Reflections on Leadership, SAP Mentors, and the Pitfalls of Recognition - Expanded Version

hassoandstickers.jpgWith the latest round of SAP Mentor nominations wrapping at the end of February, the same questions about "who should be a Mentor and why?" keep popping up. To me, these questions provoke a broader debate about vendor community leadership. When a company like SAP selects Mentors, what does that mean to the individuals chosen? Yes, they are leaders, but what kind of leaders should they be? Leaders in advocating for SAP's products? Umm, I think not. Leaders in a command and control leadership style? Definitely not. Leaders who take the glory of the stage for themselves and don't raise others up? No to that also. Leaders in standing up for customer concerns and community needs? Now we're getting closer...

In the 2nd edition of the SAP Mentors Quarterly, I wrote an in-depth piece on leadership and how it pertains to community leaders like Mentors. I tackle the questions that are raised whenever some people are elevated as leaders at the expense of others. Now was a good time to revisit the article and fine tune some of the ideas. SAP has been ahead of the curve with its support of the Mentor Initiative, which has answered some big questions about what the SAP Community Network members should aspire to beyond points. But questions remain.

As long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by leadership. Not as qualities to admire, but as examples we can steal to create better versions of ourselves. I've never bought into the idea that some of us are leaders and most of us are followers. The time comes when each of us are called to lead. The more compelling question is: will you be ready? And what kind of leader will you be?

cmehil.jpgPrior to the creation of the SAP Mentor Initiative in 2006, the highest level of achievement within the SAP Community Network was Top Contributor (now called Topic Leader). It was Craig Cmehil (pictured left) who first brought to my attention the "Community Path to Recognition" within SCN. Craig's work in the community led him to lay out a "Path to Recognition" model for how those who pay their dues evolved. As community members go about the process of making their contributions, tiers of contribution serve as sign posts on the road and badges (literally) that go on their SCN profiles.

In 2006, the model was fleshed out further with the addition of the SAP Mentor Initiative. The SAP Mentors put a face on an aspiration beyond "Top Contributor". This was critically important. As valued as Topic Leaders are, they are tied to the SAP Community Network points system. There's nothing wrong with accumulating points, but we can all agree that true leadership goes beyond acquiring points.

finnernactionshot.jpgSome SAP Mentors are nowhere near Topic Leaders on SCN (though some are). Mark Finnern, Chief SAP Mentor "Wolfpack Herder," (pictured right) believes that Mentor impact comes in many flavors. We have Mentors who do their community work within user groups like ASUG; we have Mentors who organize Inside Track events. I post to SCN sometimes, but my biggest pursuits are probably my videos with and my podcasts on this site and iTunes. Same goes for the Enterprise Geeks, who built a community that extends beyond SCN (All of the Enterprise Geeks are either current Mentors or have served as Mentors).

Craig Cmehil summed up the difference in the SAP Path to Recognition podcast I did with him: "Top Contributors Influence SCN, but the Mentors Influence SAP." Though I'm sure Craig would hasten to add: "SAP Mentors at their best influence SAP." There are dangers to recognition as well - complacency and entitlement quickly come to mind.

In 2007, it was enormously helpful to have Mentors as examples of what the highest levels of SAP community leadership looked like. But now we have a different issue: too many view SAP Mentorship as the badge they must carry in order to be fully validated for their contributions. That's absolutely not the case. We have to be careful not to get hung up on external recognition. The opposite is true: there is a wonderful freedom in pulling away from the need for validation. One of my biggest goals is to honor that sage advice of the inimitable Hugh MacLeod: "Ignore Everybody".



"Ignore Everybody" doesn't mean "be a headstrong jerk." But when it comes time to act, the need for recognition holds us back. Sometimes you have to stand alone. If I had to pick one characteristic of true leadership, it would be that: a willingness to take stands, however unpopular, without being swayed by whether a thousand people join you or whether you stand alone with your butt in the breeze. That is hardly easy.

At their best, Mentors have that individual boldness. You could also call SAP Mentors a tribe, and that might be right as well, but this particular tribe is made up of individuals who are always on the verge of their own anarchistic pursuits.

Even if we aren't going to become Mentors - some of us will, some of us won't -  it's instructive to think about what Mentors should aspire to. Some of that is already public on the SAP Mentor FAQ:

"SAP Mentors are the top community influencers of the SAP Ecosystem. Most of the 100 mentors work for customers or partners of SAP. All of them are hands-on experts of an SAP product or service, as well as excellent champions of community-driven projects."

Here are some of the qualities of Mentors that are formally listed:

  • Hands-on expert in an SAP product or service
  • Collaborative attitude
  • Good communicator
  • Preferably working at a partner or customer of SAP
  • Interested in improving products and services of SAP as well as the relationship of SAP with its customers, partners and prospects
  • Proactive engagement

I especially like the phrase "champions of community-driven projects," because that's what it's all about - fostering change via small groups of Mentors who are determined to move the needle. That's the connection between identity and broader change. Once you know what you stand for, you can band together with others who burn to make a difference.

Behind the scenes, the Mentors went through their own identity exercise within StreamWork. The idea was to boil down the key traits of Mentors into a short list we could collectively agree upon:

1. Integrity

2. Voice of the SAP Community

3. Constructive in our criticism

4. Inspirational

5. Creative

6. Humble

7. Self-Directed

I have a beef with the "constructive in our criticism" one because I believe sometimes harsh criticism is 100 percent valid to make something better. But when you go through a group process, you lose some of your own wording.

I really like "humble" - I think we can argue that Mentors don't always live up to that one. But we should.

That's why a couple years ago I made my own video about Mentor leadership qualities, specifically what I look for when I nominate new Mentors.

Here's a YouTube video I filmed on this topic a couple years ago:

Some leadership qualities I mentioned in the video:

  • It's not about being a guru or an expert to be admired from afar. It's about being in conversation with the community.
  • Independent, "open thinking" - one of the SAP Mentors' unofficial slogans. We are not echoing the party line of any of the companies we work for, and we aren't necessarily agreeing with each other. We're trying to defend ideas in a debate that does not get overly personal and negative.
  • We are creative in our responses - going beyond criticism to "champion community projects." For creative projects, you find the form of expression that works for you. You bang away at it until it becomes part of your DNA.
  • Do you challenge yourself and do you challenge SAP? When we're static, we're not improving. It's not always comfortable to be challenged, but it's essential to take a harder look at ourselves if we want to be successful. That goes for SAP, but we have to hold ourselves to the same standard. Don't get too comfortable.
  • The recognition may or may not come. It took me fifteen years before I became an SAP Mentor. I loved what I was doing when few people noticed me. Put recognition aside and ask "What drives you, what makes you passionate?" Follow that through.

suithugger.jpgI owe fellow SAP Mentor Graham Robinson a nod for pointing out that a sense of humor is also critical. Why? Because we all get too big for our britches sometimes and badly need to step back and have a good hearty laugh at our own BS. The ability to dish out (and take) a good-natured ribbing - that's anything but trivial! It just might be the most important quality of a healthy community. This picture of Chris Kernaghan a.ka. "Boobboo" hugging Jim Snabe during the "suithugger campaign" is a classic example of how humor can blur barriers and, as Finnern would say, "jam culture". In my view, culture jamming is more powerful than any other form of community content. Partially because it is a response to Chief Marketing Officer Jonathan Becher's warning that "culture eats strategy".

Looking back on that video, there are two more we really need to add: one is that it's a big world out there. We do our best work in SAP when we are aware of the broader landscape. SAP listens hardest to those who can point to other companies doing smart things SAP needs to pay attention to. We should read and explore widely. Perpetual intellectual curiosity is one of the highest leadership qualities. Another characteristic that comes to mind: know when it's time for a change, and get it done. Even when it means leaving the nest. Some of our senior Mentors have moved on for a variety of reasons, including Matthias Zeller, who now works for Only a fool would think less of him for that. In a sense, you're always an SAP Mentor. But in formal terms, it's a year-to-year honor.

Since that video was shot, I feel even more strongly that we need a certain boldness of conviction, not just about SAP, but about the world beyond SAP. Life doesn't reward complacency - life rewards action. But: we owe it to ourselves to combine action and reflection. One of the most harmful misconceptions about leadership is that there a distinction between those who ponder and those who act decisively. It's a cycle of action informed by reflection that really hits the mark. If we have integrity to that process, we'll never be too vulnerable to disappointment if our name isn't called. The journey should be its own reward. If not, we're on the wrong path.


SAP Mentors in their first-ever meeting with Hasso Plattner (Jim Snabe joined towards the end of the meeting also). Photo by Martin Gillet. Thanks to @gapingvoid for permission to use an image of his "Ignore Everybody" print. Thanks to Otto Gold and the rest of the SAP Mentors Quarterly team for pushing me to create some of my most creative SAP content.

Jon Reed is an independent analyst and SAP Mentor who blogs and podcasts on ERP market trends via He is the Editor in Chief of ERP Executive and an SAP Research Fellow with Pierre Audoin Consultants. He is also an Enterprise Irregular. His on-demand video commentary site, co-founded with Dennis Howlett, is Jon is a fan of spirited enterprise conversation. Feedback welcome on Twitter - JonERP.



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3.26 Copyright (C) 2008 / Copyright (C) 2007 Alain Georgette / Copyright (C) 2006 Frantisek Hliva. All rights reserved."