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What is the most important quality for a SAP HCM / SuccessFactors consultant? New Year’s musings on integrity and the man in the mirror

As someone, who has worked in this field for almost 18 years now, I’ve been asked the question quite often: “What is the most important quality for an SAP HCM consultant?” and not surprisingly the answer wouldn’t be any different for a SuccessFactors consultant.

It’s not an easy question, if you want to provide a meaningful answer. My answers have actually changed quite a bit over time with the changing market, with changes in the SAP HCM solution and underlying technology, and also with experience.

So, what should it be?

  • The ability to build the bridge between the HR function and its peculiar language and the tech people is certainly important, so a good consultant needs to understand HR processes as well as SAP technology. I’ve always been a strong advocate for every consultant to be able to do at least some programming. And for every developer to be able to run the processes he’s working on in the application and do basic configuration. So, a good answer…
  • Or is it the strong analytical skills we should emphasise most? SAP HR often requires you to understand a complex process as well as a complex technical environment, where you need to make relatively small changes to adjust the process to customer requirements, without shooting down anything else that was already working properly. Any schema config in PY and PT fits in here, but you also find it in the BAdIs of Performance Management, Personnel Cost Planning etc. Tempted to choose this answer just as much.
  • Is it a particular technology, say, WDA, UI5, Smartforms, HCI, MDF you name it? Nope. Obviously, thoroughly understanding the right technology for each piece of work is important, but they are too diverse and change too fast for one of them to be the all important skill. Having a good overview of all relevant technologies, so you know which one to pick is closer to the truth, but still not on top of my agenda.
  • Understanding the difference between on-premise and cloud? A good one. Can lead to a big mess, if this insight is missing, but then, I can’t get rid of the feeling that a lot of consultants, particularly in the upper echelons of their organisation’s hierarchy, either just don’t want to understand it or more likely do understand it, but don’t act accordingly, because it doesn’t play towards their revenue goals.
  • How about “people skills” or change management skills? The soft stuff? Well, they featured on top of my list quite a long time. Being able to relate to users as well as IT professionals and helping them along their journey during a major SAP HR project is no mean feat and many failed projects could have been saved, had more of this capability been sported by the project team.

Alas, if you asked me today, you’d get none of these answers. Instead you’d hear one word: “INTEGRITY“.

Disappointing? Well, if you say so…

Not bespoke to our profession? You may have a point here, but then you didn’t ask “What differentiates an excellent SAP HCM or SuccessFactors consultant from any other excellent consultant”, in which case my answer would probably have been a different one. And yet: there are quite a few peculiar temptations in our profession, where strong integrity comes particularly handy.

A consultant with strong integrity and no payroll skills would still mess up, when configuring the schema? You are right! But this is where it all starts: A consultant with integrity would never pretend to be able to configure a schema without having the necessary skills. And because no single person can know everything in SAP HCM or SuccessFactors – let alone both, a consultant lacking integrity will always come to a point, where he’s overselling himself and putting the project at risk. Well, only my internet browser knows how many posts I came across here on the SCN, where questions as well as answers showed very clearly that consultants without even half the required skills were left alone with unsuspecting customers. I’m blaming employers here even more than employees, who often might not even be aware of how dangerous their activities are.

So, in case you haven’t stopped reading by this point or hit the abuse button angrily claiming I’m insulting an entire industry (imho I’m not, but the boundary between legitimate criticism and aggression is difficult to draw and varies between individuals and cultures. So, if you feel insulted, please accept my apologies. I mean to educate, though in a provocative manner. Maybe you can try to believe in my good intentions and try to see, if you can find a lesson somewhere.): what do I mean, when I say “Integrity”?

Bugger – I seem to get from one very difficult question to an even more difficult question. My very personal answer is: I always aspire to be able to look the guy in the mirror into his eyes, when I shave in the morning. Therefore, integrity avoids cuts with the razor blade. And it helps giving you a good night’s sleep as well.

I believe most people have a very good grasp of the concept, but manage to find a lot of excuses, when the man (or woman) in the mirror asks difficult questions: “everybody does it”, “the customer asked for it”, “we all have to sell”,…

So, where do I think integrity becomes important? Let’s start with the example touched upon above. If you have no experience in a certain topic, you have to say so. Period. That doesn’t mean you can never get into a new topic. You can work alongside an experienced colleague or in some cases it’s ok to get some training, invest a bit of extra time on your sandbox system, charge a lower rate, and have a network of colleagues you can ask. Just two important points: the customer has to know and you need to make sure you understand the big picture well enough to not drive the project into a completely wrong direction and get the customer into trouble with fallen deadlines, broken processes, and disgruntled users.

TIP: a customer is much more likely to trust you with something new and give you the opportunity to learn, if they know you as a person of integrity rather than someone overselling their own skills most of the time.

Another typical case, where many of you may have had to look into the mirror long and hard, is in subcontracting situations. Who hasn’t been asked by the big system integrator they work for to suggest or perform un-sustainable modifications or custom developments or sign-off a design, which is certain to provoke massive change requests in the future? Which contractor hasn’t signed up for a 5-days-a-week contract with an agency, when they knew implementing that SuccessFactors module would need 2 days per week only (Full time culture and the non-value-adding middle man)? And the justification seems easy at first sight: isn’t it their responsibility to make sure the customer gets the best service and as a subcontractor you are only implementing whatever decisions come from “above”? And hasn’t the customer asked for this anyway? Well, our role as consultants is to give advice to customers and, if necessary, to push with some force for, what we are convinced is the best solution for them. (Think of a doctor telling a lung cancer patient “You shouldn’t smoke any more”. When the patient says “But I love smoking”, would “OKthen, it may well not be that harmful anyway. Go ahead.”, be considered the right answer?)

But who’s our customer in a sub-contracting situation? We or our employer have a contract with that systems integrator or agency – not with the final customer. So, you can easily find yourself in a Catch-22 between harming the final customer or opposing those, who hold a contract with you. There’s probably no silver bullet for this. Personally, I always tried to influence in favour of the best solution for the final customer without actually breaching contract. And, if I find I can’t work to the level of quality I aspire to in that context, I’ll end the contract as soon as it is feasible without hurting the ongoing project. Luckily, I haven’t had to do too much subcontracting, but when I did, I often found that picking the right company to contract with can be difficult.

Of course, everything said in these paragraphs about the best solution for the customer vs. short term revenue maximisation applies just as much, if you are contracting with the final customer directly. Just less likely to get you into this catch-22.

Well, don’t get me even started about commissions and sales partnerships (sorry, it’s called “value partnership” or something along that line these days, isn’t it?). As a trusted advisor for your customers, you can influence, which add-on solutions and other services they buy. Vendors of org-chart software, test-tools, reporting packages and more are keen on using you as a sales channel. If there is a product you are convinced of, there’s nothing wrong with recommending it. However, if you earn a commission from it, your customer has to know about this and you need to point them to alternatives in the market so they can still make an informed choice. Personally, I only get into very few of these partnerships and I require full access to the tool in order to understand it and to be able to give high quality advice (at the moment, the only active partnership we have in that space is with Concur, which we also use ourselves and we are evaluating one with a Concur add-on partner, who automate the re-billing of expenses. Again: our evaluation will include using it on our own live system). Many vendors seem reluctant to provide this and want you to sell just from their marketing brochure. That’s ok for a sales rep, but not for a consultant.

Of course, we all have to sell and pay our bills. What I’m hoping for is that more colleagues understand the particular position of trust they hold with customers and make it their priority, never to abuse this position. It’s very few guiding principles to live by:

  • If there are conflicts of interest, disclose them or get out of the situation
  • Always aspire to provide the best solution for the customer within the given constraints incl. budget
  • Make sure you have the necessary skills to deliver on your promises

In short: Imagine your best friend is CIO at a customer. Would you recommend a consultant like yourself?

Not all choices are easy, if you care about your integrity. But the good news is: it pays off in the long run. On a personal level, you’ll sleep better and feel good about what you’re doing. On a professional level, you’ll build long term customer relationships, and in your given market it will almost feel like you don’t have to sell anymore. Well: almost 😉

I wish you all a happy, healthy and prosperous Year 2014!

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  • Great blog Sven and you raise a touchy topic in the consulting world. Many consultancies and independent consultants are not always interested in the customers best interests - only in billing hours. This is particularly prevalent as SAP HCM transitions to SuccessFactors and consultancies need to sell services in a new area to survive. The consulting market is sometimes a Wild West and good consultants with integrity always rise to the top as they stand out pretty well from the crowd.

    Best wishes for 2014!

  • Great and inspiring Topic,  I give kudos to myself as I clicked the 'follow' button on Sven and Luke.  In fact this is a good start for me in the SAP world as I had started the new year day with this blog.  Thanks Sven



  • Hi Sven, You have captured the reality well. I especially like the point

    "integrity avoids cuts with the razor blade. And it helps giving you a good night's sleep as well."

    In my daily routine I hardly witness the actual Integrity rather I see person specific definitions to Integrity (with over confidence and illogical thinking) resulting the below as you said earlier.

    trouble with fallen deadlines, broken processes, and disgruntled users.

    Wish you a prosperous New Year - 2014

  • Thank you all for your kind comments! I know, many thinks are a matter of personal perspective and we all know that nobody is perfect - and I'm certainly far from it. But if this blog contributes a wee bit to some individuals in our industry stop, breathe and think for a moment, I'm already happy 🙂

  • Really great article Sven and it amazes me how many consultants and SI's in our industry seem to be in it for the short term and not willing to do the "right" things on behalf of their customers (who pay their bills). Doing the right things isn't always easy but being honest and having integrity are ways that you can really set yourself apart in the SAP consulting world (plus its easier to look yourself in the mirror each day) 🙂

  • Hi Sven,

    5 stars and many more to you for writing this blog. I am sure it will help many people avoid some bleeding with the morning razor blade. Irrespective of the culture if anyone finds this provocative or insulting at a personal level, they probably have a lot of dust on that mirror they are looking into every morning.

    Wish you a great year and hope to meet you some time in 2014!



    • Hi Jyoti,

      thanks for your very mind comments.

      I'm always trying to be cautious about judging other individuals without understanding the full context - therefore, I'm happy to have an open conversation on the blog or in private, if anybody feels this is too aggressive or indeed insulting. Particularly as I'm aware I'm certainly far less than perfect myself.

      However, I agree with you that most people who have an issue here can probably do with some help dusting their mirror.

      IT would indeed be great to meet, but there are no plans yet to speak at any events outside Europe (although I'm always looking for nice opportunities, particularly in APAC, but maybe in the Americas as well. So, you never know).

      Have a great 2014!


  • Hi Sven,

    Great write up, i just wish more people will hit the nail on the head.Hmmn  I would also like to add that "Passion" and not just the "bucks" is also important.

    Happy New Year!!!


  • I know this is Sven's Blog but would like to use this oppurtunity to say welldone to Jyoti Sharma and Luke Marson on the Successfactors Book. Really detailed and insightful.

  • Amazing blog Sven !

    Yes, it's really hard to find people who tells truth(that they don't have that relevant skill) to customer and face the reality ! I saw them surviving with strong communication skills along with dependence on few smart consultants 🙂 (who always remain in shadows) !

    Hope this blog would let people realize the value of "Truth" and be transparent to the client.


    Raja Sekhar

  • Great Article Sven! Very well written and thought provoking . I guess this article should also apply to the folks who sell the products and services in the first place before the SAP HCM consultant comes to do his delivery.There has been many a times when the consultant's integrity has been put to the sword because of commitments in the contract which were not there in the first place and the consultant has to compromise in order to save the face of the organization he is representing.

    • Absolutely, Harris. I do agree with you.

      These situations always throw a consultant into a conflict of loayalties.

      Luckily, my employer when I started in the 90s was ok-ish and could be influenced and since 2000 I never had to work for a company not owned by myself to a large part 🙂

      So, only have myself to blame.

      But I know that situation from occasional subcontracting assignments, where I eventually pulled outm when a point was reached where this could be done without putting the customer's projects at risk.

      I guess you need to ask yourself similar questions, when you work for an employer not at all matching your own values. Certainly not always easy to leave a well paid job, but we can afford that better than workers in most other industries and I'd always prefer a few grand less in my pocket, but having an employer, who shares my values.

      Though not pretending it's easy and not all black and white either.

  • Hi Sven,

    I think your take is valid and if someone is offended by it they are delusional or only focused on short term results. Having been in SAP HCM for a few years and having worked as the contracting customer for a few projects, I think being honest and approaching project work as if it was your own company and money is required. The conflicts between prime and sub can often be avoided by letting the prime know up front that your opinion and guidance is separate from the contractual relationhsip. I have lost some work with this attitude but have also garnered  jobs because of it.


  • just a little update as I felt it applies to the cloud world just as much and the old text didn't reflect that.

    No need for those, who read it to read it again: use your time here learning, or start the weekend with family and friends, if you are in the European time zone 🙂