When project management becomes a lifestyle

Interview with John M. Nielsen.

John M. Nielsen has a long career with the A.P. Møller - Mærsk Group in his past. He has worked with the best, learned from his own and others' mistakes the hard way and here provides a rundown of the essential professional and human traits of the perfect management consultant.

Interview with John M. Nielsen

'Control is good. Trust is better.' That is the motto of John M. Nielsen's own company. It is also a clear and pithy statement of what he wants to stand for as a human being and business partner: A kind of schematic and craftsmanlike approach to his profession, but where the soft values come up trumps the ability to look another person eye-to-eye and together find your way to mutual understanding and respect.

Best Practice interviewed John M. Nielsen on the current theme of management. Over his many years in the IT industry, he has worked with a raft of management consultants who each in their own way either met or failed to meet his standards for the traits a good consultant should possess. With his strict upbringing in the A.P. Møller - Mærsk Group, his experience is not to be underestimated.

Fond of the creative process

John M. Nielsen began his tenure with A.P. Møller - Mærsk in shipping. After a couple of stints in the Far East, he was asked at one point whether he wanted to come aboard a large and very important IT project in the group. That was in 1995.

'I thought it sounded like a fun project to be involved in and it was my gateway to IT. I later became CIO for Maersk Logistics, then VP for all application support and maintenance and all IT-related development projects within Maersk Line and Maersk Logistics. At that point, when we were at our peak, we were spending a large three-figure sum – in the millions of US dollars – on IT. I was part of the wave when we began in earnest to digitalise more and more things, which entailed huge adjustments to IT system support. Once all the major IT projects at Maersk had been delivered and there was no next project knocking on the door, I jumped the IT ship and took on other types of projects within the group. I did that until 2012, when I went solo,' says Nielsen and explains that he has always been interested in projects and project management.

'I think it is a huge thrill to encounter a problem that I do not immediately know how to solve. So you put together a team and together you make something that has never been made before. And you have thoughts that have never been thought before. I am very fond of this kind of creative process,' says Nielsen and continues:

'And you always work under time constraints in projects, which I actually enjoy. The pressure is on. As I like to say, my favourite project is one where everything is on fire and where you have to get all the isolated elements under control.'

Consultants must add value

Nielsen explains that when he worked for A.P. Møller - Mærsk, he made liberal use of management consultants.

'The first time I ever ran into the term "management consultant" I was a relatively young project manager working on a major ERP project. Maersk was partnered with a large Danish consultancy firm and I had a lot of lively discussions with a special consultant. He was very talented. He left his prejudices at the door when he came into the project. He offered no ready-made solutions and did not pass out templates to be filled in. He sat down with me and was involved in working out strategies and plans. What he brought to the project was the experience he had gained with other companies that had been in situations similar to ours. We worked together for several years. At one point I think I was spending more time with him than with my own family. I learned a great deal from him.'

However, Nielsen has also seen examples of management consultants who did not add significant value to the organisation.

'I have worked with all types of consultants in my time and I have typically had the most problems with consultants from the big consultancy firms. I hasten to add that does not apply to all consultants from the big houses, because I have certainly met many talented people as well. But I have felt on several occasions that the major consultancy firms cared more about selling additional consultant hours than about completing the project. I know it is standard to be rewarded for cross-selling the clients while you are working on an assignment. And that can quickly make you lose sight of the target,' says Nielsen and concludes:

'I have experienced several examples of how consultants from the big firms are good at selling the project in the board room. But when it comes to the implementation, they lose interest, sense of detail and respect for that which exists. All of these things are essential in a good management consultant.'


Advice from the expert:

Hallmarks of a good management consultant:

  1. Creates success for the customer. This requires the consultant to have the ability to put himself into the customer's context. Not only intellectually, but also in terms of experience. According to John M. Nielsen, this is why a management consultant is not a 22-year-old kid from RUC. The ideal management consultant has a mature and credible profile, has been in the market for years and has tried a little of everything.
  2. One size does not fit all. A consultant must absolutely not turn up with a ready-made concept for getting the job done. A report based on responses to 50 templates leads to nothing more than a 'cover my ass' IT strategy.
  3. The customer knows best. The consultant who thinks he should walk into an organisation and start telling the customer how to run their business is dead wrong. The customer is the expert there. The good management consultant tells the customer what works in other places where they have dealt with similar problems. This is where the discussions should remain.


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