Heads Up with Stefan Haenisch, Head of Strategic Workforce Planning, SAP

Stefan Haenisch is the Head of Strategic Workforce Planning at SAP. Appointed to this role in 2022, Stefan is working alongside SAP’s executive board and executive leadership team to realign the organization’s 105,000+ employees to conform with SAP’s strategic plan and business objectives. Stefan began his career with SAP in 1998 in Go-To-Market and Product Management leadership roles before transitioning in 2013 to lead the development and delivery of learning and development initiatives for customers, partners, and employees.

Please describe the nature of SAP’s transformation, and what are the opportunities and challenges?

In the tech industry there is an extremely rapid pace of innovation and change. To sustain success, you have to continuously reinvent yourself. At SAP, for example, we completely changed our business model from on-premise software to the cloud. As we’re finalizing this transformation, the next one has already started: bringing AI to life, both in our products, as well as in our internal processes!
On the one side, such innovation-driven transformation brings tremendous business opportunity, as well as an influx of talents and fresh ideas into your company. However, it also impacts almost every function and role – and the skills you need – in the company – from the way we build and deliver our products, to how we engage with our customers – so we have significant workforce transformation activities to manage.

How do you define strong leadership during a period of such significant change?

First of all, you need to have very strong sponsorship from the top. Your leadership really needs to be behind the transformation, otherwise it will never succeed. But you also need to have a plan for the workforce: how will your role composition need to change? Which strategic skill gaps do you need to address? How does this impact your location strategy? Your external workforce strategy? Etc. etc. This plan you then need to bring into a tangible guidance, applying longer term vision to targets for the current cycle, and ensure everyone understands where you need to go and why, and how it needs to be addressed. In addition, an effective governance needs to be established to ensure it’s really executed.

How do you manage the demands and various priorities associated with a large, global enterprise?

Your different business units obviously all have their unique starting points and different challenges, and a company-wide transformation may be tougher for one than for another. Therefore, we engage with each of them from day one and cascade the company strategy into business unit specific workforce plans. At SAP, in each board area we have a steering committees comprised of the area’s HR leader, Chief Controller and COO as central governance body. Together with the respective business leaders, his team is absolutely vital for driving the transformation into the respective business unit – from aligning the plans to driving execution and governance.

What changes to your industry do you anticipate over the next two years and are you excited by this? How are you preparing SAP for the anticipated changes?

While change is a constant in pretty much everything we do, AI is certainly going to be most disruptive. Given a large portion of the world’s business processes run on SAP software, you can imagine there is a tremendous business opportunity for us by bringing AI capabilities to our customers right into their processes. We already started this, with great success, and are looking into scaling our respective workforce capabilities to accelerate this further. At the same time, being a large organization ourselves, we’re looking into where AI capabilities can be deployed in our own processes, to boost efficiency.

A.I. is now a permanent fixture in our lives. In your role at SAP, how are you embracing it to effectively deliver the best outcomes? Could you describe a recent project where you leveraged A.I., and what the outcomes were?

In SAP we have already started augmenting or even automating internal tasks with AI across several business functions. One of the greatest examples so far is the use of an AI co-pilot in software engineering. Given we employee several ten-thousands of software engineers, you can imagine that every percentage point in productivity gain has huge impact. Another great example is customer support, where for every given question the AI has access to all comparable questions ever asked in the past, enabling high quality answers super-fast. Going forward we are currently discussing Strategic Workforce Planning capabilities to help us systematically identify the opportunities with greatest potential.

You’ve made a significant transition from Product Management to Human Resources. Can you discuss the skills or insights you’ve found to be most transferable between these roles? How have these helped you in shaping the human resources strategy at SAP?

Let me give you an example. When I led Product Management for trade promotion management, we had to address the needs of our customers – including some of the largest consumer products companies on the planet. So how do you do that? You have to be very customer-centric – your customer’s success is your success. You need the business acumen to understand their top-down vision. A further success factor is to effectively engage with numerous business functions to figure out their diverse requirements, and how to integrate them into a holistic business solution. In this example, this included engaging a range of functions from marketing and sales to supply chain management, finance, and human resources. You then prioritize myriads of requirements into a pragmatic plan and roadmap. Another key skill is driving execution of the plan, and being resilient and adaptable to unexpected dynamics that you will always face. And not the least, you have to lead a team of experts, unite them in a joint vision and purpose, and make it happen.
I don’t see this dissimilar at all to my current role in HR, where ultimately, we translate business strategies on company and business unit levels into people strategy. It starts again with the customer – in this case an internal customer, our Executive Leadership Team, and their vision. Again, a strong holistic business understanding is key. Deep functional HR expertise alone only gets you so far, you need to have this certain ‘general manager mindset’ to really be effective. You then have to deal with all the business units and their diverse – in parts contradicting – priorities, and integrate them into a joint plan and approach. In all this you have to get your team aligned and make it happen – and deal with the constant dynamics. So yes: the way I approach my role built on the leadership experience I gained in Product Management and other customer-facing roles.

What are the key qualities you believe are essential for someone to be successful in your team, especially in the context of SAP’s ongoing transformation? How do you foster these qualities within your team?

It starts with a customer-focused mindset, and the ability to effectively work with many key stakeholders and their different priorities. Next to strategic thinking our team members need to be willing to learn, think out of the box, and bring a certain can-do attitude: a lot of business questions we are faced with have never been answered before and require creative approaches. A certain resilience is also required, not be frustrated too easily at times. These are some general attributes I look for in team members, next to the functional skills needed, be it HR expertise, or strong data science skills. The latter is not to underestimate, as you constantly need the right analytical insight, more often than not beyond pure people analytics. I also focus a lot on bringing my team members as closely as possible into direct engagement with the business, so they can build up increasing business acumen. Last but not least, it is important to me to build a culture of fun and real team-work – more often than not demands are tough, and whether or not your team likes doing what they do, and likes working together, is a crucial factor for success.

What fascinates you about your job?

For most businesses, even more so in Tech, people are their biggest asset. But ironically, people strategy often only comes as an afterthought. In my job I have the opportunity to shape this intersection and bring business strategy and people strategy together. I believe nothing can make more of an impact! Doing this will also foster the transformation of HR itself into a truly strategic HR capability, bringing HR “to the table with the business”, and turning “HR as a support function” into an HR capability that actively helps to shape the future of the company. I also love that in this capacity there are continuously new challenges to be solved – no day is the same!

Interviewer: Matt Healey

Please feel free to contact Matt directly via email mhealey@hiec.com should you have any questions or would like to discuss the above or anything else further.