To Survive Difficult Moments, We Need to Ask More from Our Work, Not Less, Says SAP SuccessFactors CMO Kirsten Allegri Williams

I knew in my bones was that keeping work and the rest of my life in balance was no longer optional.

You don’t realize what you have until you lose it.

That truth was driven home for me in 2013 when a cancer diagnosis left me in danger of losing everything. Cancer has a way of sharpening your focus until you only see what matters most. So in my moments of distress, it wasn’t losing my life that I was afraid of, but of losing my children, my husband, my friends and family, and the chance to do good work. When I was fortunate enough to make it through treatment and recover, it felt like I was being gifted all those essential parts of my life back, even truly seeing them for the first time.

Ever since, I’ve tried to carry that focus with me wherever I go. When I returned to SAP in 2014, one thing I knew in my bones was that keeping work and the rest of my life in balance was no longer optional. It was required if I was going to best serve everyone that mattered, including my co-workers.

As I directed my energy toward professional challenges, I quite literally had no choice but to make sure enough energy was left over to rebuild myself—body, mind, and soul. Day-to-day, that sometimes meant struggling with wrenching life questions. But at other times it meant just getting through what had once been ordinary moments but were now trying ones, like taking the subway, grocery shopping, or learning how to run errands with my spirited one year old in tow.

Reading Thrive by Arianna Huffington helped me through it. Her story of recovery from injury felt like my story. During my first year back, I understood why Thrive focuses so much on the small, practical steps that lead to well-being, because small and practical were sometimes all I had the energy for. Each bit of advice in Thrive, like taking walking meetings, prioritizing sleep, and being unafraid to ask for help, felt like the individual footholds on a vast cliff that I had to climb. It helped to focus on each one and not think about the huge task ahead of me.

Asking for help was one tip from Thrive that paid huge dividends at SAP, where there is truly a culture of mutual support. When I came back to work, I set up “entry interviews” with our human resources department, where they truly listened to what I needed in order to succeed. Instead of returning to marketing, where the work was familiar, they arranged for me to take a role in business development. Though an unfamiliar job seemed at first like an unnecessary additional challenge, the opportunity to learn a new skill from the ground up was just what I needed. It filled in gaps in my knowledge and has since become part of the foundation for my subsequent work. It wasn’t just a job; it was a way forward.

That’s why I am so passionate about what SAP SuccessFactors is calling the Human Revolution, a set of attitudes and principles designed to help us tap into our collective humanity in a workplace that’s being reshaped by technology. For the first time, companies have the tools to measure and therefore change crucial parts of our working lives, like culture, well-being, and professional development. By putting new tools in the hands of everybody at work, we can help tie these parts of work to the bigger picture of company success.

You can think of it as a way of taking the essence of Thrive’s third metric, which is equal parts wisdom, well-being, and wonder, and making it a daily, operational reality. 

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