Secret Sauce: Jenny Dearborn Chief Learning Officer of SAP

I asked Jenny Dearborn, SVP and Chief Learning Officer of SAP, to talk about her secret sauce* – the principles and practices that guide her leadership.

“It’s my deepest responsibility to give purpose, meaning, and joy to the people I lead.”


Jenny said, “The very first thing I think of is purpose. Understand who you are in the world. Know why you exist.”

“My purpose is to serve the greater good.”

“I always had this sense that there was something big and grand that I was part of… I remember my grandmother saying, ‘You’re here to do great things. Don’t waste your talent.’”

“I think about my grandmother every day. The older she got, the happier and more optimistic she became.”

“I try to very purposefully make sure that every day is more open and transparent and positive than the day before.”

Listen to Jenny talk about her grandmother:

Have you always been optimistic?


Jenny said that her home life was wonderful, but school was misery. She barely graduated from high school. “I was told that I was stupid and worthless and retarded.”

Jenny didn’t find out that she had several severe learning disabilities until she was 18 years old.

Jenny said that she became angry and bitter at the system that had oppressed her. “It took probably 10 years to come back to equilibrium.”

“I became a very angry person. A raw nerve all the time. All those wasted years being overlooked.”

Jenny gradually climbed out of bitterness and anger. One tipping point came with motherhood at the age of 27. It felt like a fresh start.

“I wanted to be a person who gave joy to other people.”

Jenny talking about overcoming anger and bitterness:


“It was healing to me to be good to other people.”

Jenny realized that leadership is not just about getting a project done. “You have such incredible influence over other people’s lives. You can make someone’s life joyful or miserable.”

If you have a crappy boss, it affects families and communities.

What’s the difference between pessimistic and optimistic leaders?

Pessimistic leaders:

  1. Lead by fear.
  2. Intimidate.
  3. Overpower others.
  4. Need to be the smartest person in the room.

Pessimistic leaders are on a power trip. They serve for the wrong reason.

If I saw you being optimistic, what would I see?

“Optimism doesn’t mean smoke and mirrors.”

Optimistic leaders:

  1. Listen.
  2. Connect. Have skip-level meetings. (Skip-level meetings bypass the manager and talk to their direct reports.)
  3. Stay grounded in realities while working to make the world better.
  4. Consider the the fears people feel.
  5. Avoid hyperbole. Get right to solutions. “Let’s look at reality and figure out the best way to move forward.”
  6. Look at problems and concerns head on.
  7. Create clarity on how we are going to address issues, problems, and concerns.

“Optimism is not putting a sugarcoat on something.” Optimistic leaders dare to ask, “How do we understand the facts and realities?”

From pessimism to optimism:

It seemed to me that Jenny looked at the dark and chose the light. She said, “I could choose to wallow in anger and bitterness for years of mistreatment or I could ask, How can these experiences be used to help other people?”

Use purpose as the channel to address pessimism.

Reflect on what you are trying to accomplish. Ask, “What is the best way to collect all the energy of everyone involved to achieve the goal? What are you doing that either hinders or accomplishes that goal?”

Jenny suggests that pessimists could, “Engage in self-discovery to recognize the role they have in creating a negative environment.”

From theory to practice:

  1. Declare purpose.
  2. Set purpose-driven goals.
  3. Develop strategies to achieve goals.
  4. What resources and people enable execution?

How might leaders move from pessimism to optimism?

What’s your personal takeaway from Jenny’s secret sauce?

*I relax my 300 word limit for Secret Sauce Posts.

Jenny Dearborn is the Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer at SAP, accountable to drive measurable business impact by designing, aligning and ensuring execution of SAP’s overall learning activities for the company’s 90,000 employees globally.

Purchase Jenny’s latest book: The Data Driven Leader

More from Jenny: I Hung Up the Phone and Just Started Sobbing

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