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Rohit Nagarajan loves to push the boundaries. He’s also never been afraid of a challenge. In fact, as he tells The CEO Magazine, one of the best ways to get him to do something is to simply tell him it can’t be done – be that in his professional or personal life.
“My wife uses that to very good effect,” the SAP EMEA North President says with a laugh. “I always like to challenge myself, push myself and put myself in uncomfortable places. I think you can’t grow if you’re not uncomfortable and I’ve always believed in that.
“It sounds corny to say, but for me it’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. It’s like going to the gym. The only way you become stronger is by lifting heavier weights each time. It’s the same principle.”
For Nagarajan, this is important both inside and outside of professional environments.
“Are you learning a new language? Are you trying something that is challenging for you? This is so you grow and keep yourself intellectually sharp and stay curious, so you continue to have a positive impact on your family and wider society,” he says.
“In the same way professionally, are you pushing boundaries? Are you challenging the norm? Are you constantly reevaluating the status quo and questioning, ‘Well, I know it’s working but does it mean it shouldn’t be broken and rebuilt from scratch?’”
After a decade with enterprise application software giant SAP, and a further decade of experience working across the globe in the IT industry, Nagarajan has had ample opportunities to refine his approach to boundary-pushing and put himself in plenty of challenging situations.
When he first joined SAP in 2007, he says it felt like he’d finally found a place where he could truly make a difference. “When I actually sat there and looked at it, in all seriousness, the impact that SAP had on the world was groundbreaking,” he explains.
“I mean, you work in tech and always dream of having an impact on people’s lives. And that doesn’t matter if you are in a publicly traded tech organization or whatever you develop. You want everyone using your app, you want everyone visiting your store online and you want everyone engaging with you digitally.
“It’s one thing to want that, but it’s another thing to be able to truly impact societies with your software. When you look at what SAP did then and what it does now, and the fact that 75 percent of the world’s transactions actually pass through a SAP system – when you look at stats like that, it really humbles you to the extent in which this organization, which is perhaps not the world’s flashiest tech company, keeps businesses, economies and societies running.”
From hospitals and energy companies to retailers big and small, the technology company helps generate new opportunities for innovation and growth for whomever its clients may be.
“They say, ‘Behind every successful man is a woman.’ I think behind every successfully run company there’s SAP,” Nagarajan insists.
“For me, to be part of that and then to be part of the absolute core of that, which back then was about embarking on this strategy around how data and analytics helped companies transform, was just a dream.”
And as someone constantly looking for the next challenge and the next opportunity, SAP is a perfect fit.
“Back to my point of not getting comfortable with the status quo, that’s something SAP has never done,” he reflects. “When I joined the organization it was about helping companies become more real-time. They needed to be able to use data and analytics to service their clients better and improve the way they operated.
“We were reinventing ourselves to make that possible, putting ourselves in an uncomfortable place, going back to our customers saying, ‘I know we asked you to change, to go here. Trust us, you need to change again to go somewhere else’.”
In January 2021, Nagarajan was appointed President of SAP EMEA North, an exciting progression that presented him with further opportunities to evolve the company’s offerings.
“I was always ambitious in terms of where I wanted to take my career,” he reveals. “Over the past decade at SAP, my focus has been looking at where can we have the biggest outcomes for the business, looking at the biggest problems facing the business and determining how I can run toward the problems as opposed to away from them – and knowing that I can’t solve a problem individually.
“It isn’t about having the right title, it’s about how you create that platform where people want to follow you. And I don’t even think it’s about following you, it’s working alongside you toward that common purpose of solving a problem.”
When he stepped into the role, however, Nagarajan admits that due to the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic, things looked slightly different to how he’d envisioned them.
“I was the first COVID-19 President – you think about what would you do if you were in a role, you imagine standing up on stage in front of 3,000 people, expecting to be traveling from location to location, meeting customers, meeting your teams, meeting partners and laying out the vision for the future and driving it,” he recalls.
“In my case, I was sat behind a computer screen, not being allowed to go into the office and making sure the teams were OK, first and foremost making sure people were OK and making sure customers were being served well.”
But again, Nagarajan has never shied away from a challenge, so he embraced the tenuous circumstances and instead saw it as yet another chance for innovation.
“We were a very successful on-premise company and were toying with the idea of transitioning and transforming to the cloud,” he explains. “We’d made great strides, but at our very core we were an enterprise resource planning company. We own the crown jewels for most of our customers because they run their business on SAP.
“It’s something that we take very, very seriously. That is a huge burden of responsibility on us. And we knew that we had to be careful with the transition and transformation.”
The transition to cloud-only was a major step for the company as a whole, and with Nagarajan’s team – which stretches across what SAP defines as Northern Europe (encompassing the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Luxembourg as well as the Nordics and Baltics) – leading the charge, it proved to be a fundamental pillar for his strategic plans going forward.
The process was threefold: first, obtaining sponsorship and support from the board, given SAP was charting entirely new waters, and convincing them that the market was ready and this was what the customers needed; second, reassuring the employees that this was a necessary cultural shift; and third, taking the partners and customers on the journey with SAP as it made this transition.
“Obviously a cultural reconfiguration was needed within the company to make the employees believe that this transformation was necessary, during a time of personal challenges for so many of them, having spent a year then in the height of the pandemic and not knowing that there was light at the end of the tunnel,” Nagarajan says.
“Our customers were also going through the exact same challenges so it was also about getting them to understand why this was important. And alongside that, we drove many specific initiatives. We focused on areas like sustainability and how our cloud transformation drives toward sustainability, as well as being less reliant on the supply chain.”
One major key to SAP’s ongoing success is through the vital partnerships the organization has worked so hard to form over the years. Through a resilient supply chain and partners of all sizes, shapes and forms, from digital to delivery, SAP has always prioritized working alongside like-minded businesses that share its passion to make the world a better place.
“For me, my partners are my customers and my customers are my partners,” he says. “Our partners help our clients be successful. They help us deliver innovation and they help us at various points across the value chain.”
Nagarajan believes it’s about learning from the best in the business, drawing on the experience and extensive knowledge of such industry trailblazers as Deloitte and EY, and at the same time, ensuring they can benefit from SAP’s immensely valuable learnings – especially in region-specific situations.
“One of our largest partners in France, Eviden, an Atos business, is so familiar with the operating environment, be that the requirement around sovereignty in how the cloud is delivered, or be that the requirement about the amazing tech innovator landscape that we have here in France,” he explains.
“So we work with Eviden to ensure that the concrete specific nuances are brought out, that we’re tapping into its expertise about having been headquartered over here, and having the depth of operations and the depth of relationships within the community that it’s serving. We have regular dialogues where we look at the bigger picture – we look at what makes sense for where both organizations are headed.”
In terms of becoming the manager he is today, Nagarajan credits some incredible leaders he grew up surrounded by, who he has emulated throughout the course of his career.
“I always tell teams that you learn leadership by observation. You need to be a keen observer of people,” he says.
“I’ve never been a fan of having a single mentor because life’s too short to learn from one person. I think everyone’s got qualities you can learn from, and I have grown up observing and replicating, with not much success I’m sure, the small qualities that I noticed in individuals.
“There were people whose communication styles were incredible, in the way they were able to get to the heart of the matter and really get their audience to buy into the conviction that they had around their ideas. There were others who balanced a fiduciary outcome with a sense of empathy in very difficult circumstances. You learn that from certain leaders, but others are just incredibly smart when it comes to the nuts and bolts of the domain and the functional aspects of it.”
Nagarajan believes in forming ideas and making decisions with conviction at the same time as not being dogmatic. He’s also open and receptive to feedback, which in turn helps evolve ideas even further.
“Then, most importantly, it’s about getting the people with you. Leadership is about not achieving anything individually. At the outcome, at the outset, I am just a representative of the 10,000 people in my region,” he points out.
“The outcomes that we achieve are genuinely because each one of them wakes up every morning and goes about doing their job with amazing diligence, trying to drive the right outcome for wherever they are, whoever their customer is, either internally or externally.
“I always tell them that everyone’s got choices, and they’ve got more choices today than they ever had in the past, and they make a choice every morning to wake up and work for SAP.”
Now, as the business looks toward what the next year holds, Nagarajan says SAP’s priorities fall into three main categories: steer, corner and accelerate.
“We want to steer our customers around what good looks like,” he says. “In the industry we operate in, we know that we have a litany of options provided to customers around what transformation could look like, and what options they have around transforming their core from a technology perspective.
“It is our responsibility, because we work across all of those industries and across all of those lines of business, to be able to be more prescriptive in how they need to go about doing these transformations and delivering those outcomes.”
However, as Nagarajan explains, for the customers, the focus is purely on the outcomes that are delivered – not the how, but the what.
“For us it’s being prescriptive about how the cloud can help deliver those outcomes and taking on the burden and responsibility around making sure that the innovation that they desire is something that’s on our back through a cloud-only delivery model.”
Second, with the world “turning a corner around the critical areas of supply chain resilience and sustainability”, SAP needs to ensure it is helping customers reach those targets.
“So if they’re looking to see what their carbon footprint is or how they can optimize the way they run to be more sustainable, that starts with where the data lies, which is in a SAP system,” he explains.
“We are now absolutely focused on making sure we’re able to help customers turn the corner, go from beyond it being an idea to it being a reality in terms of running more sustainably, and go from just reporting on sustainability to operating sustainably.”
Accelerate, the third pillar, looks at how SAP is ensuring its teams are growing personally and professionally at every single stage of their careers.
“It’s about determining how we accelerate that entire transformation of learning, a continuous learning process, a cultural transformation where we are open and receptive to change and changing at speed ourselves,” Nagarajan adds.
In the end, Nagarajan circles back to what he believes is ultimately driving SAP’s success – the united goal that all employees are working toward.
“You work for the organization because you value the culture and you value the people, and that’s because you believe in the purpose of the organization and you believe that purpose is greater than yourself. You believe that your contribution toward that purpose is going to make you, personally, and the society you operate in, better,” he enthuses.
“Regardless of whether you’re manufacturing cars, brewing beer, selling chocolates, manufacturing vaccines for COVID-19 or other debilitating medical challenges, the platform that we provide for you to be able to operate at scale is something only SAP can do. We make the world run better. We genuinely do. And we do it one customer at a time.”