In Conversation with Tifenn Dano Kwan and Deborah Lanski, SAP Ariba

Tifenn Dano Kwan and Deborah Lanski at SAP Ariba, Palo Alto, CA

“Could you do 2pm Thursday?” Came the fast reply from Tifenn Dano Kwan as I approached her regarding the CC PartnersIn Conversation” series. “Pas de problème!” I replied, before realizing that it was the next day. For this fast-thinking, fast-moving Chief Marketing Officer, there’s nothing like the now for high-level productivity.

The Need and the Search

Tifenn moved to SAP Ariba in 2016, from parent company SAP, which she joined in 2006. “Ariba is a big, fast-growing cloud company and operates very much like a startup even if we have recently reached a billion in revenue. This is my first C-level position and also my first EA hire. At the C-level, you can’t function without one.” With her appointment as CMO, the EA to the previous CMO recommended Tifenn speak with Deborah Lanski (Debbie), a seasoned SAP employee. They met in-person, chatted for an hour and shared values. “When Debbie organized lunch, I pretty much knew I had found the right person. She started working for me before we had even started! It was clear she really wanted the job: from day one, she knew exactly how to be supportive of me and take care of the office.”

My criteria was simple: experience, personality, trust and network. — Tifenn Dano Kwan

“How people carry themselves, their empathy, reliability and ability to execute with integrity: all these qualities matter to me. I need someone who knows how things work (internally) and understands the job. Debbie was referred to me by people I know and trust, so the building of trust felt natural. As a long-standing member of the SAP group, her network is vital for me.”

“The biggest challenge is connectivity: I’m very fast-paced, we all have to move quickly and I expect my staff to react accordingly. I spend 70% of my time traveling and everything has to be booked and scheduled. I used to spend hours doing this on top of my expenses. Now I adjust to Debbie’s abilities.”

“Debbie is not a Chief of Staff [that’s more of a business role]; she’s a highly experienced and effective coordinator / manager. Young people often want the title CoS, and experienced personnel often don’t need the title. Of course it depends on the individual: some need to grow, some just like to deliver consistently. I give her autonomy and some direction: she has access to my entire MS Outlook and knows all the protocols. It took me a while to realize I could have Debbie be my gatekeeper. It’s very empowering to have someone send a message on your behalf. I noticed the shift immediately. There is an advantage to not always being accessible: you’re not disconnected in an ivory tower, it’s just a great filter. I’m learning. Debbie understands my voice and occasionally responds as me, probably better than I would! She’s a timesaver and always makes sure I have time to recharge. It can sometimes be lonely in my role, Debbie is often there to listen and is also very insightful. It’s a relief to be able to speak freely and know that she has my back.

You’re Dealing with People

I’m the anchor in the office. — Deborah Lanski

Debbie is a career Executive Assistant with 35 years of experience. She knows a thing or two: in fact, she’s seen it all! “I started right out of school in Manhattan. I was working for a VP of Sales at a women’s apparel company and the previous EA gave me a break and I later learned this is called “paying it forward”. I’ve been very fortunate, my working relationships have always gone beyond being an employee or administrative staff, we become friends. I started out with a typewriter and the job has just evolved.”

“As Tifenn’s responsibilities increase, so do mine. You have to ride the waves and stay on the surfboard: You either adapt or you don’t take the job. The biggest frustration an EA can have is working for someone who doesn’t communicate. Communication is not just important, it’s hugely beneficial. Tiffen is an excellent communicator. Like many, she is on the fast track and you have to keep up — this keeps the job interesting.”

You Either Connect or You Don’t!

“I came to SAP as a contractor, from the outside. It gave me an opportunity and an ability to do my job and learn my way around within the company. I have also learned to walk a fine line and not overstep my mark. If you’re doing your job the best that you can, it will reflect on everyone and the company. You do it for the greater good. From the moment Tifenn and I first met, I liked her. I go very much with my instinct, it never lets me down. Not everything is measurable, not if you want to keep it on a human level. Previously, at other organizations, I’ve had 2 very different female bosses: one was great, the other was terrible. I’ve seen a lot of good behavior, and witnessed a fair amount of bad behavior. It’s unnecessary and I don’t have time for it. By ignoring it, I suffocate it. I won’t let it get in the way of doing my job. That attitude has only served to propel me forward. It’s the only way to view it. You want coffee? It’s fine, you’re not making me less than. I’m accommodating you. No job too little or too big. It doesn’t demean me or take away from my respect. Some might not see it that way, I don’t allow that. As a result, I’ve never had the experience of someone looking down on me. In this role, everything is related; there can be a domino effect and nothing is insignificant. In my experience, the more senior the executive, the kinder the individual. They have less to prove.”

“My job as an EA is more than a job: it cuts into my personal time, so I better believe in it and in the people I work for. Then it’s easy. If that’s the main focus and you’re doing the right thing, in my experience it always works out. I’ve insisted on keeping my skill set and being a support person. I’m the caretaker. I’m self-appointed and I want to fix — it’s innate.”

After spending time with both Tifenn and Debbie, I can’t help feeling that this is a corporate match made in heaven! If Tifenn’s criteria for her support role is to be defined by one individual, Debbie certainly is everything she could have hoped for, and more. There is a human element here that goes beyond directives, execution, tasks and roles. It’s the space between people, that thing you cannot measure. Intuition, reading one another and instinct. As I drive out of the SAP lot and wander through the heart of Silicon Valley, in a landscape that drives innovation through technology and automation, there is still a need for people to work together in an organization. I can’t help but feel a sense of humanity with Tifenn and Debbie.

Organizations are still being created by people, with people, for people. The synergy between individuals that “get each other” or who are so synchronized they act as one is an unexpected yet valuable asset.

A great reminder that in this technology-driven environment, not everything is measurable and only about data. Of course organizations are still interested in people, as long as those people are performing on the job. If you put your people first, it’s likely that everything can grow in synergy.


If you are a Founder, C-Suite Executive or other leader who has a great working relationship with your support personnel, an Executive Operations Director, Executive Assistant, Business Partner or Chief of Staff, we’d love to feature you in our interview series. Connect with us: hello@ccpartners.co