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A Day in the Life: Hans Helbekkmo, project manager, international consulting firm

6:00 a.m.: My alarm goes off, it’s Monday morning. I take a few seconds to remember that I’m in Lyon, France, where I’ve just spent a terrific weekend with my girlfriend. I have to catch an 8:30 flight to Düsseldorf, Germany, where I’ve been working on a project for the past five months.

8:15 a.m.: After checking in, I phone up my team and tell them I’ll be in around 10. Richard, a first-year consultant, tells me that Jason, the director primarily responsible for the project, left a message that he wanted to see the presentation document for our afternoon meeting with the client board member in charge of our workstream [in planning our schedule]. Otherwise, there are no important messages. I check my voice-mail and learn that Jason, just returned from holiday, was unaware of our meeting, but he can make it.

9:30 a.m.: I land in Düsseldorf and jump in a cab. While our project requires that we spend at least Monday through Thursday on the client site, I pretty much spend every weekend out of town, either at home in New York, traveling to visit friends or family, or simply finding a spot on the map with better weather than the Ruhrgebiet [the Ruhr Valley]. My company covers reasonable travel expenses, which makes life more enjoyable. And I’m now an expert on finding the fastest route through customs/immigration and getting to the front of the taxi queue in zero time.

10:00 a.m.: I arrive at work. Jason’s already in and is discussing the presentation document with Daniel, the other consultant on my team. Jason tells me that Gerhard, the director responsible for the overall client relationship, cannot make the afternoon meeting. Not a disaster—it is very hard to schedule meetings with a board-level client, and I’m perfectly happy bringing just one director along.

10:15 a.m.: I change into a suit and catch up on the conversation. Jason is happy with what we’ve put together, but he has some detailed questions on a couple of our charts. Daniel shows us an alternative analysis that makes the same points more convincingly. We decide to go with the new slides, and cut down the document a bit to keep it “short and sweet.”

10:30 a.m.: Finally time to check my e-mail. I have about 20 new messages, mostly personal or process-related. A colleague wants to pick my brain on asset/liability management and liquidity management. Gerhard says he wants to discuss Daniel’s midyear review, so I put this into my “to-do” list. Richard already had his review on Friday, so I make a note of talking to him about it later.

11:00 a.m.: While Daniel is working on the document changes, I go through an outline for our final presentation with Jason. We have less than one month left, and I want to get Jason’s input. We are working toward a quite comprehensive strategic review. It is very clear what the right solution for the bank is, but we need to put together a detailed explanation of the implications and likely outcomes, so our client can convince the full board to approve our proposed initiatives. Jason agrees with the main contents and level of detail, and he does not have any further suggestions. Directors typically give the project team full responsibility for developing recommendations and executing the project on a day-to-day basis, which makes my job both challenging and rewarding. We will have a more detailed review once all the interviews and analysis are done and the final document is drafted. For now I just want to make sure we’re all on the same track.

12:00 p.m.: Time for lunch. Jason and Daniel decide to grab a sandwich, so I take Richard to the Italian cafe across the street. I ask how his midyear review went, and he say he’s happy with it—no surprises, nothing new was mentioned that I hadn’t already discussed with him. He was told to focus on improving his communication and process skills. Richard has a Ph.D. in finance and has just started working for us. I tell him it is typical for someone who’s worked in academia for a while to need some time to adjust to the particular demands of our job in terms of client communication. It is sometimes difficult to adapt to the comprehension level of our clients, especially since we tend to have a very strong analytical and theoretical knowledge base, while our clients have a much more practical background. In any case, I’m happy that Richard agrees with our assessment of his performance.

1:00 p.m.: I sit down with Richard to get an update on the database work he’s been doing over the past couple of days. We’re broadly on track, though we need to get a couple of extra data fields to produce the reports we want to deliver. I ask him to discuss this with the client’s systems people and try to find a solution that doesn’t produce undue additional workload. We only have a couple of weeks to get the reporting up and running, so I’m a bit worried about our progress. The systems people have been predictably slow in providing us with data, so the result is likely to be some late hours next week. That’s the nature of this job—when things go as planned, we rarely do more than 50 to 55 hours a week, but the occasional crunch or hiccup from the client can easily result in 18-hour days. Our company is strongly committed to avoiding long hours, and it is largely my responsibility to make sure this is complied with. This requires careful planning and occasionally standing my ground with clients and project directors, making sure not to commit to unreasonable deliverables.

2:00 p.m.: Jean-Pierre, our main day-to-day client contact, phones me to make sure we’re on track for the meeting. I confirm that everything’s fine and that we should meet outside the client’s office at 5:30. I e-mail him the latest version of the document.

2:30 p.m.: Daniel has finished the edits. We go through the document one last time. It’s a convincing “story” and has the right level of detail.

3:30 p.m.: Jason and I sit down to plan the meeting. The board-level client is likely to have about 45 minutes, and he probably won’t have many questions. We decide not to draw too many conclusions when discussing the slides, but rather try to invite discussion and get a sense of where he wants to go with this. The topics we’re dealing with have strong political implications, and we need to trust his judgment on how aggressively we should formulate our recommendations. After all, it is our main job to provide content and insight, while the client really remains the expert on internal politics.

5:15 p.m.: Jason and I discuss whether we should bring Richard and Daniel to the meeting. We usually involve junior staff in as many discussions as possible and give them an opportunity to present their own results. However, the meeting is likely to be conducted in German, which would leave Daniel stranded, so we decide not to bring them along.

5:30 p.m.: Jason and I meet up with Jean-Pierre, and the meeting starts on time. I quickly talk the board-level client through the document—in English after all. He agrees with the main messages and says we should state our findings and recommendations very clearly, although this may upset some of the other board members. He says he will try to get a decision on our strategy within two months.

6:15 p.m.: Quick debrief with Jean-Pierre and Jason.

6:30 p.m.: I summarize the meeting for Daniel and Richard and give them due credit for their good work.

7:00 p.m.: Jason jumps on a train back to Frankfurt, and I take my team out for dinner. Düsseldorf has a large selection of terrific Japanese restaurants, and we pick our favorite to celebrate a successful day. The conversation meanders through the crisis in Syria, U.S. drug policy, quantum computers, and the latest Neil Gaiman novel. Shop talk is strictly off-limits during evenings, a policy I’ve adapted from my previous job managers.

10:00 p.m.: We move on to the Altstadt for a few drinks.

11:00 p.m.: I go home and head to sleep.

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