1-to-1: Lori Mitchell-Keller | SAP Industries
The Lead Editorial Team
- “I think you’ve got to empower your people. It’s hard for people to grow and reach their full potential if you don’t let them take some risks. I mean, everyone fails at one point. It’s not a succeed or fail, rather a succeed or learn. You learn from every mistake you make, much more sometimes than your successes.”
“When I first started my career and I was in a male-dominated organization, I thought that I needed to be more like them to fit in. Everything from how I dressed to the level of passion I showed in meetings. I tried to emulate that role model. And what I figured out 10 years into my career was that was absolutely the wrong thing to do. Being a female with a lot of males around you, the only female in a conference room or meeting, the diversity of the ideas is what’s important.”
“Trust and authenticity are probably the top qualities that I think people on my team need to possess and that I need to possess as a leader.”
Come gather ’round people, wherever you roam. And admit that the waters around you have grown… For the times they are a-changin’.
– Bob Dylan
There is a growing desire among Millennial and Gen Z women to “have it all” — A meaningful career, time and attention for family, and the space for a wellness driven lifestyle.
At The Lead, we bring together two progressive worlds: The fashion & retail Industry alongside the global Silicon Valley. In quite different ways, these two communities strive to “have it all.” In Silicon Valley, the tech economy strives to “hack” every potential area of life. In the fashion and retail industry, there is renewed attention for lifestyle and wellness.
In this issue of The Lead Quarterly 1.2, we are pleased to bring you a fireside interview with Lori Mitchell-Keller. As Co-President at SAP, she sits between these two aforementioned worlds, informing her unique perspective on the notion of “having it all”. For reference, Lori has worked at companies big and small, spending much of her recent career at SAP, a software and technology company with more than 100,000 employees across 130 countries.
We wanted to talk with Lori about her leap of faith moments, her biggest failure, where she got her start, how she worked to adjust to a man’s world (only to toss that idea aside for authenticity), and how she stays focused on her family despite a travel-heavy schedule.
We hope that Lori’s story helps you chart your course, develop your leadership values, find authenticity in your voice, and consider what it means to ‘have it all’.
Lastly, we would like to thank The Chain for helping to prepare this interview and leading a powerful community of trailblazing female leaders.
To have an understanding of who Lori is, we think it’s important to appreciate where she came from. In her words, she started “about as far away from fashion as you could imagine” — in a class of engineers that was more than 95% male. It was in this world of math, science, and supply chain she grew from engineer to product manager to Stanford graduate (master’s). She ultimately shifted into a marketing and strategy focus after completing her MBA at Northwestern.
The Lead: When you think about where you are today, what was that one moment or that one big break for you? Or was it a natural progression but how do you look back on the time that you pivoted to being on track for where you are today?
Lori Mitchell-Keller: There were a series of sort of pivots or ‘big breaks’ that I had in my career. The first one was moving away from advising on strategic decisions and actually running operations. I think the second pivot was getting my MBA and wanting to go into more marketing and strategy.
The third was probably after my previous company got acquired. The culture really wasn’t a fit and I left. And two days and then SAP called. SAP was incredibly persistent and so two months later I accepted the job. And the reason it was a big break was I remember sitting in my living room talking to the guy that I was going to be working for and he didn’t know what my job was going to be. And I remember thinking, ‘This is the weirdest thing… but I really would like to work for a really big software company, so what’s the worst that can happen?’.
So that was a big break for me in that I probably took the biggest risk in my career that I’d ever taken. I mean, how often do you accept a job to go work for someone that you haven’t actually personally met? And that doesn’t know what your job is going to be. At a brand-new company that’s 80,000 employees. So that was probably the biggest break for me.
TL: It sounds like a leap of faith moment.
LMK: It was definitely a leap of faith. I don’t think I’ve ever had that kind of leap of faith moment, not even when I got married and I was absolutely certain that the person I was going to marry was the right person. We’ve been married for 30 years, so I think I made a good decision.
TL: How does your original vision of balancing your career and professional life work out with what it’s come to be? How do you view and prioritize some of the practices you have for keeping a balanced life between career and family?
LMK: That’s a hard one. The balance is more of a co-mingle as opposed to a balance. It’s impossible to sort of partition your life, right? It’s sort of just a fluid thing and pieces get done at the time and place they get done.
I did not envision so much travel. I’m just getting done with what was about six weeks on the road. It becomes really difficult. So, the first thing is you have to have is a spouse that’s really understanding. My husband does work, but he doesn’t travel, so that’s helpful.
An early priority I made when I started working at SAP and the first time I had to truly global job — where one week I’d be in Shanghai, the next week Germany, the next week Vancouver — the biggest priority for me was to always be there for the ‘picture moments’. Now, this was before you had smartphones and every single second was a picture moment. When I joined SAP my kids were three, four and eight, (so) throughout their growing up years if it was a birthday, or the Valentine’s day party at the school, or the Halloween parade, or the 5th-grade graduation ceremony, any activities that I knew were going to be occasions where I knew pictures were going to be taken, I was always there. No matter what. I had a very rigid schedule in terms of these days, I have to be home… so I just wouldn’t accept customer meetings that day or I would try to make sure I was in the US that day and could fly back for that particular event.
I was also always home on weekends, I remember doing this crazy thing for like 6 months, where on a Sunday night I would fly out to Germany fly back on Friday afternoon, fly back on Sunday night, and so on. And all of my colleagues kept saying ‘Why are you going back home? You’re spending 15 hours on a flight just to be home for 36 hours’, and my answer was, ‘Well if I don’t do that, I’ll never see my kids’.
TL: So, we want to go a little bit deeper and talk a bit more about your personal experience and a little bit about failure. What do you consider to be your greatest professional failure? What did you learn from it and course correct to achieve the position you’re at today?
LMK: I think my biggest personal/professional failure was before my leap of faith event. When my smaller software company got acquired. It was an incredibly collegial environment, a once in a lifetime experience, where you’re in your early 30s, making something out of not much, with everyone pulling for everyone as one united team. I thought that the acquiring company had a very similar culture. I quickly found out that they didn’t. I had coached a lot of people to stay in their jobs and figure out what was going to happen before they jumped ship. Knowing how difficult it was for my team to stay, I felt like I personally couldn’t leave. That I had to stay.
And then after about 18 months, you know I just said, ‘I can’t do it anymore’. I felt terrible leaving my team, because I felt like a lot of people had been loyal to me and that I tried my best, I stuck it out for 18 months, but I couldn’t function appropriately in that culture at the level I was.
The reason that it was a failure was that I should have listened to myself earlier. I kept saying ‘No I can’t do it, I can’t leave’ because of the people. But I don’t know that I was doing them a big favor looking back on it, because I wasn’t in a great mindset. I wasn’t in a creative mindset. I was just surviving. And so, looking back on it, I’m just surprised that I did that to myself as it didn’t really benefit the people that much.
And so, what I’ve figured out now is that culture is the most important thing for me at the place that I work. And the second is the person that I work for.
TL: When you were going through the acquisitions and getting your team to stay on board, was it your gut sort of saying it wasn’t the right thing, but it was your mind saying we should push forward?
LMK: I am incredibly loyal, and I stick by my word. And I had told people in counseling them that I was staying, I would still be their manager, and I would still look out for them. And so, to go back on that was really difficult. But after 18 months of seeing what the CEO was doing, I just couldn’t look at myself in the mirror each day and say, ‘I’m doing a great thing’, because my gut just finally took over.
TL: How do you define yourself as a leader? What are the values that you employ in your leadership and that you live by personally?
LMK: Trust and authenticity are probably the top qualities that I think people on my team need to possess and that I need to possess as a leader. As I said, you are really co-mingling your life and so if someone needs to leave early for a birthday or an anniversary I say, ‘Just leave, don’t make up an excuse’. I trust that everyone is going to get their job done. And so, the ability for my team to be able to make the appropriate decisions for themselves in terms of how they balance their work and their life and being open and honest and trusting about it and authentic, I think is paramount in terms of leadership.
I think you’ve got to empower your people. It’s hard for people to grow and reach their full potential if you don’t let them take some risks. I mean, everyone fails at one point. It’s not a succeed or fail, rather a succeed or learn. You learn from every mistake you make, much more sometimes than your successes. So, I am a huge enthusiast of people stretching themselves. And if you’re going to do that, there’s going to be times when you learn and you don’t necessarily succeed.
TL: What’s it like to operate in a traditionally male-centric environment? And what advice might you have for women who are in such environments and striving to make the most of their careers?
LMK: Well, when I first started my career and I was in a male-dominated organization, I thought that I needed to be more like them to fit in. Everything from how I dressed to the level of passion I showed in meetings. I tried to emulate that role model. And what I figured out 10 years into my career was that was absolutely the wrong thing to do. Being a female with a lot of males around you, the only female in a conference room or meeting, the diversity of the ideas is what’s important… You should just be yourself and be open to showing the passion you have about different ideas and don’t try and be like the guys. It doesn’t help the organization. It doesn’t help you. The more you can just be true to yourself, the more you can stand out and shine. And the happier you’ll be in the role. I think you just have to be true to yourself.
Another thing that I find frustrating is I don’t think that women always go for jobs when they don’t think that they check all of the boxes. I know a hiring manager might say there are six things that are important, but in reality, it’s usually two that are critical… I have more men applying for opportunities that they are unqualified for and most of the women who apply are incredibly qualified. It’s not that I only hire women. My point is, out of 10 people that I get resumes from, and it’s usually a lot more than that, but out of 10, five of them are guys that are totally unqualified, and then I‘ve got five really qualified candidates equally split between men and women. So, I don’t think women take as many risks as men. And I think that the second piece of advice I would give to female colleagues is to take more risks. Take opportunities where you don’t necessarily check every box, but you can convince the manager of your passion for the job and why you think you have the two or three qualities that are actually the most important. I would venture a guess that more often than not if you are in that situation, you have a great shot at the job.
When my daughter was in third grade, she came home from career day and I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said ‘I think I want to be a scientist. I would be president if it wasn’t against the law, but since it’s against the law, I’ll be a scientist’. And I said, ‘Why do you think being a president is against the law?’. And she said, “Because I’m a girl, Mommy. It would have already happened if it wasn’t against the law’. So, she was convinced that there was no reason that there couldn’t be a female president, but because there had never been one, the only reason that could be possible was that there was some sort of rule or regulation around it. That has really stuck with, because when you grow up and ultimately you find those barriers — you find men being promoted maybe more than women or what have you — you actually internalize that there is a reason for that. And there’s not. It just hasn’t happened yet or become the norm yet. And so, I think women really need to take some risks and be confident in their abilities and challenging what they believe are expected jobs for them versus the jobs that they actually want to do.
For the rising stars in our community, charting a new course or balancing work and life in the course already set can be exhausting. It is an honor to bring you the story of pioneers that have challenged the status quo and paved roads for the next generation of leadership. We want to thank Lori for finding time in her schedule to speak with us. And we look forward to seeing her continue to rise in the ranks, challenge the status quo, and achieve incredible successes in professional — and personal — life.
In her role as Co-President, SAP Industries, Lori Mitchell-Keller leads the sales and partner Go-To-Market strategy and execution in pursuit of accelerated industry revenue growth and in generating enterprise customers for life. In so doing, Michell-Keller ensures SAP Industries provide the leadership to enable new business models, create next-generation processes, and valorize innovative technologies in the hands of SAP customers while delighting their end consumer.