Step out of your comfort zone

Friday, October 19, 2018

Corry Wouters is a digital leader with more than twenty years of business experience in IT and commerce. Over the course of her career, she has challenged herself to make a difference in the world through her commitment to innovation and digitalisation. In this interview, she discusses how we must continually step out of our comfort zone and expand our perspective to add value through innovation.

What excites you most about your new role at SAP?

I’ve always aimed to work for companies that contribute to innovation in their industries through digitalisation. In the past, I worked for Philips, which is bringing innovative digital solutions to hospitals and the healthcare domain. Philips is really changing how doctors are treating patients and how we as humans are healed after sickness and cancer.

As the Head of Cloud at SAP Netherlands, I am leading four lines of business as they transform and join the cloud: human resources, e-commerce, procurement and cloud hosting. This is the first role of its kind at SAP. It is quite different from my previous roles, and I am excited for the challenge. My teams are focusing on developing end-to-end solutions for our customers across these industries. By embracing innovative technologies and the Internet of things, SAP intends to have an impact in the digitalisation domain.

You’ve worked with innovation and digitalisation in many different contexts. What keeps drawing you back to this field?

Through digitalisation, we are able to accomplish what was once thought to be impossible. Only a few years ago, the world was afraid we would run out of petrol. But look at what happened instead: we developed the electric car. Technology changed the whole discussion. If I had proposed 20 years ago that all cars would eventually become electric, nobody would have believed me. In fact, people would have thought I was mad! In many ways, you kind of have to be mad to change the world. By thinking differently, we can solve real issues in the world.

How do you develop a culture of innovation on your teams?

At the individual level, I encourage people to discover where their talents lie. After working in a role for two or three years, everyone should work in a completely different area to see if they’re good at something else. If you work in application development, you should explore infrastructure. If you work in sales, go into marketing. By placing yourself in unfamiliar circumstances, you will develop skills faster than you ever could by repeating the same tasks every day. Challenging ourselves in this way helps us keep a fresh perspective and stay sharp in what we do.

From the management side, it’s important to develop the talent on your team by giving people opportunities and challenging them. We sometimes limit the growth of the individuals on our team by assigning the same types of projects over and over again. However, people do not learn this way. No matter what our level within a company, we have to drive our own development and push our limits to see what we’re capable of.

I get a lot of energy from leading my teams to more efficient and effective ways of working. All leaders should aim to take their teams to a higher level: when their teams grow, they grow. Sometimes, as managers, it’s easier to handle tasks by ourselves. However, by letting our team members take on the difficult and innovative projects, they can learn and we can steer as leaders.

How has gender diversity in the workplace changed since you began your career?

I look at the women of this world – particularly the new generation of young women – and I don’t think they need the same help that I needed. I turned fifty this year. When I left university and married, everyone expected me to have children and work part-time. Instead, I chose to have a family and work full-time, and I raised a lot of eyebrows with this choice.

When I look at the women in my office, I’m proud that I made it. But I am also proud that this younger generation has made it, and that young women today see having a career as a natural and accepted choice. This isn’t to say that they have it any easier than I did, but they have a different set of challenges in the workplace, and this is a start.

At SAP, I see a lot of young women in areas where we had very few women while I was building my career, particularly in sales, consulting and support. Within the technical teams, we haven’t seen this same growth, which is a pity, but there are more women than there were twenty ago.

I recently attended a ladies business networking evening where women at SAP were invited to share their thoughts about digital leadership. The former managing director of SAP Netherlands joined and shared her story. It must have been quite interesting for the young women attending to hear that it is possible to become the director of a company before the age of fifty.

What do you want young women to know about what it takes to succeed in the digital world?

You must spend your lifetime learning. If you want to be innovative, you need to continuously read about and use new technologies. Of course, education doesn’t have to mean sitting in a classroom. There’s self-education, online learning, master classes, professional trainings and YouTube tutorials. I read a lot of interesting and free information on LinkedIn. Whenever a topic piques my interest, I look it up on Google or Wikipedia.

I recently joined the RightBrains Digital Leadership Programme at Nyenrode, and when I attend class, I pay attention to what my professors say. I read the supplemental books and articles. I watch the videos they share, and I try to learn as much as I can.

Learning also has to be social and fun. People need to talk about innovation with their colleagues and the people within their networks. It’s important to learn from strong managers and leaders. Lifelong learning is something we talk about, but I really try to practise it every day. Somebody once told me to write down what I have learned in a notebook each night. It could be something I learned in my personal life or something I heard on the radio. When I looked back at the end of twelve weeks, I saw how much I could learn by adopting this mindset and simply being open to new ideas.

My advice is to take a job outside your comfort zone and learn as much as you can. Figure out what you want. Seek out people who will teach you and help you achieve your goals. Discover the boundaries of what is possible, because right now, you have all the potential in the world. You have only to grasp it.