SAP's CEO on Why Trust Is the Ultimate Career Weapon

SAP CEO Bill McDermott Photograph by Martin Leissl/Bloomberg

All my life, I’ve wanted to win. On the basketball court as a kid, winning meant my team scored more points than our competitors. As a teenager, winning was about achieving my own financial freedom. As a young salesman, it usually meant selling more than my peers. And as a sales manager, I loved to see my teams soar to the top spot. Performing at the highest level was its own adrenaline rush. I lived for that feeling.

Those were worthy goals, but not until business school did I realize what it truly meant to win. Or rather, what it meant to succeed. The epiphany came to me in a class that introduced me to the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy’s poem titled Ithaca. You can look up various English translations of Cavafy’s poem, but I want to share with you the philosophy I gleaned from the poem in the hope that you, too, will let it influence your definition of success and how you go forward.

The nature of your career journey is more important than the destination. Put another way, winning at work is not about a specific end—a title, a salary, how big you grow a company, how large your nest egg is—but about how that end is met. As cliché as this may sound, the mindset can get easily lost in the crunch of quarterly pressures or amid the cries of cynics. It’s all too easy to go off track.

Begin your career with big dreams and high aspirations, because to envision and pursue an outcome so audacious that others think it’s impossible is more admirable, memorable, and enjoyable than playing it safe.

More impressive than any one milestone, however, will be how you conduct yourself along the way. You will win in business when you pursue a goal with preparation, discipline, and respect. You will win when you inspire others to join you in that pursuit and when the quest itself brings out the best in everyone around you. Let your confidence show as optimism and put your teams before yourself. And when your intellect is lauded, don’t let praise overshadow your passion, for passion is what will truly distinguish you. Follow your conscience as well as your heart, and reward yourself as well as those around you for behaviors as well as outcomes.

Finally, always remember, trust is the ultimate currency, so let your word be your most valuable asset.

So many of the young people I meet today talk about the importance of purpose in their careers. They strive for meaning and to make a difference in other people’s lives, not just their own. This says to me that the next generation of business leaders is already redefining success. Ultimately, a career journey paved by values—integrity, grit, discipline, authenticity, optimism, to name a few—can transform our working lives into our life’s work. That’s what I’d call a win.

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