Don't Take Yourself So Seriously

How Cawa Younosi is reinventing work culture at SAP

Cawa Younosi is Head of Human Resources and a member of the Management Board at SAP in Germany. The 42-year-old lawyer is regarded as a rebel among German HR Managers because he is significantly reforming their previous image as administrators and bores. But that is not all: Cawa Younosi has set out to break new ground in the approach to equal opportunity, employee self-determination, mindfulness, and leadership culture. He wants 'Happy Employees' And the current level of employee satisfaction at SAP indicates that he has been very successful at achieving this. He spoke about his aims and aspirations in this interview with Detecon Partner Marc Wagner.

Cawa Younosi

Marc Wagner: Cawa, how would you describe yourself in two hashtags?

Cawa Younosi: Number one would be #Moreluckythangood. My experience has shown me that a lot of things in life happen by coincidence. I have had the good fortune in my life to be surrounded by the right people at the right time and under conditions that gave me the chance to build something. I have taken advantage of these situations. Of course, you shouldn’t use this as an excuse to wait around until you are struck by a bolt of good luck. Hard work is important, and you need to show what you can do.

Hashtag number two: #Donttakeyourselfsoseriously. We are all actually the same people that we were at 16 – just with a little less hair. A lot of people I meet agree with me on this point. And we have to preserve this youthfulness and the related willingness to take risks, yet never hesitate to poke fun at ourselves. No matter how many medals have been pinned to your chest or how much money you have in your bank account, ultimately, you are just one of the innumerable people in this world. This perspective will help you to keep your feet on the ground.

A few months ago, the Süddeutsche Zeitung called you a “gentle rebel.” Were you born a rebel?

I have always had a deep aversion to authority and to people who see themselves as keystones in the structure. Whether for religious, academic, or status reasons. When people see themselves this way, they lack the elementary understanding of their own fallibility. Living in Afghanistan until I was 14, I learned that life is not about status, but about doing the right thing.

Moreover, I saw HR people being stamped as “administrators” and “bores” for many years. I wanted to change that image. I want us to be a source of genuine added value, for people to approach us, for us to have the right mindset.

I want to do something meaningful, but at the same time, I want what I do to be fun for me and others. And sometimes that means striking out on unconventional paths. Whether I'm photoshopped as a monk or as a Jedi Knight. What counts is the message I’m trying to convey. And I try to get it across in such a way that the topic is not immediately pigeonholed. Take the subject of mindfulness. A lot of people think mindfulness is important and they want to develop it in themselves, but most of us never manage to do so. If I say I want to reach the majority and not those who are already familiar with the topic, then I have to make sure that my content is perceived as cool. When you see the picture with the monk, the humor attracts the attention of even those who think the subject is stupid.

How do you make sure, especially in social media, that your communication, which can be rather outrageous, doesn't turn into a façade?

By “Walking the Talk.” I try to avoid BS bingo and really to practice what I preach, to define myself through what I say. As soon as you cross a certain line and employees start to think your messages are marketing garbage, you've lost. No matter what we do: we must reach the employees, not the project managers and executives. Fortunately, this can be measured very easily today by using portals like kununu or Glassdoor, reading comments in social media, or quite trivially, counting the thumbs-up or thumbs-down buttons in my emails.

I find myself repeatedly carrying on fascinating discussions about who HR’s customers are. Are they the employees you seek to address, or are they at the end of the day your end customers who buy the products and evaluate the service?

Well, my customers are definitely the employees. And my goal is “Happy Employees.” I would like to staff my HR team in such a way that we do not view our customers as annoying employees who cannot do their job, but as customers whose satisfaction and enthusiasm are the reasons for our existence. That is our motivation, that is our currency.

And you appear to be successful. On the rating portal kununu, you have a recommendation rating of 94%! How do you manage this balancing act of generating enthusiasm among your customers – i.e., your employees – for new topics such as mindfulness, new job-sharing, and part-time models, agile forms of work, etc. and at the same time making it clear that productivity must not be allowed to suffer?

We manage this balancing act well because we have established a corporate culture that is practiced every day. We are not successful at the expense of our employees; we all achieve success together and work to heighten our economic performance. We have a healthy level of trust, no matter which executive officer comes or goes, and this trust is the common factor in our dealings with each other. Compared to other large companies, we have very few control mechanisms and rely instead on a lot of transparency and personal responsibility. And that has nothing to do with a culture of coddling people. If you look at the past nine years, we have improved in all KPIs, both financial and non-financial. We are also currently posting record approval ratings in terms of employee satisfaction. We are very proud of this accomplishment.

It all sounds almost too good to be true. With so much personal responsibility, what role does the manager or management culture play at SAP?

We are breaking new ground in terms of leadership as well. Of course, we have our corporate principles. They were democratically determined by the employees, who declared what principles they wanted to see in place as the basis for work and management in the company and who made a commitment to comply with these principles.

In addition, we are testing various programs; one, for example, is exploring the opportunities of co-leadership. In this case, two colleagues share one management position and, with the help of the software from our partner Tandemploythey can find a suitable tandem partner for themselves. We also have opportunities for part-time management positions. Since 2017, we have been advertising all jobs for managers as part-time positions, meaning 75 percent of standard working hours. We are using this approach to ensure maximum flexibility so that we can do justice to the different phases of life in which individuals find themselves. So if, for example, someone cannot work full-time for family or health reasons, we still want to give this person the opportunity to pursue a management career. This topic came up because we wanted to expand the topic of gender diversity in Germany.

How do you define 'Diversity'?

We generally distinguish between the dimensions of culture, generation, and gender diversity and approach them differently from one country to the next. In Germany, the issue of women in management positions is currently high on the agenda. Programs like HeforShe are aimed at increasing the proportion of women in management positions at SAP in Germany by one percent per year. At present, we have a level of 27 percent – while women make up 30 percent of the workforce. We track this quota regularly. We then look to see if and where there are systemic and structural disadvantages for certain groups of employees and set up programs aimed at eliminating these issues. In this regard, the topic of learning is and remains very important. Our annual investment in advanced training amounts to €180 million. Learning will remain a constant companion for everyone, no matter what employee group.

Let’s look three years into the future. When you look back, what yardstick will you use to measure your impact? What changes will you want to see in comparison with the past?

I think and act every day as if it were my last day in my current job. So it's really difficult to make plans. Planning a career is virtually impossible nowadays, and even professional success can be planned and predicted in no more than short time spans. I would wish that we – my team and I – remain curious and hungry, that we always have the courage to try new things and to think outside the box. Then, in three years’ time, people will still need us, appreciate us, and see how we contribute to securing SAP’s position as one of the most valuable employer brands, not only in Germany.

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