Only room for the best
From a very early age, Stacie Kartes knew that she wanted to go the IT route. While her childhood friends in North Dakota were playing video games, she sat at home on the farm and wrote little programs to catalogue the family's cows on spreadsheets. Since then, her chosen career has taken her to Denmark, where she now manages 33 consultants in the Commercial Marketing IT department at Saxo Bank.
ConsultantNews set a date to meet with Stacie Kartes one afternoon in July to hear more about what it takes to become a consultant at Saxo Bank.
When it comes to Kartes' focus area – CRM – she demands more from her consultants than the average client. Saxo Bank's Microsoft CRM solution is complex, so her consultants have to be very experienced and highly familiar with .Net and Microsoft. According to the Senior Project Manager, ProData Consult has spent a lot of time helping her department with the detective work, because that combination of skills can be hard to find. But before Kartes phones ProData, she and the involved project managers and lead developers identify the roles necessary to execute a forthcoming project. If the need is for a specific skill, one of the technical experts is also involved. Stacie Kartes says:
'In my group, which is technically heavier than the others, we have an initial talk to get a sense of who the potential consultant is, whether he or she has the motivation we are looking for, and whether they will fit into the team. Sometimes, it just takes a phone conversation with the lead developer or project manager'.
After that, there is an hour or two of technical interviewing on the menu, in which the consultant is subjected to several exercises and hypothetical problems.
'Solving problems in front of three other people can be very stressful and some consultants cannot perform in that situation. It is really interesting to see how people react, because in my department people have to be able to handle stress', says Kartes.
New model a success
The interview process was established last year, when Kartes suddenly had to find 23 new consultants. Until then, her department had only had one or two consultants at a time. This hiring frenzy meant that Saxo Bank had to be especially stringent in relation to interviewing and selecting candidates. Kartes explains:
'The project had a tight deadline. We had to make sure we found the right candidates off the bat, so we chose an interview model that put consultants in a stressful situation'.
Even if Kartes were to get a 'nice quiet project', as she calls it, she does not want to hire people based on the former, somewhat lenient approach. The stress test is very revealing and the new model increases the number of good matches.
'Six years ago, people were hired because they were available and looked OK on paper. But one out of four was a bad match. We've now reduced that to one out of fifteen consultants'.
Can spot a bad match
The Senior Project Manager cannot tell by looking at a consultant whether he or she is the ideal match. But she can see if they are not.
'Sometimes it's the personality.
There are people in the technical field – we call them Alpha Developers – who are deeply in love with their own ideas. They're skilled, but they won't be able to fit into our team'.
Just by talking to people on the phone, she can usually tell within ten minutes if they know what they are talking about. CVs packed with education and certifications, which often conceal inadequate experience, are another red flag.
'A lot of consultants of that type think they know more than they do. They are not a good fit with our team, either', says Kartes.
But technical expertise is basically what Saxo Bank is on the lookout for. If there is no fault with a consultant's professional know-ledge, the company does not let personality get in the way – barring serious personality disorders.
Consultants at Saxo Bank do not have a bundle of rules to follow – only general guidelines, such as absence notification before the upcoming two-week plan, frameworks for working hours, and so on. But in general, the bank relies on the consultants' professionalism.
'I had a consultant upstairs who shouted at someone on another team. That is not acceptable. Naturally, we value the dedication – he is clearly invested in the project – but we want to make sure their behavior is professional', says Kartes.
Saxo Bank pays its consultants an hourly rate and expects a certain number of hours per project, so the bank demands persistence and speed. Kartes does not want to walk by a consultant's desk and see him checking out what's for sale on eBay. She does understand that everybody needs a break and for the most part she trusts her consultants. It is when they are not delivering, coming in late, leaving early and still charging her for a full working day, that she starts to wonder. Asked if she has ever experienced this, she answers with a little smile:
'Yes, but those consultants are no longer with us'.
The bad example
Kartes' experience shows that motivation is the key to good consultant performance.
At one point, she had hired a very experienced – and very expensive – CRM consultant. He was not happy with the work Saxo Bank assigned him. And because he was not committed, he took too long to do his tasks, his solutions were suboptimal and they were not of especially high quality. The project manager met regularly with the consultant and his account manager was also involved in solving the problem The latter, naturally, had an interest in seeing that the consultant stayed with the project.
'We really needed this guy to perform, but we did not want to keep investing in the consulting firm he came from if their consultants were unable to perform', says Kartes.
Saxo Bank worked with the CRM consultant for five months, but the collaboration did not work out.
'He tried to please his consulting firm by staying, but he was not happy, and he clearly did not make us happy'.
The exceptional consultant
There is one consultant, however, who has made Stacie Kartes happy. ProData consultant Thomas Hilbert Madsen. He is technically skilled, but that is not what makes him exceptional in Kartes' eyes:
'His personality is just phenomenal. He is willing to learn anything. If I ask him to look at something, he says: "Yes, absolutely". He identifies problems and says: "This is wrong – should I fix it?" He takes responsibility, is very conscientious, very reliable, produces steadily and he has a very stable personality. If people get worked up, he is the calming force – and in the end, everybody's happy. In short, he is truly a fantastic consultant!'
An aggressive management style
But not all consultants perform like Madsen, which Kartes has previously been quick to point out. When she came to Denmark five years ago, she had to adapt her management style.
'I am much more aggressive. In the States, we have a tendency to differentiate. If you distinguish yourself, I recognise it; if you do not distinguish yourself, I will tell you what I am not happy with. Not everyone can handle that approach', says Kartes.
The cultural differen-ces showed up clearly the first time she was responsible for bonuses in Denmark:
'I gave the management my decision: These are high performers, they get higher bonuses. These are the middle performers, they get lower bonuses. These are low performers, they get no bonus. Management's decision was that I could not do that – everybody had to get something. I thought: "Really?"' says Kartes with a laugh.
Danish vs American consultants
But it is not only managers who do things differently in the States. American consultants run from job to job and have no problem slamming the doors behind them if a contract has gone wrong. Consultants in Denmark are far more invested in the business. This is a circumstance Kartes emphasises when she is asked about differences between American and Danish consultants.
'The consultancy industry is relatively small in Denmark, so people here don't burn their bridges when they are finished with a project. Consultants who have been very unhappy in previous contracts do not disparage their employers the way American consultants tend to do. In that sense, Danes are very loyal'.
On the other hand, Danish consultants are far more laid back. In the US, consultants are willing to slave away to midnight every day, get the job done and be on their way. In this respect, according to Kartes, Danish consultants are more like permanent employees.
'They have a job, they know what has to be done and they are efficient – but they are not really killing themselves to do it. Which is also a good thing – you have to have balance in your life'.
The exit interview
In Kartes' department, when a consultant contract is winding up, they often have a chat with the person to give and take feedback about how the project and the contract went. The exit interview is instructive, since the consultants say things when they are on the way out that they would not have said during the contract. Kartes' mentions an example from last year, when she had to lay off some consultants as a large project came to an end.
'We had hired a whole bunch of CRM consultants to get new ideas from them, but we already had a clique of developers, all of them from the same company, and they were used to doing things in a specific way. The feedback from the CRM consultants was:
"We had new ideas, but nobody would listen to us".'
That feedback led to some reorganisation and to the cancellation of the contract with the consulting firm, which had until then been the primary supplier of CRM consultants. Kartes says:
'Good feedback contributes to give some overall input into our teams and how we can improve'.
A piece of advice
The best advice Kartes can give a consultant is that he or she should fully understand their role and make their expectations clear to the employer.
'Keep the lines of communication open. It is important to ensure that your expectations are in line with ours. I expect you to speak up if something starts going off the track
– especially if it is your engagement. Engagement is by far the most important parameter, if you want to stay motivated and productive'.