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Insights from Aluma Robin Manherz

Georgia Tech alumna Robin Manherz, Executive VP and Chief Operating Officer of Customer Success at SAP, sat down with us virtually last month to talk about leadership, work-life integration, DE&I, and the importance of psychological safety in the workplace. Whether you’re at the beginning of your career journey, or a seasoned executive, you will find Robin’s experiences and advice to be both relevant and inspiring as you consider the ways you can make the most impact in your career.

 Q-  What would you tell your 20-year-old self?

Manherz- I was very focused on minimizing risk. Frankly, I struggle with anxiety and worried a lot about what was going to happen. Now I deal with an incredible amount of unknowns and stress. I'd tell my 20-year-old self to expect the unexpected, trust yourself, and be authentic. Be willing to take risks and have some fun along the way. Know your core values and let that guide you.

 Q- Tell us about some of the lessons you learned from then to now.

Manherz- Work on having a lot of self-awareness. Focus on what you can control, what you want, and what's most important. Seek out people who have attributes that appeal to, support, and calm you. Know the best laid plans don't always turn out.

I hadn't been exposed to much diversity up to the time I was 20. The more diversity I put in my life (moving to Colorado and later adopting kids with special needs and of different races), the more I realized that success looks different in so many different ways. As I introduced more diversity and more experiences into my life, I was less afraid about what might happen.

Every time you knock down something personally or professionally that you didn't think you could, you become that much more confident. Embrace your anxiety. Acknowledge when you're more stressed than you need to be and find the tools to help you.

 Q- How has being a working mother inspired your business leadership?

Manherz- The most unique thing I bring to the table is my "working mother of 6" identity and I bring that unapologetically.

When I have to travel, or when the house has to be quiet while I'm on a call, or other sacrifices are required of my family, we say this is "our" job as a family. We do this all together by everyone playing their part.

I was a pioneer at SAP in terms of working virtually and proved it successful in that I've lived in the same place yet had physical offices and teams of people in several different cities. I've learned a lot about how to work virtually and get the flexibility you need while still being productive. A virtual watercooler was one thing we did where people would just get online and chat.

Q- How have you capitalized on your personal experiences to shape and advance the SAP experience?

Manherz- It comes down to the collection of experiences you gain along the way. I have learned a lot about myself and my affinities. The job I have now is like running a complex machine. I've looked up immigration policies, prepared a 2022 operating plan, had a meeting on KPIs for DEI, etc. I might cover 20 different topics in a day. I've learned a lot about being able to keep a lot of streams going at once. Because of my life experiences, my empathy skills have really amped up. Bringing empathy into the technical roles has separated me to an extent as a leader and COO. Being able to develop a risk tolerance has helped me find comfort in the uncertainty. This has made me better and more resilient, which is important in the workplace. I can absorb the shockwaves and still stay focused on the outcome and the customers. I bring a more human side to this role.

 Q- Can you provide some insight into creating psychological safety in the workplace?

Manherz- Psychological safety is something we talk a lot about. It is something that didn't happen 30 years ago. You never wanted to show cracks in the armor. I think psychological safety has a lot to do with celebrating authenticity without repercussions. I see that some of my own personal attributes make me qualified to do that. I do that purposefully and unapologetically.

I establish a culture of openness and inclusivity. Differences should be embraced rather than overlooked. We do a quarterly recognition award based on people who have practiced those cultural qualities. We do not celebrate those who presented the best business case, but rather those who have demonstrated the cultural attributes.

I make sure people are celebrated for speaking up and taking risks. You want to take risks and fail early and often; we learn from those. Bill Gates said, "Success is a lousy teacher.” You can be lulled into a false sense of comfort.

One difficult thing about psychological safety in highly successful environments is making sure people don't compete with, but rather, support each other. People want to differentiate and get ahead, but as a leader it's important to help people embrace their own personal development paths rather than comparing themselves to one another. This could otherwise turn into a place where people aren't sharing helpful information, and people start to feel psychologically unsafe. From a managerial perspective, it's important to be deliberate about developing this culture.

Q- In the last 2 years have been very pivotal in our awareness of Social and Racial Justice. Can you give us an idea of how businesses are dealing with this?

Manherz- All businesses have a responsibility in the communities that they serve. At SAP, we have a very important responsibility. We have the tagline to "make the world run better." There are not many companies that can literally make this possible. SAP has purposely focused on connecting the experiences of POC with our practical initiatives like Spotlight Black Businesses, where SAP people can sign up to help businesses affected by COVID.

You can watch the full conversation on ILSI’s YouTube channel, along with some of the other outstanding Impact presentations from this and previous seasons.

The Institute for Leadership and Social Impact is an interdisciplinary institute that promotes servant leadership and social innovation that contribute to a more just, caring, and equitable world.

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Nicole Little
Assistant Director of Operations