Mike Ettling (CEO of SAP SuccessFactors) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Mike Ettling , president of SAP SuccessFactors, a human resources software company. He wishes people would stop trying to be perfect in interviews. To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

* * *

What were your early years like? Were you in leadership roles early on?

I grew up in South Africa — in Cape Town as a boy, and later in Johannesburg. My first exposure to leadership was probably Boy Scouts. I think back on some of the things we did in those days, and health and safety regulators would probably have a heart attack if they knew.

Such as?

We would go hiking and decide to climb a mountain. There was no consideration of the potential dangers. We just decided we would climb it and figure it out. And then you find yourself halfway up a cliff with six guys.

But we made it work. I’m still here and standing, and the other six are as well. That teaches you a bit of that frontier mentality.

I also grew up in South Africa during the ugly days of apartheid. I remember as a kid playing in the yard, and a black man was running past, and my mother opened the door and called him into the house to hide him from the police.

I had a guy who worked for me once who was my head of product. He grew up in Russia, and we got along really well. We talked about why, and we came to the conclusion that we were both brought up in societies where it was appropriate to question and disrespect authority.

That’s probably one of the things that shaped me as a leader — this DNA around questioning everything and questioning authority. Just because somebody who’s higher in rank than you says something is so doesn’t mean it’s true.

Tell me about your parents.

I had a stay-at-home mum. My dad was sort of a lower-middle-class manager. He worked for a division of a company that imported foreign magazines. So I was brought up in a culture of unlimited reading material in the house.

* * *

Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

Posted in

Leave a Comment