FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — A picture hangs in Bill McDermott’s basement that his son treasures more than any other.
It’s the one prominently displayed in the pool room of the family’s Philadelphia-area home with 18-year-old Michael McDermott posing next to New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum.
“That was the first time I ever took my son to meet another executive or sports figure, and the first thing I asked Mike to do was to take a picture with my son,” said Bill McDermott, the co-CEO of SAP and a die-hard Jets fan. “Michael’s a huge fan as well and he just loves that picture.”
As a leader at one of the top providers of business software, McDermott has rubbed shoulders with some of the biggest names in his field and shaken hands with a who’s who of sports figures: John Wooden, Ernie Els, Oscar Robertson and Gary Player, to name a few. A passion for sports runs deep in McDermott’s blood. After all, his late grandfather, Bobby, is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
So when an eager Tannenbaum called a few months ago to set up a meeting at SAP’s North American headquarters in Newtown Square, Pa., McDermott jumped at the chance to exchange thoughts on leadership and business philosophies.
“In running an organization, I think there are a lot of parallels, which is why I felt so fortunate that Bill allowed me to come down there and spend a few hours with him,” Tannenbaum said. “Ultimately, it’s about people, it’s about dreams and it’s about goals, and it may be business software or trying to win a Super Bowl, but I think there are more parallels than there aren’t.”
The three-hour meeting in late-May spawned an instant friendship between one man who has led his company to five straight quarters of double-digit economic growth since taking over and another who hopes to deliver on his team’s goal of winning a long-awaited second Super Bowl title — and first since McDermott rooted for Broadway Joe as a kid growing up in New York.
“I’ve never enjoyed any meeting, on an interpersonal level, more than my meeting with Mike Tannenbaum,” McDermott said by phone from Germany, where SAP’s global headquarters is located. “Not one. That’s saying something.”
The high praise is mutual.
“Bill’s a remarkable guy who has walked with giants,” Tannenbaum said. “I know I’m better off because of that meeting.”
McDermott and Tannenbaum were so comfortable with each other, that a few minutes in, the talk turned to McDermott suggesting what Tannenbaum could do to improve the Jets’ roster.
“Mike actually humored me and was interested in my opinion,” said a laughing McDermott, who watched the AFC championship game against Pittsburgh while he was in China by using Slingbox.
Turns out, Tannenbaum thought McDermott was right on with most of his assessments. And he wasn’t surprised after watching the man in action.
“Bill’s attention to detail is fascinating,” Tannenbaum said. “It’s a multibillion dollar corporation and just how everybody is treated in that building and the eye contact and the morale, it was just very apparent to me that everybody was going in the same direction.”
As an NFL general manager, the 42-year-old Tannenbaum knows better than to be complacent. That’s why he has reached out to several top business executives during the last few offseasons. He has met with Kevin Plank, the CEO and founder of Under Armour; Frank Bisignano, the chief administrative officer at J.P. Morgan Chase; and even three-time national title-winning coach Jim Calhoun of the University of Connecticut. Tannenbaum also has been able to glean leadership skills for years from his own boss, Jets owner Woody Johnson, whose family founded Johnson & Johnson.
“I’ve filled up yellow pads with information, things I’ve learned from everyone I’ve met with,” Tannenbaum said. “I have an affirmative obligation to Woody and the franchise that, are we doing everything we possibly can to be the best franchise in the world? I really did look at the NFL lockout as an opportunity to get out of our comfort zones and get out of our routines. This was an opportunity for us to get better.”
Since Tannenbaum took over as GM in 2006, the Jets have been to the playoffs three times — including reaching the AFC championship the last two seasons with Rex Ryan as coach.
“You look at our stadium, look at this facility, look at Rex and look at Mark Sanchez,” Tannenbaum said. “The foundation is there to truly be the golden era of this franchise and I want us to leave footprints for a long, long time. That’s our goal.”
A lot of that success can be traced to Tannenbaum’s aggressive approach to free agency and willingness to make tough deals, sometimes parting ways with popular and productive players with an eye always on the future. McDermott has gone so far as to call the Jets his “role models.”
“I’ve been with the Jets since the 1960s and I’ve suffered through some very tough years with them,” McDermott said. “What I’ve seen Mike Tannenbaum, Rex Ryan and Woody Johnson do is nothing short of just stunning. I think if you compare that to any turnaround, whether it’s sports or business, it’s truly a case study in excellence. I wanted to learn from Mike, and I have.”
The 49-year-old McDermott often talks about how an organization believing that anything is possible is a key to accomplishing its mission. That’s why he was so fired up, just as so many other Jets fans were, when Ryan declared at his introductory press conference in 2009 that the team would win the Super Bowl.
“A leader owes an organization a couple of things: a vision about what they can be and a winning strategy,” McDermott said. “I give them unbelievable marks for the vision and changing people’s minds for what the New York Jets could become.”
McDermott is a straight shooter, much like his favorite team’s coach, and took a unique path to success. He bought and ran a deli on Long Island as a teenager, and showed a knack for doing things in an unorthodox way when he caught someone shoplifting and ended up hiring that person as an employee. McDermott later was the youngest person to become a division leader at Xerox, and eventually landed at SAP America in 2002 — and promptly replaced 13 of the 14 people who reported to him directly.
McDermott became SAP’s co-CEO in February 2010 and had his contract extended this week through June 2017 along with colleague Jim Hagemann Snabe. He recalled how the company was thriving globally when he first arrived, except in the Americas.
“It had let the company down in 24 of 25 quarters, and there were five CEOs in six years,” he said. “So, I go to a kickoff meeting in New Orleans and I basically tell them that we’re going to double the business in five years and we’re going to do in five years what it took the other guys 20 years to do.”
A deafening silence followed. Well, except for two senior executives sitting in the front.
“They were snickering as if to say, ‘I guess we’ll have a sixth CEO in seven years after that speech,’” McDermott said. “Instead of letting it go, I looked at them and talked to them and said, ‘You are the very reason I am here, because I will never let anyone rob this team of their dreams ever again.’ That was a magic moment because it was calling out the senior people. It’s never the players. It’s always something wrong with the leadership or the management of an organization.”
That’s an approach something that can be applied, McDermott and Tannenbaum say, from the biggest of businesses to the smallest.
“To me, it says so much, and that’s what we’re trying to encapsulate here, that we’re going to try to give every player that comes here the chance to be successful and work in a collaborative way and that their success is our success,” Tannenbaum said. “That’s where the business software and players like a LaDainian Tomlinson truly have alignment in that they all have dreams. As leaders, our job is to help them get there and enable that to happen.”
Tannenbaum will have plenty of big decisions to make when the lockout ends. The Jets have several big-name players scheduled to become free agents, including Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards and Antonio Cromartie, and McDermott has already, of course, presented Tannenbaum his wish list.
“I would advise any of the players, if you want my true gut opinion on this, to not screw around for small change when you’ve got a chance to play for the Super Bowl-winning New York Jets” said McDermott, throwing in his own Namath and Ryan-like guarantee. “That’s something you can carry around with you for a lifetime, long after you’ve blown a lot of cash. So, if I was advising any of these players, I’d say they should re-sign with Mike Tannenbaum as quickly as you can.”