A Case Study

Changing the Face of the Gender Challenge

As a global business solutions company, SAP has always placed a high premium on international acumen and a culture of diversity. With a commitment to continually finding ways to broaden its inclusive culture, the company set a goal of bringing more women into management positions – specifically 25% percent women in leadership ranks by 2017.

The ambitious endeavor, driven by Germany-based SAP, stemmed from a desire to shape constructive changes in gender roles within the company. Previous initiatives to increase the number of female leaders had little impact, and SAP leadership was determined to find an effective solution that helped their most promising women professionals overcome gender barriers.

The project committee began looking for the right consultant to help them, and the goals were lofty.“We knew we needed to take specific actions, like implementing training,” explained Margit Wintterle, the project lead of the gender project in the finance board area. “We wanted to analyze our current state of gender roles, then decide what actions to take and how to achieve our goals. One of the first goals was to implement more women-specific training.”

The project committee began looking for the right consultant to help them, and the goals were lofty. This consultant would need to illuminate the gender patterns within the company, and then create a strategic program to foster positive professional relationships between male and female coworkers while creating a roadmap for woman leaders.

SAP’s search quickly led them to Melissa Lamson, a global consultant with a stellar track record in helping companies shatter deeply entrenched gender barriers.

Changing Minds, Changing the Business

SAP conducted an internal study that showed 50% of all management positions posted had no female applicants. In addition to this astounding figure, they examined the results of a gender survey SAP conducted globally with all women in GFA (Global Finance & Administration) that indicated strongly that women preferred other career options to struggling with securing a management position and then dealing with the demands of such a position. Finally, networking was a major topic and the lack of “efficient” networking by women was a discussion topic in several project related groups. Based on these issues SAP decided to approach Melissa.

SAP asked Melissa to organize course sessions in Germany, the United States, South America and Singapore for initially 60 (later increased to 72) women with acknowledged executive potential.

“The feedback was great,” recalled Wintterle. “Melissa knew how to produce that ‘ah-ha moment’. You could see mindsets beginning to shift right there in the room.”

“Melissa has a gift for changing mindsets.”The response was overwhelmingly positive – so much so that SAP decided to add the course to its core training curriculum.

The workshops inspired other results: Participants were eager to meet more of the company’s upper management. A group of managers that report directly to the board began to hold a series of networking lunches. Coffee corner sessions hosted by top managers (male and female) are happening globally. Women have also requested management to send both men and women to the training as well.

“Melissa has a gift for changing mindsets,” Wintterle said. “She has an uncanny ability to think herself into the mind of whatever gender or nationality she works with.”

Men and Women Together

Since the initial training, SAP has created a program called LEAP: “Leadership Excellence Acceleration Program.” Aimed at helping emerging leaders develop interpersonal and business skills, LEAP launched in the United States before spreading to South America and Europe.

Melissa has also helped SAP explore fresh methods for involving men in their gender work.

Today SAP is exploring ways to help women evolve into management positions with stronger confidence and more support.“It’s not just about empowering women,” Wintterle explained. “We need everyone, women and men, to take an active role in cultivating women who are shining stars in the organization.”

Melissa pointed out that men and women often use a different terminology and communication styles in business interactions. They also have different approaches to self-promotion and networking. “The course will help bridge the cultural gap and put men more at ease with female leadership,” Wintterle said – something that has come in handy with SAP’s acquisition of several companies, all of which had a male-dominated workforce

Given the vast size of SAP’s global team, the project team thought it essential to provide samples of women who had made their way to the top. Initially this was done with interviews published in a quarterly gender newsletter. Melissa came up with the idea to help motivate and guide female professionals all over the world: leadership videos (selfies). SAP leaders now create video content explaining their path to professional success, such as the tactics they used and the lessons they learned in pursuing management positions. “These are the top women in the company explaining how they got there,” said Wintterle. “The message is, ‘I did it and you can do it too.’”

Another part of the project’s focus was gathering information about women’s priorities in the workplace. Particularly in Europe, many women expressed the desire for assistance with new management roles. Many felt that mentoring would help them reach their full potential as managers, as would job-sharing management positions. Today SAP is exploring ways to help women evolve into management positions with stronger confidence and more support.

Next Steps

Understanding the different gender communication styles and underlying workplace differences has already paid off. SAP changed the format of its job postings. Now, instead of featuring a long shopping list of qualifications, the postings have five must-have and five nice-to-have qualifications. Since this change, women are applying at a 25 percent higher rate than before – and almost half of the women who apply get the position.

“We’ve had a very positive reaction from men and high-level managers,” Wintterle said. “In fact, the enthusiasm for the project is so high that the leadership team has asked for more budget to continue working with Melissa and expand the program. We’re excited to see what we can achieve in the future.”