Mosaic of China Season 01 Episode 11 – The Inclusion Architect (Sebastien DENES, SAP)
When I first met today's guest, Sebastien Denes, I liked him immediately. But I thought he was just another privileged white male on an international career track at a multinational organisation. I was wrong.
SD: It's so helpful. We don't have an 阿姨 [āyí], so… It does a lot of work for us, you know, in our big apartment. And it's just working, it's really nice, it's cleaning the house every day.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I'm your host, Oscar Fuchs.
So if you're listening in real time, welcome back from the week off since the last episode with Lori. And if you're a new listener, he has a quick recap on how each interview works. The first part of each recording is a straightforward two-way conversation, which starts with the guest introducing an object that in some way describes their life in China. In the second part, I asked every guest the same 10 China-related questions, all on the theme of their personal experiences and opinions. And then in the third part, I ask the guest just one final question, which is simply "Out of everyone you know in China, whom should I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?" So at the end of every episode, you'll get a glimpse into what the line-up looks like for next year. And you can see how, tile by tile, these stories will connect up to form a Mosaic of China.
So in today's episode, I talk with Sebastien Denes, who I first met through my friend Curtis Baker many months ago. Thank you, Curtis. When I first met Sebastien, the thought did go through my mind, you know "Here's a nice guy, but what is it about him that made Curtis introduce him to me in the first place?" And then as we kept talking, it slowly became more and more clear. And because this made the impact of what he ended up saying so much stronger, I thought I would try to put you in that same situation today. So without any further introduction, here is my conversation with Sebastien.
OF: So thank you very much, Sebastien.
SD: Thank you, Oscar, for having me here.
OF: Well, I'm here with Sebastien, Sebastien is the VP of Digital Business Service and the Head of the CoE for Greater China at SAP.
SD: Yeah, that's what I do.
OF: You've been in China, now, how long?
SD: I've been in China for seven years, starting the eighth one now. Yeah, so it feels so long, and on the other side it feels like yesterday,
OF: Right. And before I ask you any other question, tell me what is the object that you have brought today?
SD: So I brought you a picture frame that was actually offered to me by my spouse, my wife. And the picture that is inside is a picture of me finishing my first marathon. That was back last year in 2018. But it's not the picture that is important. It's what it says, and who offered it to me, right. "You Become What You Believe". And I think we're gonna talk a lot about that during our talk today.
OF: This was in Shanghai, was it, this marathon?
SD: Ah no it was in Singapore.
OF: Right. Right, right, I can see it now, The StanChart Singapore Marathon, yes. I've actually run that one, but I ran the half marathon. So you did better than me.
SD: It's hot.
OF: And it starts at like, five in the morning, right?
SD: Yeah, 4:30. It's just like… eugh. I have mixed memories.
OF: And it does represent a transformation of some kind, doesn't it?
SD: It does. I have - back in the beginning of 2018 - I've been overweight for a very long time. And you know, you do not necessarily take the actions, you let it go. And it looks, sometimes, more difficult than it is, right? And in many occasions, it's just taking the first steps. So back in, I would say February/March 2018, I decided to take the first step, which was going to see a nutritionist, get help, start moving a little bit, and get healthier. Probably also get nicer, a better person.
OF: And so, this story started a little bit earlier for you, didn't it. Talk us through about how this has been part of that transformation?
SD: Well, I would say back in 2016, we had to restructure the company, which was for me the first time as a professional to be leading this restructuring, and making decisions that were going to impact people lives, that were also shaping the organisation. And it was a little bit like the end of innocence, if you wish…
SD: Yeah. I knew it was not a game at the time, right. But I would say that's where it becomes really serious, that you understand that your actions have consequences. It has also taught me to actually trust the people, bring a team around yourself. And that also entails having a diverse team, bringing different gender different attitude, different culture into the team, so that you improve the overall business decisions, and the outcome at the end of the day. And one of the initiatives that we started was - globally, actually - was Autism at Work. And Autism at Work is… take high potentials that are within the autism spectrum, that have extremely precious skills for us in terms of engineering skills, and bring them to the workplace. Not only bring them to the workplace, but also adapt the workplace to them, so that they can perform, and so that they can give the best value to the company, and make our software better at the end of the day, right. But we brought Steve. So, back in 2017 - end of 2017 - he joined the company. So we adapted the selection process so that they can shine, right, and that you can detect the skills. And then Steve had many opportunities to choose within the company. And he chose us, because we we tried to make a place for him, we assigned to him a buddy that is still… she's still with him today, working alongside him. We've been also working a lot on adjusting the work/life balance, because this is also very important for the individuals on the spectrum, to adapt their life. And also include the parents within the conversation, without having them driving the conversation. So it's a… sometimes, a challenging equilibrium to manage. But since then, I think we started some kind of a movement, because we hired another colleague within the spectrum, Tao. So Tao joined the company in 2018. And we have also another colleague called Bill, who has joined another department of the company. So that's what I'm actually especially happy about, is that we see other managers and other leaders stepping in and understanding that you can get a lot, lot, lot of value, not only from intrinsic skills that those individuals are bringing, but also by providing a different culture and changing the culture in the company, making people more empathetic. Making people, you know, more conscious of the differences out there.
OF: And when you hired Steve, like, how many other examples of hiring people on the autistic spectrum had there been in China beforehand?
OF: Oh really.
SD: Zero. So we were the first company to do that in China. Generally speaking, what we have observed for disabled people in China is that, because of the tax relief, companies are actually hiring people in with disabilities, but they are not using them, they're not actually making them work. And more than anything, it was more reserved to manual work, rather than intellectual work. Because Steve is an engineer. So he works with customers, with other employees on solving very complex problems that are actually impacting the business of our customers if they are not solved. So he is an integrant, very important part of our system here in China.
OF: And I guess without talking about Steve individually, but just in general, what are the advantages and what are the challenges?
SD: So the struggle is to first of all, not forget that you're not doing a favour to anyone by employing Steve - or Tao, for that matter - and that they have expectations. So if you change the work - if the work that you give to them is not up to what they think is their level of skills - they're going to tell you. And they have this high capacity to process things. So what you may think is adapted for a - I don't like 'normal', but - more 'standard' employee, let's put it that way, is probably not. You have to give them more work. Because they can process more. On the other side, sometimes it is challenging to manage, also, the parents,. Because they are very present. And we're blessed that they're around us to support us, and help us. But on the other side, sometimes you have to draw a line, where the company takes a decision, and that has to be that decision, and the employee also has to live with this decision sometimes, right? I'm thinking about for example, when a manager changes. I have a mentee in the Czech Republic, his manager, who actually hired him, changed. And he's now feeling a little bit unsettled with the new manager, who hasn't chosen him. So rebuilding this relationship - not based on choice, but based on a matter-of-fact situation that is coming to you - it's sometimes difficult and unsettling. So you have to deal with this. With the individuals, but also with the managers. They have, also, to understand that certain situations have to be avoided. And that if they pay sufficient attention, and if they invest sufficient amount of time, the value that they're going to get back is immensely higher than the investment they're going to make.
OF: And when you talk about how, you know, these people do change - in terms of how you manage them, and they change the environment that they come into - like, how have you personally perceived that?
SD: Well you, for sure, become way more empathetic. You base your decision on different criteria, right. Not only on the pure, immediate outcome that you can get, but way more on the long=term, soft impact. How do you measure the impact of a positive culture? Very difficult to measure. Nevertheless, I'm completely convinced that it's producing an incredible outcome. How do you measure happy people? How do you measure people that are more capable of understanding someone else? And how does that impact our employees, and their relation with our customers? So this is, on one side the very interesting part, and on the other side the very difficult part.
OF: What about on a personal level? So if we talk about, you know, inclusion at SAP, what about you personally? How would you describe what your management style was before, compared to where it is now?
SD: Well, I would say, I'm more of an 'alpha' leader, right. I like things clear, I like thing going forward, I tend sometimes to be impatient, result-driven and so on. And sometimes you just forget that there are different people in the room. There has been a turnaround point for me, which was… We brought Steve and Tomas - Tomas is from the Czech Republic - to an Autism at Work conference in Nanning, in the south of China. And we had this crazy idea to do a panel discussion - in Chinese and in front of a fairly large audience - for two young individuals within the spectrum, just to show that autism is a condition, it's not a fate. And during this discussion - it was obviously very interesting to see their points of view, and their experiences - I stopped while I was on stage, and saw Steve's mother, looking at her son. And you know… those eyes that transmit pride and genuine love. So that was for me, back in 2018, my bonus. That was my full year bonus. Because this was such an accomplishment, to see a mother proud of her child, which - probably she had a lot of challenges to bring up, not very much supported by the system, a lot of questioning - and to see him, there, succeed, you could feel that sentiment within her. And for me, it was also the realisation of what can be the impact of what we do. Or what we don't. But if we do, we can have an impact that changes lives, that really has an impact that is long-lasting, and that probably will help parents taking the decision to bring their kids to university. Because there is a hope, because there are companies out there that are willing to take that jump. And that's very rewarding, from a personal perspective.
OF: Yeah, it makes me think that there aren't that many people who you see on the street with disabilities here in Shanghai. I'm just trying to think if that's just me in terms of… am I not looking in all the different areas? Or is that is that a thing, like…
SD: OK, so just bringing in the numbers, we're talking 85 million people with disabilities in China. 80% of them are unemployed. And if they are employed, they're sometimes not even in the factories, in the companies, because they are kept at home. And you don't see them because they're hidden. That's my interpretation, right, we probably would need to cross-check it with specialists of the country. I think there is a little bit of a shame. To block them out. The environment and the culture and the society is not so inclusive with them. So that can be seen on one side as a very big problem. And it is. But on the other side, it's a fantastic up-side, because you have 85 million people that are overlooked, that are not considered. And that, for companies, is an 85 million people pool of talent that we can look into.
OF: Yeah, it reminds me of my own life as a headhunter where we only had about 120 employees, but 10% of them were people with disabilities. And it was just like you said, we didn't hire them as a charity. These were people who had the best skills actually, for what we wanted them, which was doing a lot of the market research, doing a lot of the analytics with the data. And it's something where, yeah, you do realise "Oh, wow, you know, these are people who are being overlooked by other employees. But that's their problem. And actually, we are getting a big advantage out of it".
SD: Exactly. That's a that's an edge, actually.
OF: Mmm. And you mentioned metrics before. So how are you measuring the impact? And of course, there are tangible impacts and intangible ones. So I'm curious to know how you would work on those?
SD: Well, first of all, I like to talk about metrics, not about quotas. We don't have quotas, for nothing, at SAP. And I wouldn't like to work for quotas. But I like to measure. We want to have up to, I think, 1% or 2% of our of our employees with disabilities, within the autism spectrum. But we measure, a lot, employee satisfaction. How they consider the leadership, the culture of the company. We have a yearly survey, and we're going to move from a yearly survey to a more continuous assessment of those numbers. And I think for me, as I said, it's not about quotas, but it's about telling yourself the truth, right. And sometimes the narrative supports the truth. Sometimes it does not, right. If you look at the narrative right now it's, the workplace is way more inclusive. And you would tend to believe that, in China, the workplace is more inclusive for women. The reality is, in the last five years, China has lost 40 places in the global ranking for women in the workplace, moving from the 60th place to the 100th place, right. So that's why metrics and measurement are interesting, because it gives you valuable information. It's not everything, as I said earlier. You have to measure culture and positiveness and empathy, which are more difficult to measure. But I think if you go through a combination of both - hard measurement and soft measurement - you get a pretty decent picture of where you are right now.
OF: And what about other managers in your situation? Because what strikes me from your story is that you are, you know, you're someone who outwardly I would say "OK you've described yourself as an alpha, you're a privileged white European guy in China. And yet, you've come to this conclusion about inclusivity". Where, you know, normally the people who talk about inclusivity are women, are people who are LGBT, or people who have a vested interest. So that's why I'm impressed with your story, having come from your background.
SD: Well I like to think of privilege coming with, also, duties. And for me, it's important to - and we try to teach this to our kids as well - to realise that out of the 6 billion people in this world, we are very fortunate. We have a key to almost every country in the world. With my passport, I can enter 160 countries, no question asked. Is this the case for 90% of the population of the world? No. And it doesn't mean you don't work hard, it doesn't mean you don't take whatever it takes to to make it happen on your side. But it would be a little bit foolish to consider this as a fair game, right? Life is not a fair game. And you can take those privileges, and close your eyes, and go forward. Or you can say "Well, I'm gonna open doors. I'm going to make a difference. I'm going to make an impact". And sometimes it's just opening the door, so that someone can just enter a room and shine. And for me, it's not about bringing people that don't belong, right? It's exactly the contrary, it's bringing people that belong, but for them the door is closed. And also, it's good for business. It provides an incredible additional outcome. So, if you combine this privilege, plus this duty - towards P&L, towards success with the company, bringing us back to 2016, when it was hard - then you do whatever it takes to make it happen. And Diversity and Inclusion is part of the equation. More diverse companies are more successful than less diverse companies, just because if you don't include different opinions in your decision process - that are coming from different backgrounds, different ages, different sex, different sexual orientation, religion, you name it - you're gonna miss part of the story. And you're not serving only one kind of people. You're serving a very diverse world, right?
SD: For me, right now, I came to realise that we are actually at the crossroad, in that you have to choose your path, right? And if you choose the path of Diversity and Inclusion, you can change people's lives. Not for today, but for the generations to come. Think about people who have a child that is within the autism spectrum. They ask themselves "Should I educate him? Why should I make him go through all the challenges, all the difficulties, if there is no prize at the end of the day? At the end of the road, if there is no employment, if there is no place for them?" And I'm not talking about only autism, you can think about blind people, about other types of disabilities, if you adapt companies to them, you're bringing a whole set of opportunities to this community of people, right. And that's what I'm thinking about when I talk about long-lasting impact. It's not only for Steve, for Tao, their fate is almost fixed today, unfortunately. It's for the generation to come.
OF: Very good. Well, thank you very much for that. Sebastien, I look forward to hearing what happens in the future with your project. Well, I should say 'many projects'. But in the meantime, let's move on to Part 2.
OF: And Question 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
SD: It's a very simple one, it's 1.4 billion people. I love this number, because it gives you first of all a very accurate sizing of the country. It's also, for companies, I believe - especially Western companies - some kind of mirage. The illusion of capturing this 1.4-billion-people market, right. Having spent seven years here in China, I've seen so many companies with that in mind, coming here to think they're gonna conquer this market. I think in China, you have to make a lot of adaptations to make a difference, here in China.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
SD: Oh, 听不懂 [tīng bù dǒng]. I love this one, because I always tend to think that if you say "I don't understand" - for example in France, my home country, or I don't know, maybe in England - people look at you and say "Ah, another one that comes, and he doesn't understand the language". And here, it's a completely different attitude. They laugh with you. And sometimes they keep on talking Chinese, and you're just like "听不懂 [tīng bù dǒng]" again, right? Or, many times they make the effort to make themselves understood, right. So I like this contradiction of a word that you speak in Chinese, saying "I don't get it", and the doors that this opens.
OF: Nice. What's your favourite destination within China?
SD: My favourite destination would be 九寨沟 [Jiǔzhàigōu], which is in Sichuan. It's a wonderful Alpine-style valley, with beautiful lakes, and it's very close to Tibet. I remember it, when we visited five years ago, because it was the unexpected.
OF: If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?
SD: I will miss the most, the people. The people I've worked with, the team. Because over those seven years, you've seen them grow, build their families, have children, struggle at work, grow as a person, as a professional. And this probably is the part I would miss the most.
OF: Anything you wouldn't miss?
SD: The airlines.
OF: Oh, now why?
SD: Ah they're always late. It's very stressful. I love the train. I think the train system in China is wonderful. But the airlines, and the fact that there's always a delay, and that you have to wait for hours, It's just, like, very stressful.
OF: That's someone who's done a lot of business travel, I can see in your face.
OF: Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
SD: Every week, almost every day, there is something that makes you say "Oh, I didn't think this would be possible". Right? One of the latest ones was, I was running around the city, in 浦东 [Pǔdōng], and I actually found a bike cemetery. You know those sharing bikes, they go somewhere to die. And this place is like, five football fields. It's the other side of the sharing economy, it's "What do you do with this?" It also for me, depicts how innovation goes in China, which is "Let's do it, go forward with it, then start to regulate, and then eventually fix the issues that are going to happen". Whereas in Europe or in Western countries, it's a little bit "Oh let's not do it, because we have this and this and that and that reason", right? So it's more finding a reason not to do it; here in China, it's more going forward. This is why I think the country goes also very fast in that area.
OF: I've only seen pictures of those bike graveyards. I'm surprised that you actually were able to find one here in Shanghai.
SD: I can bring you there.
OF: Oh wow, OK. That's a date, we'll go there. What is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink, or just hang out?
SD: Alright, so it's gonna sound odd. It's a restaurant in the Florentia Village. So, Florentia Village is an outlet close to the airport. So that's not so fancy, nor glamourous, let's put it that way. But they have a very good restaurant, a very good Italian restaurant called 'Bella Vita'. We know the chef, Stefano, personally. And it's a little bit like every week, every Sunday, we go back to Italy. Nothing fancy, nothing 'fusion', just traditional Italian cuisine, where you can find a little bit of home and, you know, spend good family time.
OF: And that's because your wife is Italian, right?
OF: If an Italian likes it, then it must be good. What is the best or worst purchase you've made in China?
SD: The best purchase is, actually, a Xiaomi vacuum robot. It's so helpful. We don't have an 阿姨 [āyí], so… It does a lot of work for us, you know, in our big apartment. And it's just working, it's really nice, it's cleaning the house every day.
OF: Amazing. What's your favourite WeChat sticker?
SD: It's a pretty stupid one. It's just an old lady who is just laughing out. I think sometimes we are too serious. And it's just about laughing.
OF: Excellent. I'm going to use that one. What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
SD: It's not a fancy one. It's John Denver, 'Take Me Home, Country Roads'.
OF: Oh the classic.
SD: Yeah, classic, easy to sing. But also a lot of meaning. In the first years in China, it was a song that was referring to home in France. And over the years, home is now here.
OF: Right. And finally, what other China-related sources of information do you use?
SD: Ah funnily enough, I read the China Daily. I like to read that newspaper, not so much for their impartial view, but I like to read it to see, a little bit, the narrative. To grasp a glimpse of where the country is going, what is the official thinking of it, and I do - what not so many people do now - I cross-reference.
OF: Right, right. I agree with you. Nowadays, unless you're reading five different sources, then actually you don't really know the full picture.
OF: Well, thank you so much Sebastien. That was amazing.
SD: Thank you for having me, Oscar, it was a real pleasure to be here.
OF: Well, before you go, the last question I ask you is, out of everyone you know in China who would you recommend that I interview next?
SD: I would like to recommend Marina. Marina is actually working in The Inclusion Factory in 太仓 [Tàicāng]. She's a social worker and social programme manager, she's helping people with disabilities, creating a friendly environment for them to include themselves into the society, make a difference. And also helping companies like SAP, or like others, to be more inclusive, and create an adaptable and welcoming workplace. So she's the one.
OF: Amazing, I look forward to meeting with her. And thank you so much for your time, you know, it was a real pleasure.
SD: Thank you very much, Oscar.
OF: I made this point in the recording itself, but what impresses me about Sebastien the most is the way in which he puts himself out there as an ally for Diversity and Inclusion, not just because of any self interest, not because he feels pressured, not because he feels guilt-tripped, but simply because it makes sense. So hats off again to Sebastien, I hope even the most hard-nosed leaders of the corporate world can agree on the business case for Diversity and Inclusion, even if on nothing else.
Let me also make a quick extra point on the airlines in China that Sebastien mentioned. So, domestic flights, in particular, can definitely be a nightmare when it comes to delays. And it could be for the same old reasons as anywhere else, especially with bad weather, or with the strain on air traffic control, things like that. But the part which makes it especially bad in China, is that a very large percentage of airspace here is reserved for the military. Some estimates online put it at about 70%, some even higher at closer to around 80%. And that leaves very limited airspace for commercial airlines. So the airspace can be arbitrarily closed, and it's truly no one at the airline's fault. I posted a couple of images about this, including a funny photo that someone took at an airport in China. I won't spoil the punchline, but it's the kind of thing you would find funny to maybe look at it now, but you wouldn't find it so funny if you were looking at it while delayed at the airport.
Let me race through the rest. All of these photos can be found on social media, just search for @mosaicofchina_* on Instagram or @mosaicofchina on Facebook, or connect with me on WeChat using my ID: mosaicofchina* and I'll add you to the group there. You will see Sebastien's object; you'll see his favourite WeChat sticker, that's the laughing grandma, I'm pretty sure that's a Russian laughing Grandma, but you be the judge; you will see a photo of Steve from the time he was on the panel discussion about Autism at Work; you'll see Sebastien's favourite phrase in Chinese, that's 听不懂 [tīng bù dǒng], which is 'I don't understand.' Actually interestingly, that is only used if you don't understand what you're hearing. That's what the 听 [tīng] part means. If you can't understand something which you're seeing or reading, the phrase is 看不懂 [kàn bù dǒng]. There is the bike cemetery; there is the Bella Vita restaurant; there is the vacuum robot, which incidentally is the same answer that Eric from Episode 03 gave to the question about purchases in China, except for Eric, it was his worst purchase. And then there are photos of 九寨沟 [Jiǔzhàigōu], the place in Sichuan which Sebastien says is his favourite place to visit in China. He went there a few years ago and there has been a big earthquake in Sichuan since then, and I'm not sure exactly how things look there now, or even if it's totally opened up to tourists at all. So if you're listening and you know, then please get in touch.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs; editing by Milo de Prieto; artwork by Denny Newell; and China technical support from Alston Gong. Let me just say a quick thank you to Milo who has helped to create the sound of this podcast. He has also been teaching me how to use the editing software myself. And I had a mini crash course from Sarah Boorboor of the Unravel Podcast too, thank you Sarah. And I'm very proud to say that at the end of all that, the majority of today's episode was hand-edited by me. Milo will continue to be offering editing support, I'm still a long way off from being able to do one of these all on my own. But look, I hope you didn't notice too many mistakes this week, and I will see you again next time.
*Different WeChat and Instagram handles were mentioned in the original recording. These IDs are now obsolete, and the updated details have been substituted.
Oscar Fuchs was the Co-Founder and Managing Director of a global executive search firm dedicated to the Human Resources profession. He was born in the UK and has lived in Asia for 18 years, including 3 years in Hong Kong SAR, and 7 years in mainland China. In 2019 he sold his company, and launched Mosaic of China.