Don’t let success make you vulnerable to this ‘disease,’ says software CEO

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Bill McDermott, CEO of German software giant SAP, addresses the media during the company's annual financial statement at it's headquarters in Walldorf near Heidelberg, southern Germany, on January 24, 2017. 

Most of us strive to be successful at work. While it’s a common and admirable aspiration, you should be wary of its adverse consequences.

That’s according to Bill McDermott, CEO of SAP — one of the world’s leading software companies — who says that success can make you vulnerable to one of the most damaging workplace diseases: Complacency.

“Success is an anesthetic,” McDermott told CNBC’s “Managing Asia.”

He said success “gets people a little laid back” and they start to think: “We can relax now, we made it.”

“No, you can’t,” he continued, “if you decide to sit back, somebody’s going to take your lunch away from you.”

McDermott speaks from experience. He told CNBC’ss Christine Tan how his 16-year tenure at SAP has seen one his key competitors, cloud computing firm Salesforce, go from being the “underdog” to having a “better idea.”

Salesforce has shot ahead of its rivals — including SAP — to become the leading customer relationship management company.

Now, as CEO of SAP, McDermott said he is determined to ensure the company doesn’t rest on the laurels of its 46-year legacy and continues “moving forward.” That includes a recent partnership with Jack Ma’s China.

“You know, the most important thing a leader can do with a successful company is beat back the complacency disease on a daily basis,” he said.

Founder and Chairman of Alibaba Group Jack Ma attends the 'Ma Yun Rural Teachers Prize' awards show on January 21, 2018 in Sanya, Hainan province, China.

Celebrate wins, but keep the bigger picture in mind

That doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate your success.

“We celebrate the victories,” said McDermott.

But you should keep the bigger picture in mind, he continued. “What we try to keep in our culture, is the celebration’s brief, because there’s work to do.”

“If you need a rest, take a vacation. But when we’re working, we’re going.”

McDermott himself is a good advertisement for the work ethic he tries to instill in his team. As a young teen, he worked three jobs which allowed him to buy his first business — a $7,000 delicatessen in Long Island, New York state — at 16.

But it was at the age of 54, when he suffered a debilitating fall which caused him to lose his left eye, that he said he gained a new determination to succeed despite the challenges.

“I never had a single moment where I was not intending to be back in the action,” said McDermott.

“I’m the luckiest person I know,” he said.

Asked if the incident had made him a better leader as a result, he said “without doubt.”

“I see things now that I didn’t see,” said McDermott. “(Before) I could look at a forest and I knew there was a stream with a snow-capped mountain on the other side but I could see a lot of trees.

“Now, I see the snow-capped mountain with the running stream first and I look right past the trees.”

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