SVP Customer Success APJ
At SAP, we believe that when you bring everything you are, you can become everything you want.
The #1 attribute I look for in young talent, or any talent, is an attitude that is positive – someone who has an intense desire to learn and grow. You have to be able to ask for help when you need it.
He might not have realized it at the time, but Michiel Verhoeven’s global instincts were severely tested in a very public forum, in 2020. You could say he faced a difficult linguistics examination on 25 July – and passed with flying colors.
That evening, during an SAP event at the ITC Maurya hotel in New Delhi, Michiel faced an unexpected challenge. Asked by the MC to utter a classic Bollywood line – yes, in Hindi , and in front of a Hindi-speaking audience – he did not hesitate. The MC uttered the line so that Michiel could listen to it carefully. Then the SAP man stood up and faced the audience, armed with the microphone that had just been handed to him. He delivered the line with aplomb, as if he had been born in vaudeville, with a slight bow, a relaxed smile on his face and the palm of his left hand extended away from his body, as if acknowledging that it wasn’t such a tough test after all.
Naturally, he received a thunderous bout of applause.
For an innately modest man, being put in the spotlight is not something that he actively seeks out. But throw down the gauntlet and he’s ready to pick it up swiftly. A year ago, during the SAP Dinner Dance at hotel in Singapore, he was part of an on-stage performance that demanded his rapid transit across the stage, first from right to left and then from left to right. The first time, he whizzed across on a scooter. The second time, he pulled off an immaculate cartwheel.
Much later, we learnt from a team member that Michiel had actually struggled with the cartwheels during each rehearsal. There was only one occasion when he absolutely nailed it – when the pressure was on, when the audience was watching and when the judges were scrutinizing each act.
For a man who rises to any challenge, he is so modest that, when asked where he went to school, he simply says, "Philadelphia." But there is much more to him that than meets the eye.
Accountancy degree in the Netherlands? Check. MBA at the Wharton School in Philadelphia? Check. Ask Michiel about the most important thing he learnt during those years and he barely pauses. He says he wanted to grow and learn and expand his knowledge. But he makes the salient point that he was still the same person before and after completing his MBA. "Nothing changed," he says, "even though I had more knowledge and I was enriched by different experiences. But the perception of who I am or what I’m capable of changed dramatically after business school, because of the brand of the school."
He finds that very interesting because he thinks that the sum total of his IQ, EQ and AQ, in addition to what he learnt at business school, meant that he could find a broader intellectual context that included strategy, finance, marketing, operational excellence and product management. This enabled him to view the entire breadth of a company and learn to do issue analysis and business cases. More importantly, it enabled him to do this even in industries that he had "no clue about" and yet he could formulate an informed opinion based on hypotheses, assumptions, research and data.
Having been given the tools, case methods and skills to be able to develop that ability, he applied it in his consulting at Booz Allen and found it "massively valuable."
It still resonates today, where he feels he is much better equipped to think across strategy and operations to finance, production and operational excellence when it comes to solving customer problems.
Being equipped with the intellectual and operational tools made a significant difference. "Before business school, I worked in finance, IT and consulting and while I was exposed to the same sort of situations, I didn’t have the intellectual scope or the formal training that I was equipped with after completing business school. I’d say that’s probably what I learnt the most. It’s very important to provide customers with solutions based on insights – and to remember that offering insights is not merely about providing data. It’s about providing recommendations for decisions and providing options about how somebody can make a decision based on all the available data. You also need to be smart about where the data comes from and whether it’s reliable, who generated it and what the source is. That capability is what I learnt at business school."
His three prime factors are intuition, data and time. Intuition brings him an indicator of the hypotheses that must be investigated further, yet intuition cannot be the sole basis for a course of action because there are statistical situations that must be taken into consideration.
"So you must question yourself, saying, is my intuition right or wrong and whether you think it’s right or if you think it’s wrong it doesn’t matter, go get the data and spend the time to study the data. But if the data is imperfect, or you don’t have the time to study it, then you fall back on intuition and you must be prepared to take the consequences of that. The trade-off of those three dimensions, or finding the most appropriate balance between them, is what I always use. I always think about people decisions as well as business decisions, whether it’s investment or customer engagement. And my business school experience gave me more rigor and process around the data discipline."
This is something he passes on to people whom he mentors, because he believes that one of the most important things about the learning process is the desire to be challenged and to become more self-aware. "That’s the very basis for it. Ideally, you need a positive attitude as well. Ambition is important, but I don’t think ambition outweighs learning and growing and applying that knowledge and experience to make a real impact. That’s very different from simply looking at a job and aspiring to do it without having the self-improvement skills or the leadership skills that are required."
Michiel also emphasizes focus, which he says is all-important. "For SAP, customers are our central focus. That has never changed. Number one, we are customer success oriented. Number two, we are employee and partner success oriented. And number three, we are partner and capable ecosystem players oriented."
While he points to increased complexity despite the messaging of ‘Run Simple’, he applauds the increased awareness that we should not merely sell to a customer, but actually care about the entire experience journey from sales to delivery, to support, to renewal and then to upsell.
When he first started at SAP six years ago, he was impressed by the focus on people and leadership, but says the attention paid to the well-being of employees in a thriving environment has been accelerated not just judiciously but successfully as well. He is delighted with the emphasis on the Great Place to Work concept, the attention paid to mentoring, and he is a strong advocate of Diversity and Inclusion, One Billion Lives, innovation and female representation.
He views the last three to four years as a period when SAP has done a “phenomenal job with the operational basics” – implementing SuccessFactors, setting people’s goals and KPIs, aligning people on the outcomes and not just measuring people solely on their quarterly performances. He cites leadership from the very top as being the big driving factor. “I think that number one, Adaire was and is an absolutely strong advocate of Diversity and Inclusion programs, including young and early talent, as well as entrepreneurship with One Billion Lives. I think that really resonated with many people in the APJ leadership team, because the prime thing that was missing when I first came here – from my perspective – was the alignment of what SAP does and how it links to your heart, not just to the outcomes and goals and results that we drive, but how you truly connect to the purpose of our company.
"I’ll be very frank. I think after Bill had his accident, I saw a change in his messaging and communication. It was much more genuinely aligned to who we are, not just as a company, but to who we are as human beings as well. That authenticity came across a lot better. I think that’s leadership from the top. From another point of view, clearly we need to have a higher purpose and not just a ‘You made your quota and you delivered your number and so you get paid’ kind of message. There is a real necessity for employee retention and growth. Also, I think it’s because we have a brand that was – no longer is, I think – certainly associated with the past and not with the most innovative IT companies any more. So you can only rally that innovation spirit in the employees if they connect to the purpose."
While he applauds the change, he cautions that we still have a long way to go. "Let’s recognize that. This company is 47 years old. We’ve got a phenomenal reputation in installed base ERP in terms of reliability, scalability and performance, but not always in terms of the ease of maintaining SAP or in terms of usability."
But he points out that the acquisitions have added several layers of innovation. "That emphasis on innovation really reiterates the direction that Hasso Plattner took with HANA as a completely different approach to databases, analytics and real-time computing in a way that really redefined the company. It woke up many of our customers and I think that was a very necessary product-infused change that our company really needed."
In retrospect, he finds it very interesting that people were initially" super skeptical" about the reach of HANA. While there were assumptions that it was merely a database, Michiel says the whole re-engineering approach quickly became apparent.
"I think it was a very brave move. I remember Hasso speaking at SAPPHIRE NOW one year about the innovators’ dilemma and saying, we are actually in that trap but we’re not going to stay put in it; we’re actually going to do drastic things. And that was the whole HANA change, plus the acquisitions. Honestly, to me that was true leadership from the very top, from the board and from one of the founders of the company. That bold stamp, that decisive step, gave a lot of people motivation, but it’s also brought fellowship as well. And that includes our customers too. The fact that one of our founders had such a strong hand in that was highly welcomed."
He points to other factors that do not just drive change from an innovation perspective, but that create a more diverse culture. As he says, not everyone at SAP has spent 20 years in the company. Those who are still absorbing the SAP culture – like early talent for example – bring a breath of fresh air. "Sometimes, they’re the best when it comes to the SAP Business Technology Platform. They bring in unbiased views towards our technology. I think we’re still very short on the number of people in that domain, but I can see that has already had a positive impact. I also see people from different companies and as I said to Scott on my fifth-year SAP anniversary in October 2018, ‘I think now is finally the time when people stop labelling me as the Microsoft guy’ and actually start listening when I speak about things that I used to do in my old jobs or that Microsoft is doing today that we might want to learn from.
Frankly, I experienced a closed culture towards embracing people from different companies for the first couple of years in their time at SAP. What I tell a lot of my direct reports whom I hire is, ‘Brace yourself because in the first two years, you’re not going to change the SAP culture. You will have to adjust to the SAP culture. It’s only when you’re in it that you can make change happen.’ When that does take place, it enriches us intellectually."
He cautions that customers’ problems are not simply a matter of what they do with SAP solutions. "They have real problems too; everyday problems with their customers, suppliers and employees. If we keep thinking that we need to change or update our own brand image, and we are only concerned about what we need to be as SAP, then we’ll never truly empathize with our customers. We do need people from different backgrounds to hammer down into the various SAP teams like, ‘Listen, what they want for their supply chain is this; what they want for their customers experience is that.’ You need those advocates from different sources and with different viewpoints. And if the customer has a multi-vendor environment, which is highly likely, it really helps during the architecture of solutions if people have some knowledge of those adjacent solutions that are non-SAP. It really is important to understand the overall context."
Establishing and understanding context is very much a part of Michiel’s persona. "At heart, I’m a numbers guy," he says, adding that he inherited it from his maternal grandfather, whom he says was very inspirational. Born in 1907, he lost his father when he was twelve years old and then his mother when he was just eighteen. He then boarded a vessel to Indonesia, where he began working for a German company where he rose to the position of financial controller.
"He did that for more than thirty years. He survived multiple wars and he died a happy man despite having cancer and he passed away with a smile on his face because he lived his life to the fullest. In the course of his lifetime, he lost all his possessions, everything he owned, not once and not twice but three times, but he still retained his happiness. He realized what was important was not physical wealth but the sum total of all his experiences, as well as the life and love of family and friends. He was in Japanese prison camps, he was caught up in decolonization in Indonesia even though he was not in the Dutch army, and then he was thrown out with his family during the rise of the Communists in Indonesia. But none of those devastating experiences brought him down.
My family was really affected by the Second World War and this is pretty personal, but my mum and her sisters were interned in women’s camps in Indonesia, and my grandfather was in a different camp altogether. But I really like how he lived a full life, never surrendered to adversity, helped build the company that he worked for, a German trading house, that still exists even today. He was a pretty humble guy and he didn’t just teach me about numbers, he taught me about life and about dealing with adversity. He was very self-aware and he was very giving to his community, where he clearly had great relationships. I think he was greatly respected for his skills and his capabilities. In addition, he had a real sense of adventure, and that’s something I identify very strongly with. He encouraged me to pursue my passion even though I didn’t actually know what it was at that stage of my life.
That really resonated with me. When I was 17 I thought my parents couldn’t afford to send me to college, even though in Holland it’s pretty cheap, so I thought deeply about my options. I wanted to be independent, so I applied to two companies who offered me a full scholarship while working 32 hours a week as a financial auditor. So I basically followed in my grandfather’s career footsteps for a while to try out what he did but I didn’t like it enough to stay. I liked the IT side a whole lot better than the accounting side, so that’s where it really started for me.
Ten years ago, I was with my mum and my aunt and my two daughters – all four of whom were born in Asia – back at their birthplace in Indonesia. And then I realized that while I am blond and blue-eyed, my family history from my mother’s side and my grandfather’s side has a total of more than 100 years of a deep connection with Asia. There are such deep connections. These mean a great deal to me because from the time I was a little kid, I was deeply interested in history. When I was a little boy I always read books. I liked pulling books off the shelf at my grandfather’s place and he always told me the stories. Most of his books were related to war and Indonesia and Japan, so I learnt a lot as a kid just by being in their house and learning about our deep connection to Asia.
When I was a kid, I wanted to be the captain of a ship that sailed around the world but now here I am, back in Asia and just like my grandfather, I work for a German company. I guess you could say that the Verhoeven family has come full circle, enabling me to achieve my dream, just like my grandfather taught me."
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