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Leagh Turner, BA’95, embraces a career of growing, motivating people

by Heather Hughes

As Chief Operating Officer for SAP Canada, Leagh Turner's mission is to help businesses run better.

Leagh Turner, BA’95 (English), loves being in the centre of it all.

“Because the world is so dependent on technology, and the evolution of business and commerce is so dependent on technology, being in technology means you are in the centre of a lot of really interesting and transformative conversations,” she said. “That’s what I really like about it.”

As Chief Operating Officer for SAP Canada, Turner wants to make sure her employees are ready to respond to those conversations. She joined the company in 2008 as an account executive and has climbed the ranks to become a leader in a complex space that has one directive – help businesses run better.

“I learned it was never about the product you were selling; it was about meeting new people, understanding the issues they were wrestling with and providing them with help. I loved doing that,” Turner said. “In learning to love helping people, I found myself in a customer-service industry and I’ve enjoyed every moment of every customer interaction I’ve ever had because it’s been an amazing learning opportunity.”

As one of the world’s largest independent software manufacturers, SAP is an enterprise application software which aims to improve productivity by providing business insights and enabling people to work together more efficiently. A subsidiary of SAP SE, SAP Canada has offices in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Ottawa, as well as research-and-development labs in Vancouver, Toronto, Waterloo and Montreal.

Turner, stationed in Toronto, took an unorthodox path to a career in information technology. The former varsity swimmer and English major joined the company because she saw it as a place to learn, develop and grow.

“The path for me wasn’t clear. It happened as a result of bumping into a lot of things, trying things, finding things I enjoyed doing. And, as I enjoyed doing things, I got to live a career of enjoying what I do and of growing and motivating people.”

With few women in leadership positions in her field, Turner has found herself breaking new ground in many ways and bringing a unique perspective to the male-dominated industry.

“I’m not a pioneer here. But when you are among a few, the standard issues of juggling what can be a very complicated life are really hard in a changing IT or technology environment,” she explained.

“I had early hurdles of trying to figure out how to balance my career with my family. I had early hurdles in working in a peer group who, frankly, didn’t have the same issues or same balancing act. But, the benefit is that in a really, hard, challenging, fast-paced environment, you bring a natural set of skills to problems other people may not bring. As a result, you can stand out from the crowd and can help contribute in a way other people may not be able to.”

Turner believes leadership is about ‘the team,’ not ‘the individual.’ But in order to build a successful team and be a strong leader, she feels it is important to build a personal team of family, friends and mentors to offer support and encouragement.

“It’s really important to build a team of people who challenge you personally, outside of work, in order to be a better leader – people who you talk to on a regular basis, who challenge your own thinking and stretch it and broaden it,” she said. “The reality of any organization is that your thinking can become insular. It’s really important as a leader to continue to nourish future thought and surround yourself with people who do that.”

Fueled by the diverse thoughts of her personal team, Turner is able to bring new ideas to her role. She also looks for diversity among her professional colleagues – in age, gender, background, bias and previous experience – who bring different ways of thinking to the team.

In order to understand a customer’s need, organizations should look like their customer base, she noted. Programs such as Autism at Work, a company plan to have at least 1 per cent of the global workforce be people who are working on the autism spectrum, is an example of approaches to sourcing talented employees who offer different skillsets. SAP also collaborates with the not-for-profit organization GIRLsmarts4tech, which aims to encourage more young women to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

Building a strong team of employees means Turner can have confidence in getting “out of the way” to allow her staff to flourish.

“It is important to try and create an environment that is fearless, meaning people are able to think of things without consequence, without fear of repercussions,” she said. “Give them an opportunity to be super creative and know that if they don’t succeed, that’s OK. Failure is part of the job.”

Turner doesn’t restrict herself to the corner office. Having experience at various levels of the company, she is prepared – and willing – to abandon rank and title to dig into the details and be part of solving a problem.

“But, to have a leader that acts that way all of the time, gets in the way of the creative thought of the team and, frankly, means the team will only continue to solve things in the way they always have,” she explained. “As a leader, it is important that although you may have those skills, you get out of the way and watch the team, give them opportunities to come together and give them big, difficult problems to chew on, and really watch them as they shape the strategy.”

In her field, Turner has a front seat to a major shift in global economies.

Small start-up companies are disrupting industries by cutting out the middlemen and offering an alternative to many of the Fortune 500 companies who have been doing the same thing for generations, she said. The conservative nature of Canada has left the country playing catch-up, instead of staying ahead of the curve. These challenges mean Turner is primarily focused on spurring Canadian organizations to “wake up to dramatic change, understand what is possible and create plans to get ahead of it; and to fund those plans and use technology to get there faster.”

“Analysts say 40 per cent of Fortune 500 organizations will cease to exist. That is a big statement that means there is massive, industry-based disintermediation happening,” she said. “This is a huge problem for us, as Canadians, but also a huge problem for the IT industry, which, frankly, is an enabler and accelerator of transformation and change.”

When Turner came to Western, she didn’t know what career path she wanted to pursue. Rather, she spent her formative years learning and enjoying the experiences that broadened her perspective of the world and fostered a love of lifelong learning.

“My English degree helped me improve my communication skills and become a significantly better, down-the-road leader as a result of being able to communicate and motivate through language and writing,” she said.

“It was an amazing place for building friendships and networks that last an entire lifetime,” she continued, noting relationships founded at Western make up the ‘personal team’ who support her today. “If you look at education as being the foundation of the house you will ultimately build for your own life, Western was absolutely that for me; it was an amazing foundation.”

As a varsity athlete, the former swim team member learned lessons about work/life balance, and the diverse faculty and students gave Turner a desire to travel and surround herself with great thinkers.

“I didn’t know the direction I was going to go. I viewed life as an opportunity to really learn and I knew there was so much richness in that regard after having left Western,” she said. “What I love most (about my job) is it is ever-changing and there’s incredible opportunity for learning. If you love to learn and you are OK with not knowing where it will lead you, you can have a really great career.”

This article appeared in the Fall 2016 edition of Alumni Gazette
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