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For most organizations, the measure of success of diversity and inclusion initiatives has become merely a matter of numbers. However, creating equal opportunities for female leaders and challenged persons is more than a numbers game. Diversity and inclusion must not be enforced, but embraced as an important pillar within the humane resource strategy. This multi-part series shines light on how women in leadership positions at SAP P&I Enterprise Cloud Services have risen to the top within their field. Each portrait shares insights, lessons learned, and tips for the next generation of female leaders in cloud computing.

In part three Baerbel Haenelt, manager in development at AIS (Application Innovation Services), is sharing her insights on the importance of disability inclusion as a rather unexpected source of business success and innovation driver.

Part 3: Baerbel Haenelt: Put Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes to See New Opportunities

“There is no greater disability in society, than the inability to see a person as more,” is Baerbel Haenelt’s favorite quote. The quote is from Robert M. Hensel, an international poet and the Guinness World Record holder for the longest non-stop wheelie in a wheelchair.

The saying also mirrors Baerbel Haenelt’s approach to leadership and creating a culture of inclusion in teams. “We have to focus on everyone’s unique ability, as opposed to perceived limitations. Every person’s skill set and viewpoint is unique. Together we can bring a broad spectrum of perspectives and skills to the company. It’s what makes us see new possibilities and stay innovative, “said Baerbel Haenelt.

Baerbel is a manager in development at Application Innovation Services (AIS) at SAP in Germany. Part of her role is providing mentorship to teams who integrate differently abled employees at SAP and provide mentorship for them.

Embracing cultural change has become an imperative for companies on their way to become an intelligent enterprise. The digitization of the work place also changed the parameters for leadership. The new generation of leaders promote an open mindset, adaptability and empathy to navigate the digital transformation. They also have a broader definition of talent. In a PwC report, 73% of CEOs cite skill shortages as a threat to their businesses, and 81% state that they are looking for a wider mix of skills when hiring. It is crucial for managers to understand how to focus on people’s skills, abilities, and experience to be attractive employers. The digital transformation is also prompting the creation of a range of new roles within organizations, which require new sets of skills.[1] Encouraging managers to build a highly diverse team is not a nice-to-have strategy, it is a critical component to stay competitive and define the future of work.

However, finding and recruiting new talent can be challenging. About two years ago, Baerbel had to quickly refill twelve positions within a short timeframe due to organizational redeployments. Despite her vast personal network and experience as a people manager filling these job vacancies were initially difficult. “Recruiting for twelve positions at once on a tight deadline was one of the biggest challenges in my 24-year-long career at SAP to date. What saved me was my knowledge of and believe in an untapped market: a pool of differently abled people who are highly skilled, but don’t always apply to positions themselves. I knew that they have a lot to bring to the table, if given a chance.”

Baerbel seized the opportunity to hire multiple persons with disabilities for the job vacancies. The move, not only filled the positions with the right candidates, it also increased SAP’s overall work force diversity.

“SAP fosters a diverse, inclusive, and bias-free culture. Embracing diversity means bringing employees of different capabilities into the team. Drawing from as many different sources as possible in the recruitment process helps nurturing a highly diverse company culture. Every person should be recognized for what he or she has to contribute,” stated Baerbel.

Knowing everyone’s strengths is not always easy. To identify how team members approach tasks and problem solving, Baerbel recommends putting yourself into their shoes for one day. Experiencing a person’s world for even one hour can be eye-opening, based on Baerbel’s experience.

Last year Baerbel’s team went on a field trip to SRH Neckargemünd, a vocational training center in Germany that specializes in the training of disabled youth for the work place. The team spent an entire day at the center to explore how its program prepare graduates to compete in the business world and facilitates social integration. After walking a mile in the trainees’ shoes, Baerbel and her team came to greatly respect and appreciate the unique way they successfully master their everyday life. The team observed that challenges opened up new perspectives and ways of doing things. The students were always thinking of creative ways to overcome mundane tasks.

“Rethinking routines and questioning traditional paths is the foundation of innovation. The inclusion of differently abled colleagues is a huge asset for all. We are challenged and inspired to think in new directions,” stated Baerbel.

Baerbel’s team is encouraging departments across SAP to follow their example and integrate team members with different abilities. They rely on the guidance of SAP’s representative body for disabled employees[2], which helps with the integration of team members and the setting in place of a barrier-free work environment.

For Baerbel’s team adapting the physical work environment was easy as SAP already has a barrier-free work environment in place catering to different types of disabilities. “There were no major adjustments necessary for the work space for our team. All we needed were cozy office chairs and desks with adjustable height,” said Baerbel.

By understanding employees with disabilities and listening to their ideas, companies can unlock enormous potential.[3] The first step on that path is to encourage people with disabilities to apply for jobs. “People with disabilities often don’t dare to apply for a vacant position although they have the qualifications for this job. We have to strongly encourage people with disabilities to apply for positions that they feel are out of their reach — they may be in for a positive surprise! And we may learn new ways to look at the world as a team and become more competitive,” concluded Baerbel.

[1] World Economic Forum — Digital Enterprise Narrative Page 27 ff.

[2] SAP’s representative body for disabled employees:

[3] Source: Laura Sherbin, co-president of CTI/