeast storms, the house regularly flooded.

The day I was going to my job interview at Xerox, the water was higher than the back of that couch on the walls of my house. The whole first floor was just a total flood. We had a two-story house. But the second floor, I walked down and I got probably to the fourth step from the bottom when the water was there.

Bill McDermott, Co-CEO and Member of the Executive Board of SAP AG, Member of the Global Managing Board of SAP AG

My brother Kevin put me on his shoulder and carried me out to the street. You can't make this stuff up.

So I get to the car. My dad drives me to the Long Island Railroad. Now I'm all inspired. I've got my $99 suit on, charged at the mall. I'm ready to go. I said, "Dad, I guarantee you tonight, I'm coming home tonight with my employee badge in my pocket." My Dad says, "Hey, Bill, just do your best. Don't put that kind of pressure on yourself. You're a great guy, and I'll be just as proud of you no matter what happens." I said, "I guarantee you."

The commute

I go on the escalator to go up top platform to get onto the Long Island Railroad into Manhattan. I'm reading the Annual Report about Xerox and I get really inspired about this guy, David Kearnes, who was the then CEO reinventing the company on something they called Total Quality Management, which later became Six Sigma. But that's what it was back in the day. I'm inspired by this man's will to change things.

I went through several interviews that day, and I get to one in particular that was with Emerson Fullwood on the 38th floor of 9 West 57th, the Avon Building, over here. I'm sitting out on a couch.

I say to Joanne Siciliano, she's the administrative assistant that's managing this demo room where we're sitting. I go over to her and I said, "Joanna, I just want to let you know, please let Mr. Fullwood know that I'm in no rush and I'll be here as late as he needs me to be. I just wanted him to know that I would be waiting for him and I'll be here as late as he needs me to be for this interview." She carries in that message to him. A minute later I'm in his office having an interview.

Making it

We have this really great exchange. A very wonderful man, buttoned up, professional, likable. I'm looking out his office window onto Central Park South from the 38th floor, like, "This is it, man. I've arrived. This is where I want to be." So we get to the end of the interview, and he says, "Bill, thank you very much. I appreciate it. It was a really great talk," which it was. He said, "The HR Department will be in touch with you in the next couple of weeks."

Then I said, "Well, Mr. Fullwood, I think there's something that you don't completely understand." He looks at me, kind of tilts his head as if to say, what's up with this guy? I said, "I haven't broken a promise to my father in 21 years, and I guaranteed him I'd be home tonight with my employee badge in my pocket, and I can't let my dad down." I didn't say anything. He tilts his head a little more, looks at me, and he goes, "Bill McDermott, as long as you have not committed any crimes, you're hired." I say, "I have not committed any crimes, Mr. Fullwood, so could you please repeat that again? Does that mean I'm hired?"

I think we gave each other a bear hug. I zipped past Joanne. I'm high-fiving everybody. I get down 38 floors in the Avon Building. I run to Sixth Avenue and 57th Street, where there was a Bun & Burger on the corner. I don't even know if it's there anymore. And I'm plucking quarters in the pay phone in the Bun & Burger.

I call up my mom and dad and I say, "I wanted to let you know something. I got it, man. I got the job. Just do me a favor. Get out the Korbel. We're going to party tonight."

If you've ever had Korbel, that's some rough sledding, but back then that was the best stuff I had. I'll never forget that. I think I've always had this really high appreciation for work and what it means to have success and not to take it for granted but just to recognize that success is relative and it comes in every different form and it's completely personal to the individual. But when you taste it, it's just the sweet nectar of life, man. There's just something about it.

The wisdom of the $99 suit

That's the thing. If you say, "Bill, what is your talent?" It's the ability to connect at that emotional level and feel if that other person on the other side of the conversation is there and they want it.

I think if you said to me, "Well, what made the difference all those years or even that day with Emerson?" I wanted it more. I definitely wanted it more.

At the beginning of that day it was Top of the Sixes, which was 666 Fifth Avenue and Xerox had their hiring center up there, so you had to break through all those screens and those meetings before you ever get to the big boy. When I got to him, I was eight interviews into the day.

What was amazing is you get all these kids, polished, from very successful homes, probably in Westchester and Connecticut, and went to all the best schools. You know the routine. There's nothing wrong with that. That's awesome. It's just that if you're the kid coming in from the flood in Long Island with the $99 suit, it can be a little intimidating.

But you know what I learned that day? I just went up to him. I finally said, "I got to like just get a feel for the room, because these dudes look really polished and the Brooks Brothers suit and all that. I asked him, "What are you in for? What are you trying to get done here?" "Well, I'm going to Morgan Stanley and I'm looking at Citibank, probably IBM. I'm playing the field, basically." That was it. I knew exactly why I was there, exactly what I wanted, and exactly what I needed to get out of that day. I just think that makes all the difference in the world when you've got passion for it, you know, and you really want it. People help you.

Bottom Line:

By the way, all styles can be different. I don't need anybody to get up and do a passion dance and bring the rain down. That's not the point. A person can be incredibly passionate and the most low-key conservative person but they have an essence of who they are and what they want and what is going to come from this relationship in one way, shape, or form.

The ones that are like negotiating on all the other things that they could be doing, they're just much too important for me. They're obviously way above my pay rate, so I just let them do what they're going to do.

[Image: Flickr user niXerKG]

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2 Comments

  • Another

    Loveit: Working next to such a leader is a life Long opportunity one can grab.

  • old yuppie

    inspirational - I think too many young professionals continue to play the field - not wanting "it" bad enough.