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Jill Popelka

President, SAP SuccessFactors

Jill's Story

At SAP, we believe that when you bring everything you are, you can become everything you want.

Inspiration + belief. That’s the foundation on which you build teams and truly empower them.

Jill Popelka

When your interior decorator also happens to be your mother-in-law, the one thing you don’t have is wriggle room.

Living room? Check. Daughter’s room? Check. Son’s room? Check. Guest room? Check. Wriggle room? Er, not so much.

And when your interior decorator/ mother-in-law brings all her skills and all her experience and all her vision to the project, how much diplomacy do you need when she suggests that your considerable collection of books is unnecessary?

In Jill’s case, she just said that the books reflect her life journey and that no matter how many e-books her children read, they will only truly understand her own intellectual DNA and growth journey when they digest the variety of titles that are on her shelves.

So the books stayed. And, more crucially, family harmony remains intact.

In every respect, it’s a long way from Temple, Texas, where Jill was born and grew up, to Singapore, where she is now based. Temple was founded in 1881 as a railroad stop, a fact that is celebrated in a huge wall mural in the city where the population for years hovered under 50,000.

Ask Jill what part of her background brought her to the tech world and led her on the 16,000-kilometre journey to Singapore and her response is instantaneous. First, she laughs.

"Good luck, I guess", she replies candidly.

"I grew up on a farm in a small town called Temple in the middle of Texas. I always knew I wanted to travel the world. I went to Texas A&M, which is an agricultural and mechanical college also located in Central Texas. Coming out of Texas A&M, I had the opportunity to interview with the top consulting companies in the world. I took the job with one of the best consulting firms and was assigned to their office in Austin, supporting consulting projects for the Texas state government. I quickly realized that my gift wasn’t in building the technology, even though I was taught to code and create technical designs. My strength was communicating what technology could do for our clients.

"I was an International Studies major. I studied international business, political science, economics. Another consulting firm hired many people in the 1990s to do strategy consulting. They taught us basic technology and process work and then sent us out to work with clients. I loved it. I loved impacting customers by helping them grow their businesses or by helping them improve business performance in their respective environments. That was a lot of fun for me.

"I realized that my strength was not necessarily the technology itself, but my ability to understand it well enough to break it down and explain it in simpler terms. I could share the future technology vision with a Utilities CFO that no one else could explain because they just weren’t using the right words. It’s all English of course; but it’s a big language. I could break things down to the core elements of what was relevant to them and then put it into their words, their terminology, and their context. I did that for a long time and I loved it.

"Then SAP reached out to me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve sold a lot of SAP software in your role at one of the best consulting firms. Why not come to work for us?’ That was around 2010 and I was living in Dallas with my husband and two kids. I had moved from Austin to Dallas because of the growth opportunity and it was a little more central for travel in the US. My first response to SAP was no, I love my job and I’ve built a brand with them. Then SAP invited me to lead a business unit. I was offered a chance to own the P&L for part of the US consulting business. In my existing role, it was going to be six or seven years before I would truly own a P&L.

"So I thought, this is a great way to learn and grow and take real ownership of a business. And then I did it. I joined SAP, first in the consulting business and then recently I moved into cloud sales."

At the time, Singapore would have been the last thing on her mind. But ask Jill if there was an “um, aaaah, maybe,” reaction when she was offered the APJ role and she says her immediate response was to seek advice, after which there was no hesitation at all.

"The first thing I did was call the people I knew who expatriates in APJ had previously been. And every single one of them said I simply could not miss the opportunity. They said it would change my life, it would change my family, it would change the way I look at the world. In short, their message was unanimous: ‘You. Have. To. Go.’

"These were critical thinkers, whose opinions I trust completely and there was no hesitation at all. All of them were ready to help me figure out how to transition, and how to make sure my family was ready. They even offered to talk to my kids and give them some concept of what lay ahead.

"All three people I spoke with said they would love to do it all over again, given the opportunity. Lloyd Adams was my first call; he currently leads the North East region of the US license team. The second is Brian Hanover, currently the COO for DBS. The third is Chris Rhame, Head of Innovation Services. All of them benefited greatly in their career after their experience in APJ.

"My initial concern was about my family. I have two teenagers. And while interviewing with Greg Tomb, I said, ‘I’ve got a 16-year-old daughter who thinks this is the craziest idea ever. And I’ve got a 14-year-old son who thinks this is great because there are more video games in Asia. And Greg said, ‘Jill, would you rather leave once they’re in college and then you don’t get to see them at all or do you want to take them with you and give them this experience too?’

"In that context, it really is a no-brainer, isn’t it? Of course, I wanted to take them with me and give them that experience and so they’ve had an amazing gift as well, through this whole experience. My initial hesitation was all about their happiness and whether they would be able to make the transition. But now that I’m here I realize that it was an unnecessary concern, because kids are more resilient than we are. They made new friend groups, they’re successful in sports, and because of where we are now, geographically, they get the chance to play a sport in different countries. Before we came here, my children would not have known where to find Indonesia or Malaysia on a map. And now they go there to play sports and they can tell you the exact distance in kilometers between those countries and Singapore.

"For me, the core story about this region that comes to mind is really around the ex-pats. And not just the influence that they have had on this office and in this region, but also the influence that Singapore and this APJ region have had on the rest of the world.

"Singapore, as an office, has hosted a number of ex-pats, as have other Southeast Asian countries and Japan was also run by an ex-pat for a while. I think what’s fun about this region is that SAP is shepherding the leaders of the future. They’re giving people opportunities to be present in the media, to be engaging with C-suite executives on a more regular basis. It’s kind of a fun thought that a single office, without being proud or arrogant about it in any way, has gifted so many other places with experiences and the ability to grow and be stronger.

"It’s a diverse region. It’s a complex region. It is not something you can underestimate. When Adaire Fox-Martin, member of the SAP executive board and global customer operations, was interviewing me before I came over to APJ, she said, ‘Jill, you have to be a slightly different leader every time the plane touches down (in a different city).’ And it’s such relevant advice. It’s not that you want to be inauthentic, but you’ve got to be what the people need in each of these regions and markets. You need to be something different in Japan when you touch down there, from what you need to be in India, for instance.

"In India, you need flexibility and deeper engagement and the ability to listen and understand your customer and build trust in that first moment. In Japan, you need to stick to the ceremony and structure, because that is what creates trust. To understand that people are different in a truly meaningful way creates a better ability to connect with all humans around the world."

Ask Jill about the one thing she brings to SAP at Maple tree Business City every day and in the true spirit of adding extra value to any interaction she actually lists not one, but two.

"Energy. And relentless passion. There are a lot of things that are challenging here, because we don’t have the resources that they have in the United States or Germany. So we are all utility players. Everyone in this office must do more than just the job they were hired to do. It’s like a start-up every day and so you’re trying to figure out how to cover those gaps and get the resources here that you need. And you’re not just selling to the market, you’re also selling internally, to bring more of those resources to Asia. This is the highest growth region and we will continue to outgrow our local resources.

"I think the important thing I’m doing here is giving people the confidence in themselves to continue to grow and learn and do their job better every day. I think strengthening the confidence that people have in themselves and the belief they have in themselves is the most important thing we can offer them. And there aren’t enough people here doing that. It’s a busy region, there’s a lot going on and you can start to get really concerned about yourself. But if you’re constantly striving to build a trust-based team mentality, and then growing that team mentality, where people add value to one another, that’s meaningful. It’s also about inspiring people and giving them the confidence to believe they can do more than they initially think they can.

"I have so many people on our SAP SuccessFactors team right now that have so much in them, so much capacity for incredible performance, yet they just don’t believe it some days. Some days they do. But some days they don’t and I want to give them the constant belief and the willingness to try and the empowerment to know that if they try and fail, that’s okay and that I’m here to catch them and we’ll get it next time."

Inspiration and belief are intertwined, the way Jill sees it. “My dad always challenged me and told me that he believed in me to do anything that I wanted to do. My mom gave me the love and foundation to do it. The love that my mother shows for other people, her compassion for other people, is something that I channel with customers and my colleagues every day. Every single day.

"My mother is a gift. She is gifted at loving and providing what other people need. She’s just gifted at it and there’s no one else on this planet quite like her. I hope I grow up to be a lot like her. My dad was an innovator, he was a real Renaissance man. He was a farmer and a businessman and one of his friends once said: ‘I think your dad is the only man who can talk to paupers and talk to kings and make them both feel equally important’.

"I think these influences in my life help me encourage my team to bring value to every single moment of every single day. So if you’re walking into a meeting, whether it’s internal or with a customer, bring value to it. Figure out what are the needs of the people in the room. And bring them something that they can take away. What if every single one of us did that? It’s about saying to customers, ‘I can speak your language. Let me understand what you need and give you the tools to do it’.

"That’s truly the intention of this company. And our motto says it. We want to improve the world and make people’s lives run better. What we need is to make it a little bit more real for every single one of our customers. We’re working toward it. We have a great Executive Board that is totally focused on this. You talk to each board member and that is exactly what they want to do. It’s complicated in the world today, just like it can seem complicated at SAP. But to have the intention – I believe that is the most amazing start.

"We strive to understand our customers and what they do and sometimes it’s a two-way discussion on how best they can grow and perform. Sure, we all want to ensure they get the outcome, but it starts with opening the dialogue and building trust. Sometimes our customers don’t know what it is that they truly need. They know the pain point, but you must explore that pain with them to understand where the problem is. Then you help them find a solution. The most rewarding moments are when you go back to a customer a few months after they start using our solution and they say that you helped them achieve their business outcome and that you also helped their people become better! That’s what it’s all about!"

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