Head of Global Mobility at Ramboll
Nicolai Wassmann is the Head of Global Mobility at Ramboll, a leading engineering, design and consultancy company founded in Denmark in 1945. Wassmann came into the mobility industry via an earlier career in tax. He specialises in Global Mobility, expatriate management, international tax and social security, process management and business optimization.
In this in-depth interview, Nicolai describes his role and how he designs Ramboll’s Global Mobility program; explains the differences between a commercial owned corporation and a foundation company and why Ramboll is a people company; stresses the importance of viewing service delivery from the eyes of the customer; and reveals his belief that the key to a good partnership is built on trust and creating an environment where you can communicate directly, open, and freely with each other.
Brian Friedman: Hello and welcome to The View From the Top, a podcast brought to you by Benivo. My name is Brian Friedman, and I'm the Strategy Director of Benivo, the world's leading welcome as a service mobility tech company. Now, they say that global mobility is a bit like a decathlon. Everybody in it has got to have multiple skills. In our case, HR, tax, immigration, logistics, housing, language, technology, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. But like every decathlon, every decathlete, every global mobility professional has got to have one strongest event, probably the event where they actually started off.
And our next guest, Nicolai Wassmann from Ramboll, is one of the very many global mobility professionals who've come into the mobility industry via an earlier career in tax. Now Nicolai started his career with the Danish tax authorities. But after a few years, he crossed that great divide to work in the accounting profession, firstly with Arthur Andersen and subsequently with Deloitte. After a career spanning some 20 years, Nicolai finally left the profession and joined Ramboll where he is Head of Global Mobility. You may not know much about Ramboll, and we'll certainly get Nicolai to tell us a little bit more about it in a moment, but Ramboll is an international consulting engineering corporation. It's headquartered in Copenhagen. The group has over 15,000 employees, and operates on a global basis. Perhaps unusually, Ramboll is privately owned through the Ramboll Foundation, and has an unusually strong commitment to employee share ownership. Ramboll certainly has a very distinctive culture, and is a very impressive company. And for those of you who, like me, they're big fans of the TV series The Bridge. Well, Ramboll had a key role in its design and construction. So Nicolai, welcome to The View From the Top, and congratulations on your impressive achievements in your career to date.
Nicolai Wassmann: Hi Brian, and thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Brian Friedman: Well, it's great to have you here, Nicolai. So let's just start off by finding a little bit of more about yourself and your current role. Obviously I've touched a little bit about it in my introduction, but just tell me a little bit about your role at the moment within Ramboll. What you do, the types of programs you have, the number of moves you do a year, the span of the organization. Tell us a little bit about your role in Ramboll.
Nicolai Wassmann: Sure, I'll be happy to. As you already told and Ramboll is an engineering company. We have very much specialized in large and small scale project management, and overall, our business is very project-driven. We test the usual engineering areas like buildings and transportation, water, and do air quality surveys and stuff like that. Many, many interesting things. We're operating in 35 countries, but each year, at least, we have project countries, around 70, 80 countries. So very much in jurisdictions where we don't have any office. So we have especially strong presence in the Nordics of Europe, the UK, North America, and continent of Europe. But as I said, we are project owned company. My role is I'm leading the global mobility. I have a team of five great colleagues in my team that help me with both the compliance, but mobility age is set, and we are leading the Center for Excellence of mobility in Ramboll. It's quite an early function, because it's only been living for five years, Ramboll, and prior to that, they didn't have any mobility. So it's still at a very early stage, as I usually say, it's around 1.0, and we are soon accelerating in our learning curve. The mobility function is located in reward and reporting, to reward and part of the group functions in Ramboll.
Brian Friedman: But, roughly how many people would you move in a typical year?
Nicolai Wassmann: We move, it's in the numbers of the hundreds. When we actually designed the program,we only encounter plus three months moves in that is crossed were global mobility, so we are excluding our far mass, which is going to be expanding over time, but we are in the hundreds. Where we have our mobility population. and this covers the classical short and long-term, but also permanent transfers for local hires, commuters, cross border workers, remote workers. I think we have pretty much every scenario that we can have in here. We don't do local plus, but for me local plus is yeah, it's a local contract with some extra, and that is typically also a combination of local contract permanent transfer. I mean that's just more a discussion of terminologies. But we have the whole suite, and we've seen with the volume is that, it is expanding each year because it takes time to establish a function, and also to spread around an organization which have grown in size since I started by over 20% in head counts. So, it wasn't until December last year we actually did another purchase was around and adding one thousand employees into a workforce of 15,000 that you mentioned. And with that substantial growth that we have in Ramboll, it takes time to actually and also expanding the knowledge about global mobility into the business.
Brian Friedman: So you may well have, I mean you've talked about having a few hundred moves.
Nicolai Wassmann: Yeah.
Brian Friedman: You may well have other moves that you just don't know about.
Nicolai Wassmann: I'm pretty sure that is something also under the radar in Ramboll, as there are in many companies. And that is, my approach to that, being also a former, coming from the advisory business,that often people is not an intent to drive things on the radar, but it is simply that they do not know the implications that they are given into, going into. So of course, part of my role is also to address and educate the business, and also my counterparts in HR, so they are aware of for all of these possibilities. And also implications that they are going into.
Brian Friedman: I'm mentioned in the introduction that Ramboll is owned by the Ramboll Foundation. And that there's a very strong commitment to employee share ownership within the organization. Can you just say a little bit about how that impacts life on a day-to-day basis? This fact that you're not like many companies you know, owned by either an entrepreneur or owned by they public, But you're owned by the employees.
Nicolai Wassmann: Sure. Yep, sure I'll be happy to. I think that one of the real things that we see of difference is that Ramboll is truly a people company. It really brands itself like a people company. And I thought that when I came to Ramboll, coming from the advisory business, I think okay, all of people actually say that they are a people company, but it's actually true in Ramboll, because and its part of the inheritance that we have from the original owners of the company, which has put into the foundation. So we also see it that it's clear when we do a revised business strategy, it's very, very, fundamental in the values that we have in the company, that our integrity is put as part of our core values. And that is something that we appreciate, protect very much. As an example, off the Ramboll values and also our inheritance is our responsibility for the community that we in. Because we know in Ramboll that we, you mentioned the bridge in your introduction, and thank you for that. But we know that we impact the community and the countries that we're in. So, as part of that our building is actually deliberately designed with a glass front, because we want to be transparent to the environment that we're actually in. And it also have public access, so people from the street can go into our building and actually go into an open public cafeteria that we have. And that was a deliberate decision. Acknowledging that we are part of society, and we are impacting society. So that is for me a very true signal and different from a real commercial owned business compared to a foundation.
Brian Friedman: Now when things in common with many people, you've moved into global mobility, as I said in introduction, from having a tax background. And I'm guessing, that all those I've spoken to have said something similar, it's almost like looking at things through a different end of the telescope. But when you're in the profession, you look at serving your client, and serving your client means doing a bit of tax work, maybe immigration work. And then all of a sudden you move into the mobility profession, and you actually see there's many other you need to deal with. Housing, storage, shipping, trading, recruitment, retention. How did you find that transition moving from, if you like the fairly narrow but deep focus of tax, the much more general focus of the mobility professional?
Nicolai Wassmann: I think it's interesting, but I'll actually scroll a bit back because as you mentioned I started with the scoping, the expansion of scopes, started when I was actually with the state tax authorities moving over to the private sector. Actually it started already there with the expansion that you need to have client focus and also a commercial mindset. So, that was one thing that already changed at that point in time, and I really pursued this because that's what's really driving me, and I'm gonna take with me. But of course you're right, that to a certain extent you, when you're in the advisory business you think that this is what it's all about, and when you then, as you grow and excel in your experience, I will say that you see that there are, especially when you turned over to a mobility function, you'll see that compliance is just one thing out of the total value chain, and it's what's needs to be done, it's not that it's adding that much value, it's just what I take on the checklist, so to speak. So there are many, many, other things that need to be addressed and attend when you actually slip through the global mobility. And when I talk to my former colleagues, I can hear that they're still somehow still limited in their views, but of course that's also the difference between being a deep dive specialist in a compliance area, and then moving to a specialist in global mobility area.
Brian Friedman: Absolutely, I suppose it's the difference between deep and wide. Let me just move a little bit. In your career, you've obviously met a lot of people in these organizations, and indeed in your life, who was it you'd say inspired you? Either as you were growing up or in your career, and more importantly, what did they teach you?
Nicolai Wassmann: Yeah. It's a really interesting question and it got me to reflect a bit because I've been so fortunate to work with a lot of people. And I also have the pleasure to have many great people around me during my career. And I'm a firm believer that you learn everyday if you just keep your eyes and ears open. But of course when you start thinking back for me there's one person that actually does stick out, I don't want to give any names, but I can say that it was a great leader that I had in Arthur Andersen. And actually accidentally, I was so lucky also to have her leadership again in Deloitte. And she was kind of a mentor for my career. As I mentioned before, the commercial mindset she taught me about client focus, and always to make sure to have the client in the center. View your service delivery from the eyes of the customer. And I think that is really really important. That we challenge ourself every time, say how does this look for the business and also for our employees? Another thing that she also taught me about was being pragmatic. And that was quite interesting because that can be a really tricky thing to balance in an advisory company. You know with all the regulations that you need to pursue and protect still. But nevertheless, you need to understand why sometimes you're customer do not follow, perhaps you're most obvious choice, they may have their reasons. Sometimes it could be that the business work with a key clients, that they need to take some other positions. Sometimes it can be a business decision where they don't follow what you immediately suggested, but it's because they have some priorities that was higher than you anticipated. In that perspective it's very, very, important to be pragmatic and don't be rigid. Nobody likes a police department, especially in global mobility. And speaking of clients and customer, I always have taken with me this great saying we had in Arthur Andersen, that when a client comes to you, you never say no. If you cannot solve it yourself, find one who can. And that is for me also something that is really powerful. You never, try never to disappoint the client. Take ownership and be a problem solver. And in every achievement that I've, that I've worked for me, I've emphasized this and really try to do it as a daily living. Simple power mentalities never go out of fashion in my words, so. I'm really enjoyed her leadership style and I've learned so much. I'm thankful still to know her today.
Brian Friedman: Sounds like a very inspirational leader, and certainly some of those points, you brought out there, I think, are timeless truths that would be hopefully many others have picked up on it and hopefully it will be passed on to future generations. You've been in the career, in the industry quite a long time now. What do you think are the biggest changes that you've seen in the industry over the last, whatever, 20 years or so?
Nicolai Wassmann: I think that some of the key changes, I mean of course there are many and the obvious is perhaps technology, but I think that's so overwhelmingly mentioned by everyone. So I'll skip that because that's quite obvious. I think that mobility in general has moved strictly from purely compliance and operational execution. When I started it was about taxes and immigration, but I think today it's been recognized much more integrated enabler into HR service delivery. Don't get me wrong, bases and compliance, of course, still need to be in order. But the demand and also expectation to mobility deliveries are much more today than I see 20 years ago or so. Even when we think when we started to use the phrase global mobility. When I started we called it international assignment or RES or whatever and because it just covered the classical types of short-term and long-term assignments. Even though in some of our countries we use cross borders because that's part of the fun of being in Denmark. We've seen a spread of the different types that have evolved over time, so permanent transfer, commuters, local plus, all of these came up. It was not because these patents didn't exist 20 years ago. The changes now that these patents are now more clearly defined and described in policies with also governance. So these can be managed compared to the more classical time.
Brian Friedman: No, I was just going to come in on that bit and then we'll get back to the other. Is you know, you're talking about these different types of packages, I sometimes wonder whether, if we had our time again and know history, whether any of us would invent the complexity of the sort of package that the traditional signing has had, the full, you know, gross stock, tax equalization, hypothetical tax, the whole sort of balance sheet approach and whether we just turn around and say, well you know what tax is just another cost like anything else and let's just lump it into something that won't cost a living adjustment. I think we're seeing a bit of that, with the way more and more people are moving away from traditional assignments. I'd be interested in your take on that. About whether the way that things historically has done is continuing or will continue.
Nicolai Wassmann: I think that the depends on the organization and the company that you're in. Generally I agree that the typical balance sheet method is somewhere it is historically used, and is still used, and will be used for short-term and long-term assignments. We still need to be cost focused, so we need to do as part of the business gate analysis. Make sure that we do the right investment and to have a bench to baseline whether it's actually part of the approval, which is go ahead. I still think there will be a cost focus and there should be in my opinion because mobility population is by far typically the most expansive workforce that you have. Especially in a company like Ramboll, which is a low margin company. It will be important for us, so I think especially low margin companies. Yes, they will of course be needing to be able to justify the business case that we have here. So I think it depends on the organization and it will be slightly modified to the different times, the newer ones that we have seen. Because we still need to justify why we're doing a local plus compared to a local, depending on how much extra is the little plus.
Brian Friedman: I didn't ask you in the introduction, but just curious. Obviously you're a tax guide by background, but you're now sort of sitting in what is normally part of the HR function. Where abouts does global mobility sit within Ramboll?
Nicolai Wassmann: Okay. We do actually sit in reward and we are a part of a group function, but we're reporting to reward.
Brian Friedman: And do you relate in with talent very much? 'Cause I know it's a bit of a debate about whether mobility sits within reward or talent or other areas.
Nicolai Wassmann: We want to but I'd say our talent management, we are not integrated that much, but it is something that we will definitely look into. Because I'm actually currently now reviewing the program and part of the program when I am seeing two or three in Ramboll is that, from the HR perspective and workforce sourcing, we will need to integrate more into talent management. If you ask, in my opinion, it makes good sense that we are actually going into reward from where we are in Ramboll.
Brian Friedman: Okay. Obviously with several hundred moves a year and only five of you, you're obviously all very very busy, and no doubt there's a lot of fire fighting that goes on everyday. If we separate out the stuff that's urgent from the stuff that's important, what are your top three priorities for the next 12 months, or maybe I'll give you 18 months? You know, not the day-to-day urgent stuff, but the really important strategic stuff you need to focus in on.
Nicolai Wassmann: That is quite easy because the first one, which is on my agenda each day, 24 hours a day, is reviewing our mobility program. So I'm currently doing... We did a 1.0 in 2014 and it's now time to actually adjust and excel to a 2.0 version. As part of the group strategy we launched last time there was internationalization of our workforce in general and the mobility program is seen as clearly enabling this regard. I'm currently undergoing this as we speak. I'm doing it everyday and this is expected to be rolled out later in 2019 and then we're going to start the next phase of the mobility journey here at Ramboll. So that will color the palette for my next journey over the 18 months that we have ahead of us. Another interesting thing that I also want to hear is I'm going to raise further awareness about risk and compliance to the leadership. We will, as part of this exercise, actually review our business driver population and also educate our stakeholders of this regard so we can have even more compliance in this area. So that is also what I am going to look into for the next 12 to 18 months. Finally the last thing, given the growth that I mentioned of the company and it's current expansions, not only our head counts but it also impacts our demographics. So it is also on my agenda to look into how global mobility needs to be organized and scaled so we can match the challenges ahead of us. Should we, for instance, move to a more regional setup? Should we also start to look into a share service center? That is some of the discussion that I'll take to the leadership here.
Brian Friedman: Okay, so you're pretty busy. You mentioned you're hoping to move your programs from a 1.0 basis to maybe a 2.0 model. What do you think might be the main differences between 2.0 and 1.0?
Nicolai Wassmann: The two main criteria is, and that's aided to the driving objectives, is first of all to go into workforce sourcing. We need to have a mobility framework that is ready to accommodate the future requirements ahead of us, because I strongly believe that the workforce is going to change. There are some great studies about workforce change, the concept of worker is going to change to be much more contributor, which I truly agree with. We are going to see changes of employees and usually employee, employer perspective. It's very important that our mobility program can work as enabler when we have these workforce sourcing changes. Secondly, one of the important things with the 1.0, 2.0 is actually something to, we say, mobilize quicker and deploy faster. We need to see where we can actually speed up our processors and deploy our workforce faster, because that is critical for our business. So this will be done by, we will enhance governance, we will actually enable some thresholds. Which can actually make processing easier. We'll also introduce some bypassing options. I mean, sometimes you can't bypass process. If it doesn't bring any value or if it's just a repeated exercise that you've already been through then by all means bypass it. We will also have some escalation process, a stronger escalation process. All of these mechanisms will actually enable us to speed up the program, which is very very important for the business. I had an interesting discussion with one of our MD's and what he says that then we do a tender and I contact legal and they say to me, "We need a week to review your "contract," and he said "This simply does not work, "I need to be able to deliver in one or two days." So that is the anticipation for the back office function, including not only mobility but legal and group tax and other stuff like that. If you... To be competitive we need to be even faster responses.
Brian Friedman: Absolutely, faster and more agile. I mean, agile is one of those words that we hear a lot of today. They do say that new starters, today's next generation employees, that's more what they expect. My question to use is what do you think are the main differences between your generation of people and the new generation that's starting work today? I mean are there differences or are they the same? What do you see when you look at people coming into the workforce today? Especially the people, because you'll be fairly junior but your moving.
Nicolai Wassmann: I would say I think that what they really do good at is they're much more determined in seeking information themselves. They of course also have an anticipation to leadership style because that has changed dramatically over my career, I'd have to say. Of course their loyalty to the company is also shown. That's what I see. But when we speak on career aspirations and what you need to be aware of going into the business, that I see similarities when we were young. With us though, someone wants to accelerate their career and we need to be independent, but that was also when I was young. Also it's just that you need to communicate differentlybut the underlying of what drives us and what we want to achieve with our career, I think that's pretty similar, but communication wise definitely. Communication has changed a lot and also with embraced use of technology, as a matter of fact.
Brian Friedman: Oh yeah I think today's generation, it is like the Facebook generation, the Amazon generation, the Netflix generation, the TripAdvisor generation. You know, they expect to be able to communicate broadly. They expect to be able to have something done immediately. They expect to learn not just from you but from each other, like the TripAdvisor generation. Yeah, sorry, go ahead.
Nicolai Wassmann: I just want to add, because I think that one of the interesting discussions that I had recently is about the patience. They have, of course you can really feel that the younger generation has shorter patience. They want quicker responses. That's where the interesting dilemma, when you come into organization that is perhaps where the leadership starts, is based on to have more patience. So I often see a conflict and both sides have to adapt because the young needs to adapt to a more business mentality and how things is done. On the other hand, the leadership and the organization also need to adapt to the new generation. So I think that's really interesting, especially about the patience that has to be met on a compromise.
Brian Friedman: I suppose a lot of it now is all about employee experience and we've talked a bit about the next Gen's. Increasingly I'm hearing people talk about assigning experience. How to make the assignment the best possible experience for the people moving and indeed the people returning back home. What does Ramboll do in terms of enhancing assigning experience?
Nicolai Wassmann: What we do is that our current program is a call flex and what we also do is we believe that our employees are very educated, they're now also adults. So we actually give them room to do what they do to customize to their circumstances. So we do have our opt-out for cash possibility, where we say that, of course, if it costs the company the same and you prefer it as cash that's fine by us, because in the end you take responsibility, you take ownership and that is very important for us. Another thing is also our communication to the employees, is that we do say to them that they have responsibility for their career and most of them quite actually like this and they are going to make plans of what they want to get out of this career, this window of their career, when it's international. So I think we empower them a lot to do what they fits right for their situation. We want to be able to attract and to have many people to take up these possibilities. So whether all family types and all employee types are actually, I'll not say persuaded, they are actually asked if they want to do it and if they want then we underpin their situation. What we have had successful is also connecting staff with former experts, that's a very simple technique. So it goes... You know a great customer, the best advice you can give to a new customer is to connect them with a former customer, because they can speak much better together. Also what they need to be aware about, sometimes they give better advice then I can because they have it more fresh in their memory and they have also learned it themselves. So on the employee experience I think it's not making to rigid of a program. It is about accepting that we are different as human beings and trying to customize to them as possible. That you can still have governance but have enough room reflexibility. I think we have that in our program.
Brian Friedman: Okay, that's fascinating. I just want to look at the future a bit and do a little bit of futurism with you. How do you think things like robotics, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, other technology that's coming down the turnpike is going to impact your organization over the next 10 years?
Nicolai Wassmann: It's gonna change a lot. I'm sure, I mean... It's not going to start in global mobility but it's definitely going to be impacting HR in total, and starting with the core HR service deliveries. It will definitely change the way we work but it'll not... I don't see it as an obstacle. Some talk about whether it's going to remove, will mobility even exist and I think it will, but it will change us. For instance, I was at a regional meeting where we talked about implants. If you have a surgery and you have an artificial hip, in the future this will likely be with a chip so it cantell us in advance if we're sending people off, that this actually needs to be replaced while you are abroad. So we will now have to perhaps have to look into what will be your situation, because we can see already four months ahead in your permanent transfer to a country in Asia you'll need to get this replaced. And I think that's where we would get some completely different intelligence that we need to input into our service but we'll still service our employees because they need the human touch when they're moving. And it's such a dramatic experience and also a life giving experience. So I don't think this part, the personal, the human touch can replace at the moment. But who's to say? I think that we will also learn on the way when we are seeing and being deployed in the core HR service delivery and then we'll see how it actually will evolve and slowly impact also and spread into global mobility.
Brian Friedman: One other thing I want to discuss with you is, you know we're living in an era of rising populism and implanting, in some ways, harder to work cross borders. Not just populism, but also greater sort of pressure on compliance and integration and tax authorities. Do you see this negatively impacting a number of people that go on assignment, the sort of prohibitions on moving cross border?
Nicolai Wassmann: Did you say whether it's negative impacting?
Brian Friedman: Yes, do you think there's gonna be a negative impact of populism and nationalism on mobility? Or do you think mobility will just find a way to weather the storm of increased immigration restrictions.
Nicolai Wassmann: I think it would build up challenges at our end I think that the business will... It's like money. Money seeks where it can be interested best. This will also explore the business opportunity that fits them. So we need to, and this to our customers, we need to facilitate this. Of course, if it's completely unrealistic and all of us get these requests from time to time. I have to say, I'm not Harry Potter, I cannot swing my magic wand and oversee these challenges, these impossible challenges that you want to make happen. But with the current changes, the right thing that we see, which I actually think will increase the protectionism unfortunately. This will just increase the demand for mobility, the services that we do internally and also together with our vendors. We need to be much more on alert because the business would expect us to handle it in this regard.
Brian Friedman: Okay Nicolai, we're pretty much out of time, I'm afraid. But I just wanted to end it with one last question. Which is that, you've worked for many years as a supplier working for Deloitte and other companies, but you've obviously also worked on the in-house side for many years. What tips would you give to any supplier wanting to work with Ramboll? What makes a really good supplier in your eyes?
Nicolai Wassmann: For me it's a good partnership. A partnership that is based on understanding and trust. I mean, when I talk with service providers, I consider them as an extension of our mobility service deliveries. They need to be on the same service level that I have with our function based on the resources, and also our stakeholders internally. So that sets a level of quality of services, and the service provider needs to match that. Not below or not substantially higher because then it will not fit into the value chain. Another thing is that they need to really understand the mobility program and the objectives and the strategy we have because it is my extended services. So like I'm understanding the business, they also need to. It's not that they'll be in touch with the business because it can be awhile to build the team, but they really need to understand this otherwise they cannot support the whole value chain of our global mobility function. I have to say again, a really good relationship builds on trust and where you can speak directly, open, and freely with each other. That is so key for every partnership.
Brian Friedman: Okay, thank you, very wise words there. So thank you Nicolai so much for taking part in the podcast today. It's been great fun having you here and having a chat with you. So yeah, thank you for taking part.
Nicolai Wassmann: Thank you Brian, it's been a pleasure. We'll stay in touch, I know for sure. Thank you.
Brian Friedman: Thank you and thank you to all our listeners for tuning in and we'll have another podcast for you, The View from the Top brought to you by Benivo, again next week. So thank you everybody and goodbye.