Conversations with Apoorv Bhatnagar

By Soong Hung Hao and Julian Rocero

As Head of Southeast Asia Value Advisory at SAP, Apoorv Bhatnagar enables the digital transformation of SAP’s corporate clientele, by translating their strategic vision into tangible business outcomes. His rich experience spans different industries, from Energy to Consumer & Management consulting. Beginning his career at Shell, he acquired valuable expertise in the energy sector, including knowledge of midstream, downstream and pricing. He subsequently shifted into consulting with McKinsey & Co, where he focused on advising major public and private sector players in the energy & materials vertical. 

After being one of Advisory’s Student Mentors, Apoorv joins us in this interview to shed light on the qualities needed to succeed in today’s landscape, while sharing personal insights and takeaways from his international career.

My background is in computer engineering,  and I read an MBA subsequently. Presently, I am the head of the Southeast Asia Value Advisory team at SAP. My team and I work with a variety of clients, including conglomerates, government organisations, private organisations, and even NGOs. We guide their digital transformation journeys, help them understand their process challenges and aspirations, and inform them of how technology can improve existing workflows. This allows us to create a business case for their technology investments.

My typical day is half-planned and half-flexible. The planned portion of my day is devoted to three main things. Firstly, people-related activities – this is where I look at my team’s career through discussions with them and other leaders on how I can help my team improve and grow. As a team leader, I support my team members by exploring avenues for them to hone the skills integral to their roles and potentially advance into new roles. The second is process and admin work related to my role. Lastly, I also continue to engage with SAP customers in order to stay in touch with changing market dynamics and keep myself up-to-date.

On top of this, the remaining 50% is job-related ad-hoc/last-minute work, which covers a huge range of responsibilities. Most of the time, our team’s input and work are needed for a customer’s business case. Beyond that, we sometimes assist with ad-hoc requests for help on urgent cases. Such requests can come from SAP customers or our management or colleagues. Occasionally, I also prepare presentations to senior management to showcase my team’s performance.

There are three things that SAP does which differentiate us from our competitors.

The first is our prestige and track record. SAP is the pioneer that founded the field of enterprise application software 50 years ago, long before any of our contemporary competitors even existed. We are the most common name associated with this sector, and at any company in any industry that you know of, there is a very high likelihood that they are using one or more SAP products within their organisation. It is a legacy to be proud of. 

The second is that SAP is the best of the breed; we are arguably the only technology firm that has the technology to support anything and everything that a company may want to do. For example, a typical company is involved in processes such as procurement, manufacturing, sales, supply-chain management, and customer service. All these activities can be done with SAP technology. Whether your organisation is large or small, government-run or private, military or civilian, for-profit or a social enterprise, SAP has all these categories of customers in its portfolio.

Lastly is our expertise and industry knowledge. SAP is a global company with over 100,000 employees in over 140 countries, involved in almost every industry imaginable with 50 years of experience.

Personally, I do not think anybody in SAP can claim that they know our entire portfolio of products. When I first joined SAP, I was told that even after a year with the company, I would still only know a fraction of it. 

At SAP, collaboration is key to our work. We say it takes a village to win a deal; no deal in our company is executed by a single person, and always requires a team to support it. For example, a typical team may comprise industry, sales, and solution experts, enterprise architects, value advisors, relationship managers and team leaders to liaise with the customer’s management, and more. Collectively, the team first tries to fully understand the customer’s needs, then puts forth a proposal to the client and justifies it with their experiences and expertise.

I always say that value advisory is probably the closest to management consulting in a technical organisation. This is similar to the work that one would find at consulting firms such as McKinsey and BCG. Thus, the requirements to do well in value advisory mirror those for consulting, broadly speaking. 

Robust oral and written communication skills in engaging with different levels of an organisation are necessary. You should be able to communicate effectively with the CXOs of a company to understand their strategic challenges, and just as well with middle management and their frontline staff. A strong ‘management consultant’ mindset is also useful. When listening to a customer, are you able to understand and structure their problems, and then return to them with a holistic solution that they will be able to execute? Of course, some analytical skills are also required.

Certain personal traits also come into the picture. Soft skills like humility, respect for your peers’ opinions, and good listening skills are also important in this job.

SAP is definitely an environment where you get challenged, just like any other role in any good company. For myself, I believe the biggest challenge is knowing when to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’. My team is a resource that many other teams in SAP can tap on, regardless of their roles. We face a high volume of dynamic work. With each project that we do, the industry, the customer, the planned approach, and the deal size will be drastically different. My team’s challenge is to know where we can add the most value and prioritize that. Should we spend time on 15 smaller deals or should we select two large ones and delve deeply into them? The ability to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with the right rationale has been one of the biggest challenges.

Of course, there are other challenges. When working with customers, it is important to align customers’ expectations with what you can realistically deliver, in a way that creates the most value for them. In that context, learning to communicate clearly and efficiently and manage these important stakeholders can also be challenging.

I have worked in four companies throughout my career and know about several other companies as well through my friends and network. I have also experienced work culture across different geographies such as India, Indonesia, Australia and the Netherlands before joining SAP in Singapore. 

Without a doubt, I would say that SAP is one of the best companies in terms of work culture and employee value proposition. All our employer awards and reviews are a testament to this. Globally and in Singapore, Glassdoor and other independent websites consistently show that SAP is rated as one of the best employers.

I believe the best part of our culture is respect; you are able to freely voice your opinions and your contribution is valued. We are also genuinely diverse, in terms of background, experience, gender, race, geographical location, age, and more. Naturally, this helps us bring more perspectives and fresh angles to the table when serving customers. 

SAP is an employee-friendly company. Our policies are in step with the changing times and consistently renewed. After the pandemic hit, SAP became very conscious of the importance of flexi-working by giving employees the option to work remotely or adjust their work-weeks. If I am a caregiver, I can choose to work from home more often. If I am in sales, I can choose to be in the field rather than in the SAP office. I greatly appreciate this part of our culture.

I believe moving around and living in different locations is very valuable. There is always a difference when you move from one city, country, or even continent to another. Personally, the biggest takeaway for me has been discovering that there are always different ways of doing the same thing. 

When I began my career in India, I only knew how India operates. However, even within the country, practices are so diverse that they change every 100 km. After leaving India, I began to learn more about these different practices, whether work-related or otherwise. Living outside of my home country has taught me about these cultural differences, and being able to apply these learnings to daily life has been the most impactful to me.

For instance, the first country I lived in after India was the Netherlands, where I stayed for slightly over a year. The Dutch are very direct in their work style, with no room for ambiguity. They are good at compartmentalising time – working hours are for work and the balance is for self, family and friends. 

Then, living in Indonesia taught me how beneficial politeness is, and the importance of friendliness and equality. Australians taught me humour, and Singaporeans have taught me efficiency, I hope. Each country has its distinct quirks to learn about, and it shapes how you behave.

That is true; spending nine years is rare nowadays at any company, whether or not it is your first. However, Shell was truly the foundation on which my entire career and work style has been defined. That organisation has a very strong culture, and in nine years, you become part of the culture and begin internalising it. 

For instance, Shell is very big on safety. Even today, whether driver or passenger, I always put on my seatbelt first thing after entering a vehicle. I distinctly recall that on my first day in Shell, I learned that if you are caught without your seatbelt, you lose your job. This is a minor example, but my time there did mould many aspects of how I live and work.

On a larger scale, I have always been fascinated by the energy industry, even before I joined Shell. With the company being involved in every facet of the industry, I learned a lot about the intricacies of oil & gas, and this earned me my next break in McKinsey. Shell gave me that launchpad on which I could perform at McKinsey, and McKinsey was in turn the launchpad to Sinarmas, and so forth. Shell was my starting point, and I have huge respect for the organisation.

If I can make a blanket statement –  I believe everybody should seek out an opportunity to work at a company like McKinsey at some point. It is probably the best working experience that I have had in my life, but it comes with certain costs. Consulting has a very unique set of demands compared to other jobs; it requires a highly focused working style. McKinsey is clear on its objective being client service through problem-solving, and everything else is secondary to this purpose. It is a partnership, not a private limited company,  and executes its functions with a very lean mindset. The firm is managed by partners each of who has a stake in it, So their remuneration is tied to the company’s performance very strongly.

McKinsey is a very fast-paced organisation – I learned a lot there in two years. Many wrongly believe they only hire MBAs, but in reality, the company is actually very diverse and employs lawyers, doctors, artists, venture capitalists, and so on. The company’s value lies in its human capital, and they hire passionate people who truly want to make a difference. 

My biggest lesson at McKinsey was how to structure and deliver information in an impactful and engaging manner. It clarified my thinking processes and working style, and encouraged me to approach tasks with the intention of value-adding. How do I put together a structure for an activity? How do I present it to my stakeholders to convince them, whether customers, partners, or my team?

I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. The flip side, however, is that it may not be the best place for work-life balance, and you should be able to accept that. The philosophy is simple; when I am working on client engagement, the majority of my time must be spent at their office, no matter where it is in the world. Even if the client is at a remote location in the middle of nowhere, I have to be there so that I can work closely with the client teams. This kind of working environment is true for many other consulting companies as well.

People often say that with McKinsey, the question is not ‘if you leave’, but rather ‘when you leave’. 

After a certain time with McKinsey, you become associated with the brand. This is one of the biggest attractions of McKinsey, and those with this brand are generally able to easily move on to challenging roles in prestigious organisations.

Another reason why people leave is for work-life balance. Many wish to spend more time with their family or have health reasons and other commitments they need to prioritise. Personally, I realised I would not be happy doing my job forever, and it was simply a question of when a good opportunity arose. The chance to work with Sinarmas presented itself – It was in the same city with less travel, in a growing industry that I had never worked in before (consumer products), and it offered the ability to make an impact. I was also keen to learn about the structure of family-owned businesses like Sinarmas, which operate very differently from private companies.

Not to generalise, but irrespective of the specific industry, some features of family-owned businesses are rather common. I have seen many such companies in Southeast Asia, and the key to understanding family-owned businesses is that it is the owners’ money and the family name that is invested in the company. At Sinarmas, the family is, in general, very hardworking and focused on their business, working 24/7 and constantly thinking about the company. I believe that is what it takes to run a large, successful business. If you are a public company, you have managers and directors who will run the business and allow you to take a back seat. 

On the other hand, some owners keep the business private and pass it down to the next generation such that the family is able to call the shots and maintain control. That is where the culture originates because they are able to dictate the policies within their business. Whether they prefer a top-down, old-fashioned, manual approach or outsource their work to a select few who then lead the firm, the company’s structure and style are their prerogatives. In the case of the latter, the family-owned enterprise may evolve to become more similar to an MNC, with modern policies that reflect current employee preferences. Of course, these are just two extremes, and each business owner has their own style. 

Since the company is family-owned, certain nuances also exist that may be challenging to tackle. Family members may not necessarily agree with the senior employees, but the decision ultimately lies in the owner or the family’s hands.

I studied Computer Engineering at the undergraduate level, then read an MBA at the postgraduate level. My engineering college was a local one, whereas my postgraduate college was an internationally reputed one. Unlike most people today, I studied them back to back, which was rather common in India during that time. Overall, I do feel that higher education played a role in the way I work and the network I have created. 

Apart from that, some smaller benefits include gaining financial and personal independence, time management, and the like, allowing you to mature as an individual.

Nowadays, I work with many interns from Singapore universities, and I believe university education must be balanced with real-life experiences. This could mean working on a project, an internship with a company, or social contributions and activities. I mentioned this as a Student Mentor last year: I strongly recommend young people to avoid focusing purely on academics when in university, but to complement it with time in the industry in a customer-facing or external role.

People have different opinions about MBAs, but I believe MBA does help in general. Of course, there are people who go on and do great things without an MBA and it is not necessary, per se. Doing an MBA taught me many things about the way businesses operate, and gave me a certain thought process and mental structure that is applicable to anything I did.

When I was completing my MBA, I was not one of the students who knew precisely what I wanted to do. Even till the day I went through the campus recruitment process, I was still in two minds regarding the career I wanted to pursue. But to an extent, it did not damage my career or chances in any way, but rather, widened my range of opportunities. 

After graduating with my first degree, I was a computer engineer from a fairly average Indian college and had a limited set of opportunities that were mostly related to IT. After finishing my MBA, I could still pursue these roles, but also had the opportunity to work with, for instance, banks or manufacturing companies, in sales-centric or technical roles. This afforded me more choices that were more satisfying, in terms of salary, location, job scope, and company. These things only happened because of my MBA. 

There is a maturity curve that most people go through, and what they realise to be important to them is highly individualised. When I first began my career, I was focused on the short-term, and placed a lot of importance on money, especially since I had a student loan. 

When you begin earning, money may become your measure of success. In hindsight, this is very myopic and wrong, but many fail to realise this, including me initially. Slowly, perspectives change. You get married, have a family, move to different locations, and different events happen in your life. Simultaneously, you begin building experience and realising your likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Over time, your criteria for decision-making are clarified, and it becomes easier for you to decide on the next step in your life.

Your desires change as well. Of course, money continues to be important for most, with the exception of some people who dedicate themselves to social service and other careers. But eventually, other considerations also come into the picture. What drives me? Is the next role challenging enough for me? Where will I be located? Am I working for a brand that I trust? For instance, some friends that I studied my MBA with had great job offers from companies that produce cigarettes or liquor, but decided against taking them up. Of course, this is not to say those companies are evil, but some people choose not to work with them.

Life purpose also becomes increasingly important as one progresses in their career. Personally, as I approached the current stage of my career, I would never consider a job just for the sake of only money anymore. This is developed over time, and some blessed with maturity may realise that from the very beginning, although I was not at that stage when I started my career. I had to live through the process to understand what I need and want.

Not so long ago people would be impressed by your bragging about working long hours. Nowadays, people appreciate work-life balance more and respect it because companies give you the option to work reasonable hours, and maintain a life outside of work. 

To be honest, I am not the best person when it comes to maintaining my work-life balance. This balance is a very personal decision, and I am comfortable with mine. 

You begin appreciating work-life balance at some point in your life, that point being starting a family for most people. Perhaps facing health issues may cause you to realise that not taking breaks is not the best option, and taking a pay cut to enter a role that affords you better work-life balance could be wise. What gives me hope is that both companies and the current generation of talent have more respect for work-life balance. Nowadays, if a company forces its employees to work crazy hours, its reputation would go down, and it would have trouble attracting and retaining talent.

I will share one from work and two from outside of work.

2021 ended on a very high note because I moved from being an individual contributor to the head of the Southeast Asia Value Advisory team, and I am grateful and happy to know that my performance is being seen and appreciated. This was a huge encouraging message from the organisation as they trusted me with the role.

On a personal front, the pandemic encouraged me to shift from doing social service by just donating money, to participating in social contributions with my own hands. Since I came to Singapore, I have done multiple such activities, and they truly energise me. 

One of these activities is the mentoring I did within SAP and externally, with organisations such as Advisory. The second was taking a two-week sabbatical from work, which allowed me to work with Angels of Impact, an NGO dedicated to working with female entrepreneurs who run social enterprises. Some of these entrepreneurs are located in rural areas of Southeast Asia, making sustainable products with renewable materials. After the sabbatical, I continued with the project on my own time, thinking about how they could move onto digital platforms in view of the pandemic. Those were very enriching experiences from a personal aspect.

I don’t recommend my career path to anyone. I think young people these days are clearer about what they want to do!

However, one piece of advice I would give is to be acutely conscious of your work output, but not neglect other aspects. There used to be a time when just doing your job was sufficient, but I prefer people who are also involved in other aspects of the organisation. Every company runs clubs, forums, informal groups, and other employee engagement activities. It could even just be having lunch and networking with your colleagues once in a while, or inviting them to participate in an interesting hobby of yours. If I were recruiting for my company, I would be very aware of this for all my candidates.

These days, it is important for people to understand their purpose and strengths, and learn to align the two. For example, my father is a doctor and my mother is a teacher, two professions that are dedicated to the service of others. As a result, helping others is something I enjoy too.. That is precisely why I am passionate about my mentoring, work with social enterprises, and other similar activities, as all these align with my purpose.

That was me 17 years ago. It is okay to experiment and fail, particularly at the beginning of your career. Many people these days take a break from their careers to pursue side hustles like a start-up, and I believe it does add depth to your perspective. This ties into your question about living and working abroad, and the common thread is doing things differently. You are forcing yourself to be in a foreign environment outside of your comfort zone that fosters learning. As they say, the best way to learn swimming is to be thrown in a pool and try to stay afloat, and this is a great analogy for one’s career. 

The worst thing that you can do in your career is start out in a company and be willing to stagnate there. After some time, you will notice yourself becoming laid back and used to a certain culture. This resistance to change is the biggest roadblock when something goes wrong. Many say that the generations that graduated during the financial crisis of 2008, the pandemic, or the dot-com bust, are survivors because they graduated during and personally experienced an atmosphere of uncertainty.

Overall, my advice is to make a choice, take what is available and spend some time there, and you will slowly come to find out what you enjoy. Experiment freely and openly; it helps! From there, your decision will be a much easier one.