How We Started A People-Powered Movement For Change At SAP

Joel Bernstein

Part 3 in a series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

There’s a myth about business change that says it’s always painful. The truth is more nuanced. Forced change? Yes, that can be painful. When people feel like they have no control, anxiety can skyrocket and chaos prevails.

But when change is what people want within an organization – that’s an entirely different story. It’s welcome. People are energized and optimistic.

The trick is in how the change is managed. Here are three lessons I’ve learned from the finance transformation at SAP.

Don’t dictate; create and enable an environment for change

In my previous blogs, I’ve talked about this transformation in some detail. But one thing that stands out again and again as I look back is the importance of engaging the entire group of people impacted by the change.

Our approach was to build a global movement for change within our finance group that elicited passionate action from groups of enthusiastic people. Over the course of a year or so, we tried to facilitate this passion with 70 workshops held around the world – from Sydney, Australia to Dubai, UEA to the U.S. West Coast. Participants numbered more that 1,600 – with more than 80 trainers and 30,000 training hours.

Many participants called it the “best training ever at SAP” – something I’m particularly proud of because it shows we connected and engaged. A kind of fever pitch was achieved, with many participants asking to lead training sessions on their own – leading to a spontaneous train-the-trainer approach that delivered real results. In the end, we had a movement for change on our hands, one in which everybody participated.

Encourage your team to become transformation agents

How exactly do you build the movement? I think the best approach for us was to focus on team member empowerment. When it comes to fundamental change in an organization, it’s very easy for individual team members to feel like the change is happening to them. It’s a bit like bad weather: You don’t have any control over it, so you endure.

We switched this equation around by encouraging our people to become agents of change themselves – to carry the message beyond finance and spread the mindset throughout SAP.

This fit into our three-part thinking on the essential roles of finance. Our core role is to act as stewards to the business, providing the voice of conscience, ensuring compliance, and executing prudent financial strategies with a high degree of professionalism. This we have always done well.

In addition to our role as steward, we also act as a business partner to the business, providing operational and decision support and delivering best-in-class business-partnering services enabled by efficient process.

To this mix, we added the third role of transformation agent – proactively advocating for change throughout SAP and using our own experience as a template for how to succeed.

This approach had a profound effect on morale. Our team leaned into the change, took ownership, and made the change happen.

Remember to have fun

Finally, remember that while a transformation journey can be an exceptionally busy time (planning sessions, late nights, and travel), it can also be a lot of fun. It was for us. The experience of inclusive change brought our group together like nothing before. The energy was contagious.

We socialized. We had cake. We bonded. I count it as a one of the highlights of my working life.

We also had fun with our communications. To help drive the project along and communicate core philosophies behind the change, we produced a comic book targeted to fit the tenor of the entire effort.

Does this stand as a proven best practice for finance transformation? Every project of comparable size has its own personality, so who can say for sure.? One thing is for certain: When we shared the story about the movement with the CFOs of some of our top customers, they viewed this as a best practice they intend to adopt.

The never-ending story

With the power of a movement fueled by a sense of agency and a sense of humor, our transformation efforts won’t be ending anytime soon. There’s more to do. Yet, while this will keep us busy, we will continue to explore other opportunities to drive digital transformation with our people in the SAP community and beyond. It’s part of being a transformation agent. Want to share your story? Leave a comment below or contact me at

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Joel Bernstein

About Joel Bernstein

Joel Bernstein is the CFO for SAP Global Field Finance, which includes responsibilities in the Cloud Business Group, Digital Business Services, and Global Customer Operations. In this role, he is responsible for leading the financial activities and profitable revenue growth for the company’s customer go-to-market organization and driving financial support for the Cloud and Professional Services organization. Joel’s direct Field Finance organization includes all finance functions in the multiple regions and market units worldwide for all SAP revenue-generating businesses. Prior to being promoted into this global position, Joel served as CFO for the SAP North America region. There he led all field finance-related activities for the United States and Canada. An accomplished finance professional, Joel earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting at Wilkes University. He is also a member of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Joel is an ardent supporter of SAP’s social corporate responsibility initiatives, often serving as the executive sponsor for programs that connect SAP employees in the communities where they live and work. Reflective of that commitment, Joel is a member of The Franklin Institute’s Board of Trustees, an esteemed organization founded in 1824 whose mission is to inspire a passion for learning about science and technology.