Bill McDermott on Why Winners Dream

The author and speaker shares why he believes so strongly in the power of meetings to inspire and educate.


On the same day that his new book, Winners Dream: A Journey From Corner Store to Corner Office, hit bookstores, Bill McDermott, global CEO of SAP — the world’s largest software company — took time for an interview at IMEX America 2014, broadcast via satellite. “Your industry,” McDermott told the audience of meeting professionals and members of the Meetings Mean Business coalition assembled in Las Vegas in October, “is at the forefront of driving growth in the global economy.”

Early in my career, a leader I admired told me something that I still believe and regularly repeat: “All leaders have one thing in common: They have followers.” That may seem like an obvious or clichéd statement, but inspiring people to follow you — especially toward goals they don’t believe they have the capacity to reach — is not easy. Winning followers mixes the art of inspiration with the science of execution. To get the best from people, they must want to follow you because you have painted a vision and a cause so compelling that it touches their hearts.

A great friend of mine, Kevin Olsen [president and CEO of event and communication agency One Smooth Stone, who interviewed McDermott at IMEX America], was familiar with the big role that beautiful meetings and events had played throughout my career. When he became aware that I was writing my new book, Winners Dream, he immediately suggested that my authentic stories were exactly what people needed to hear to understand the power of pageantry. Kevin and I have always shared the belief that you can’t motivate people with an email message or a conference call. People need to come together, to collaborate creatively, and ultimately to celebrate success.

I have long believed in the power of pageantry to inspire people to achieve audacious goals. Pageantry is about emotion. It’s about theater. But it’s also about purpose. Pageantry immerses people in an environment that whisks them beyond their everyday lives and creates feelings that linger while building knowledge and skills that propel performance long after the meeting has ended. The multiple effects of a beautifully orchestrated in-person event — higher levels of trust, excitement, and understanding — cannot be replicated in a companywide memo or via video.

Capturing the return on investment of face-to-face meetings is, admittedly, not easy. The proof of their power, I believe, is in the experience itself, and in people’s emotional state and ability to execute long after an event has ended. A meeting needs to be seen not as an isolated event, but a strategic part of ongoing campaigns or programs to win employee engagement in the same way marketing and advertising win customer engagement. Those skeptical of the power of pageantry to simultaneously inspire and educate need to experience it firsthand, and to connect with participants in the days and weeks and months that follow to understand its long-terms benefits on engagement and performance.

Sometimes, in the face of skepticism, leaders who understand the power of meetings need to plow ahead with their plans, and instead of asking for permission, ask for forgiveness. If done well, the meeting’s power will speak for itself, and no forgiveness will be necessary.

Susan Sarfati, CAE

Susan Sarfati, CAE, is CEO of High Performance Strategies LLC.