Q&A with Denis Gassmann: President & Country Leader, Germany
Our Slalom Germany leader talks about building great teams, his passion for music, and what makes Munich so special.
To start, what do you love most about Munich?
I’m originally from a town in southwestern Germany near Stuttgart but moved to Munich 22 years ago. First of all, the location. In a radius of 200 kilometers [124 miles] we have more than 50 skiing resorts, so you have all the skiing and hiking you want. After an hour drive, you’re in Austria or Switzerland. Less than three hours and you’re in France or Italy. And then the city itself is a nice combination of traditional and modern. It’s a very vibrant place with lots of young, international people. Munich is really a growing business city and is very high-tech. While we have a lot of big brands, there are also a lot of smaller companies across different industries, including financial services, automotive, and life sciences. So there’s a lot of business diversity and growth potential.
What attracted you to Slalom?
I spent half my life working for one company and learned so many things during that time. I now have the desire to do something different, where I can help grow the business from the ground up.
In Germany, Slalom feels a little like a start-up even though it’s a large global company. I also like that Slalom is focused on technology-driven transformation. That’s where my heart belongs. And the approach of putting people first—putting the team first—has always been my philosophy.
As you think about the next five years for the Germany market, what are your goals and what are you most excited about?
While the Germany market isn’t simply waiting for another traditional consulting company, there’s a big desire for players that do things differently. That’s where I think Slalom is positioned perfectly with a true people-first mindset, focused on new and emerging technologies. We really have the chance to establish a new and modern brand here and show how we’re different, not just for clients but also for the people we want to work with. So I’m super excited to position Slalom as a modern alternative in the market.
After that, my main goals are to establish a geographical and industrial footprint. Germany has the largest economy in Europe and fourth-largest economy in the world. It’s also an industrial country and very product-focused. Digital transformation here is rather slow. The world knows Adidas, Volkswagen, Mercedes, and BMW, but the backbone of the country is built on mid-tier businesses. More than 70% of people are employed at middle- and small-sized companies—they’re not working for large corporations. While that makes Germany a tricky place to do business, it also means it’s a place with lots of opportunity. Building the right geographical hubs, a good mix of large and mid-size client portfolios, and a diverse industry portfolio will be key.
And the last thing—though maybe the most important one—is that we have to put together a great team that’s diverse in all aspects. Gender, ideologies, business skills—everything. We have to get really passionate and driven people, and that’s not an easy task. But I’m a firm believer that if you have great people, you will land great projects and clients.
What do you think it takes to build a diverse and inclusive team?
If we want a diverse workforce, we need to have the flexibility to accommodate people as individuals and let them align to what works for them. Every person in the world has different needs and priorities. Some people are early birds while others, like me, don’t want to do business before 9:00 a.m. Some need to take care of their kids in the evening, while others find that’s the best time to do work. There is no one-size-fits-all model that ensures happiness for every single employee.
From your perspective, what makes a great leader?
I think a great leader is somebody who enables people to find their own way and helps them on that mission. Leading is much more about walking behind someone than in front of them. I’m not here to tell people what to do and how to do it. I really like this quote from Steve Jobs: “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.” A good leader is somebody who coaches people and is there to remove obstacles, but ultimately helps people find their own form of leadership. It’s about taking the ego out of it and helping others accomplish what they want to do.
What other career path might you have chosen if you hadn’t picked consulting?
I mean, I always wanted to be a rock star, but I realized very quickly that was going to be super tough. I’m also from a working-class family, so I knew I had to get a job to make steady money. But I really thought about studying history and maybe becoming a history teacher. On the other hand, I was also a techie and computer kid, and I realized that was a passion I could actually make money at while keeping the other things as hobbies. Ultimately, I think I made the right decision.
What do you like to do to recharge outside of work?
I consider myself a little bit of a musician. I play guitar and sing. We actually just brought my old school band together last year for our 30-year anniversary. So making music is definitely one way I recharge. In the winter, we’re big skiers and go to the Alps a lot. My wife’s a ski instructor in the German Ski Association, so she’s in a completely different league than me. I also recently started playing golf and found it’s a great sport for teaching you humility. I also like to read a lot and am a bit of a bookworm. I read all types of things—novels, nonfiction, everything.
Is there anything you’ve read recently that really inspired you?
There are two books by Tim Marshall that I read recently: Prisoners of Geography and The Power of Geography. They’re great for understanding more about the world and why each country acts the way it acts. There are hundreds of years of history behind it. I’m a bit of a hobby historian—everything from the Roman Empire to medieval history. I really dive into that stuff.
What do you think is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
There are a couple, but I think one of the hardest things for all people to realize is you need to leave your ego at the door. Everybody has an ego. And I think something I learned over time, after I had a family, is it’s not about me. There’s this quote saying, "The secret to living is giving," and I think that’s absolutely true. The more you push your ego aside and actually focus on other people, the better your life gets.
The second is that things always turn out completely different from what you expect or plan, and that’s actually a good thing. If everything goes according to plan, then your life’s going to be pretty boring. Sometimes you just need to let go and see what happens.
What would you consider your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement is jointly bringing up my two marvelous children with my wife. They are both really cool kids. So, in my personal life, I think that’s my biggest accomplishment.
As for my career, I actually started in financial services and transitioned to communications media technology (CMT) after 15 years. Even though I was new, the company experienced a rough downturn and decided that making me the new leader was the solution. So I went from being the new kid on the block to leading the CMT teams for Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and Russia. It made me realize that if you’re not afraid of something, maybe the step isn’t big enough.
I made some difficult decisions and learned a lot. We took it from declining to growing in a single year and nearly doubled the business after my four years in that position. I then handed it over to my successor, who took it to new heights after me. But I think I helped lay the foundation and am really proud of that.
What’s your favorite Slalom core value?
Inspire passion and adventure. The others are great as well, but when I heard that one, I thought, “Yes! That’s me.” In interviews, Slalom leaders asked me who my role model was, and I said Captain Jack Sparrow! I loved all the pirate movies as a kid and never wanted to be mainstream. He’s passion and adventure in a person—but manages to get things done, even if it’s in an unconventional way.
What’s one rule that you live by?
I actually have a whole set of rules. But beyond leaving your ego at the door, one is to live in the moment. Today is the first day of the rest of your life. You can rack your brain about what could have been, but it’s just water under the bridge. It’s also not about what I do in 10 years—it’s the here and now that matters.