How SAS drives success by making leaders out of everyone

A concerted strategy and focus to embed leadership into the culture and every level of the business at SAS has helped create the right conditions for broader business success, according to MD David Bowie

A concerted focus to embed leadership into the culture and every level of the business at SAS has helped create the right conditions for broader success, according to the MD of the analytics, business intelligence and data management firm, David Bowie.

In taking up the role of MD within the business almost five years ago, Bowie said one of his first priorities in terms of a differentiating business strategy was to prioritise leadership and create a “leadership legacy that was the envy of the industry”.

SAS formalised this through developing and implementing an “organisational leadership architecture”, and Bowie said this has played a key role in embedding a mindset of leadership across the business.

“That was the beginning of the journey of making leadership come alive in SAS, and making our culture as a key part of our differentiation; it is now something which is part of our DNA,” said Bowie.

“It’s easy for a CEO to get up and make a big statement about leadership being a priority, but making this stick is really quite hard, so it is important that this becomes part of the way you do things.

“If people had been an SAS employee, we wanted that to be recognised and valued on their CV – we wanted our staff to recognise it, future employers to recognise it and also our customers to recognise our leadership.”

An important way in which Bowie role models this is through a program called “connections” which helps drive leadership communication and engagement across the organisation.

Part of this program is called “coffee with David” in which any employee can meet with Bowie and discuss work-related ideas, issues or challenges.

“By equipping everyone with leadership language and tools to be leaders, that’s become part of our culture – regardless of where they are”

“I learn a lot from these meetings and get some interesting insights,” he said.

“Sometimes people want to talk about good ideas they have for the business or for improving things, while others want some career counselling and sometimes people just want to meet and say hello.”

“So every fortnight I’m meeting people from across the business, and when I travel interstate I do this as well.”

Bowie said this initiative is particularly important for some offsite consultants, who can be out on customer sites for months or even years at a time.

“One of the things we have to do is keep them connected our culture, and not become lost in the customer’s culture,” he said.

“So I’ll occasionally go and have these meetings on a customer’s site with that SAS team and find out what’s going on in their world.”

A key part of SAS’ organisational leadership architecture is customer leadership, and Bowie explained that any leaders who have touchpoints with and responsibility for delivering any outcome to customers are particularly important.

“By equipping everyone with leadership language and tools to be leaders, that’s become part of our culture – regardless of where they are.”

“We want to realise the potential of our staff through good leadership and cooperation towards common goals”

SAS employs more than 14,000 people globally (including 320 people across the ANZ region), has customers in 149 countries and its software is installed at more than 80,000 business, government and university sites around the world.

Under its global leadership model, there are a number of expected behaviours leaders are expected to exhibit in their roles, such as:

  • Acting with a “can do” attitude and dare to make decisions
  • Delegating responsibilities and tasks
  • Understanding and deliver customer value
  • Removing barriers
  • Inspiring individuals and the team
  • Escalating solutions (not problems), and
  • Developing people

“We want to realise the potential of our staff through good leadership and cooperation towards common goals, so it’s important that all employees understand how they can contribute to SAS’s overall goals,” said Bowie.

Brendan Gregor, HR director, ANZ at SAS, also emphasised the importance of leadership in the business and said it is important to talk about what leadership actually looks like in the business.

“One of the things we explain is the notion of leadership and followership,” he said.

“We teach everyone what leadership behaviour is all about using common language, so we know how to lead when we have to – but we also need to know when to follow when we have to as well.

“That’s really important. So at any level that we want people to step up and lead, the rest of the business will say ‘yes, that’s the right direction’ and we fall in behind.

“So it’s not about hierarchy, but more about good leadership behaviour,” he said.

“Under the HR’s team leadership, talent acquisition is a very personalised experience”

Talent management is also an important focus for both Bowie and Gregor, and SAS has a number of initiatives in place to assist with the effective acquisition, development and retention of talent.

“Obviously everybody has a talent, development and retention process, but how do you make that real for the individual and targeted at the individual?” said Bowie.

“Under the HR’s team leadership, talent acquisition is a very personalised experience, and they have a real passion for the business so they are able to relay our values and culture to candidates very well.”

This continues through to induction, and Bowie said all new hires are flown into Sydney head office for the induction process, regardless of the role.

“Even if you’re a front desk admin person, we want everyone to know why we do what we do, and how we do it,” he said.

“This has to be part of the cultural fabric – it’s not enough to know what we do – but why we do it.”

Tailoring the employee experience is something that continues through the employee lifecycle, said Bowie.

“A couple of years ago we were looking at how people develop their careers in SAS,” he said.

“We recognised that sometimes their best career coaching might not come from their manager, so we put a program in place around career coaching where we brought in an external organisation and made it available for people to have a career conversation with an external expert.

“So in doing this, we could recognise points in people’s careers where they might leave SAS, so we would encourage those conversations.”

“I want you to be here because this is, today, the best job for you and you are re-choosing your role – and not just because it was a job that was best for you five years ago”

SAS is considered an employer of choice in the industry, and was recently recognised as one of the Best Places to Work in Australia (in the 100 or more employees category) in the Great Place to Work survey, which found that 90 per cent of employees in Australia and 100 per cent in New Zealand said SAS Australia is a great place to work.

In 2015, for example, it received 6132 applications for 94 positions, while 15 roles were filled by employee referrals.

Its average tenure also stands at 5.5 years while turnover is 7.3 per cent – which is less than industry benchmarks.

“The field that we’re in – analytics – is hot right now,” said Bowie.

“Everyone wants to know about big data, analytics, machine learning, cognitive computing – things we’ve been doing for 40 years, so our reputation as the leader in advanced analytics means that our people are in demand.

“But is also helps us retain talent, because they want to stay with the leader – and they want to know that we back this up with a reputation as a great place to work, so this assists with both attraction and retention.”

The career conversations that SAS holds with employees also play an important role in this, and Bowie said these help affirm why employees might choose to stay with the business when faced with other options.

“I’m open about this process; go ahead and have a conversation,” he said.

“I want you to be here because this is, today, the best job for you and you are re-choosing your role – and not just because it was a job that was best for you five years ago.

“So we want our people to have real meaningful career conversations with their managers and look at lateral moves and how they develop for the next couple of years.”

Images source: Ivor Noble