5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a CMO, with Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP
“Have a point of view and be confident in sharing it — You always want to be fierce and confident in your decisions, but you also need to have an open mind and empathy. For example, as a female leader, it can be difficult to always feel empowered to share my opinion, especially in a room full of men. Confidence is key to overcoming this and climbing the corporate ladder.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alicia Tillman, CMO of SAP. Alicia is responsible for driving the growth of the SAP brand and has a unique strategy to do this that all starts with purpose. New to the role, she has over 13 years experience leading marketing teams and is excited for the chance to move SAP’s mission forward through marketing.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I grew up with amazing role models in my life that showed me the possibilities of what can be achieved with hard work and determination. My mom, in particular, was a big driving force. She didn’t only just have an impressive career, but she somehow made time to support myself and my siblings — she was a regular fixture at all of our events. She was a living example that women really can do it all. It inspired me to do the same.
When it comes to my career, I had the pleasure of working for American Express for 11 years, where I focused on setting the strategic marketing direction for the global business travel division. It was an amazing experience, but when the opportunity arose to become the chief marketing officer of SAP Ariba, I knew I had to take it. What really drew me to SAP Ariba was their goal of doubling the size of their business in the next five years. I knew going in, this would be a challenge. But as someone who has always strived to leverage innovative tactics and technologies to drive brand growth, I found the whole prospect thrilling. During my tenure at SAP Ariba I led a successful rebrand of the company to further align its core message and our higher purpose — to help the world run better and improve people’s lives. My time at SAP Ariba was very rewarding, but I was once again drawn to the vision of our CEO Bill McDermott to improve lives through technology, and thus accepted the role as the global CMO of SAP.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
While I haven’t been the CMO of SAP for very long, on just the second week on the job, we kicked off a partnership with the United Nations. The kickoff event featured some of the most successful women in business, including Sarah Michelle Geller, who discussed how she has started her own company, Foodstirs. Sarah shared the challenges she’s faced balancing both family and business. She was honest in saying that there is no such thing as achieving balance, you must juggle and try to make it work. Sarah was extremely inspirational and I’ll never forget her words.
Yitzi: So what exactly does your company do?
SAP is third largest enterprise software company in the world, providing innovative solutions to improve the way people do business. We help companies streamline their processes, giving them the ability to use data to live in the moment and best address their customers’ needs. At our core, however, we help the world run better. Our technology is being used around the world to drive social change and impact traditional business models. This is the mission that drives everything that we do. From our brand to our solutions, we aim to impact the world to leave it better than we found it.
Our purpose-driven mission has led us to some incredible initiatives, including our work supporting the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Through this program, we’ve committed our people and products to drive social change and address the world’s biggest economic, environmental and societal issues. This includes working to end poverty, protect the planet, fight diseases and ensure prosperity for all by 2030.
Yitzi: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
In addition to our commitment to helping the world run better, there are two things that I would say make us stand out most as a company — our people and our culture. The two go hand in hand and are both critical for shaping who we are.
I believe the people in our organization are not only some of the most talented individuals in the industry but they are driven by their personal passions. We encourage each of our employees to pursue the things that define them — whatever makes them tick and allows them to be their best selves, inside and outside of the office. We want our teams to feel that they are part of something bigger than just their day-to-day job lending their individual purpose to the great innovation we build for our customers.
Our culture is another element that sets SAP apart. Innovation is the byproduct of an engaged, collaborative culture, not the other way around. You need to fundamentally look at creating a culture which fosters the exchange of different ideas and perspectives, and innovation will stem from that.
Yitzi: None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My family. As I mentioned, my mother was a huge inspiration and driving force behind me getting to where I am today. I’m so lucky that my husband and children today are also extremely supportive. I know they are proud of my accomplishments and make it possible for me to be a great mom and wife, as well as a successful business woman.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
One of the things I am incredibly proud of is the professional and personal relationships I’ve built, particularly with young women, our future leaders. Increasing diversity in the workplace is something I’m very passionate about. Instilled in me from a young age, I’ve seen that women can be hugely successful in business and in leadership positions. I’ve used my success in the corporate world as a platform to show others that they can do anything they set their minds to.
For example, when I was at SAP Ariba, I created a Women in Leadership program, designed to inspire women to enter the workplace and rise to the top. Through that program, I brought in other successful women to share their stories and talk about the challenges they’ve had to overcome in their careers, creating an environment that was not weighed down by issues, but uplifted by real-life examples of triumphs of women in the workplace. During my two years at SAP Ariba, the program grew to include educational forums where I had the opportunity to work alongside other executives and train women on areas that can often be growth inhibitors — defining personal brand, coaching on executive presence, etc. This created a community of more than 3,000 women across the technology industry — something I am very proud of.
Yitzi: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why.
1. Have a point of view and be confident in sharing it — You always want to be fierce and confident in your decisions, but you also need to have an open mind and empathy. For example, as a female leader, it can be difficult to always feel empowered to share my opinion, especially in a room full of men. Confidence is key to overcoming this and climbing the corporate ladder.
2. Recognize the importance of collaboration — At SAP, we believe in the Power of &, meaning we are stronger as a whole. We have so many different departments and solutions at SAP that collaboration is key for ensuring a consistent brand message.
3. Be a role model — Your role as CMO goes beyond your job requirements. It’s important to be a role model by leading with purpose. CMOs are responsible for defining and championing the values of a company. I’m lucky that at SAP those values are so well aligned with my personal mission, making it easy for me to inspire change.
4. Think big and take risks — If you want to make an impact, you need to think about the things that you can change. Worst case, you fail, but if you do your due diligence and try your best, ultimately these failures will turn into learning experiences.
5. Stay hungry, stay humble — This is something that our CEO Bill McDermott reinforces every day. No matter what role you are in, there is always more to learn and accomplish and never underestimate the impact you have on others.
Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I’d love to meet Elon Musk. He’s someone that pushes the innovation envelop, beyond what most think is possible. He is also an example of an executive that leads with purpose. While he is able to sell cars, he’s also improving our footprint on the environment, impacting the world for the better.