TechnologyAccounting SoftwareSema Group – Altschuler at altitude

Sema Group - Altschuler at altitude

Sue Altschuler has scaled the heights at Sema Group to become head of the UK consulting practice. As such, she believes in bringing fun into the workplace and creating a positive, inspiring environment for her consultants. She talks to Cosima Duggal about her path to the summit and her leadership vision.

Few women make it to the summit of the consultancy profession to manage the business. Sue Altschuler is one of the very few women who has reached such heights.

Altschuler is responsible for overseeing the consultancy operation at Sema Group Consulting in the UK and has been with the company since it set up and developed its consulting operation in 1991.

As head of UK consulting at Sema, she has two separate roles: she is the functional head of consulting across the UK and is responsible for developing the 250 consultants within the UK group. This includes: developing the training, managing the induction process; setting best practice; defining the consultants’ methods and tools.

Her other role is to head the Sema Group Consulting practice, where she is responsible for client relationships, project delivery and everything that makes a business unit function. SGC is made up of 125 consultants, the remaining 125 work within other Sema Group units.

What qualities have got her to the top? Well, Altschuler says: “I read my interview notes some months ago; they said that I was determined, committed, ambitious and sober.”

Making work fun

But neither she nor her work is as cut and dried as her interview notes suggest because Altschuler adds an additional element: she believes in bringing fun into the workplace.

“It’s about being able to reward people when they do well and recognise other people’s achievements and celebrate them. It is also about helping to make other people successful.”

Based on her idea of fun, she has just introduced the idea of setting up a consultancy festival for all her UK consultants. European practice leaders have also been invited to gain a flavour of her style of leadership.

The festival will take place at the Barbican.

“The festival will be a lot of fun. There will be games and surprise photographs of consultants that we have assembled into video footage. A group of consultants have written a consultancy song to the tune of YMCA. We have set up stalls of pick and mix, and Sema Group-style ice creams and there will be a treasure hunt at lunch time,” says Altschuler.

But there is also a serious side to the festival. The aim is to enable the consultants to network, exchange information and hear from top management where consultancy fits into Sema Group. Altschuler will explain what the UK consultancy practice is doing and where it is going. The festival will be like an exhibition, where consultants can move around stalls brushing up on the consultancy subject of their choice. In addition, they will be able to sit in on knowledge sharing groups about: culture change, EMU, the Bright Think Group and communications networks, and can attend three seminars during the day.

“Where people are working so hard, are away from home, working long hours and are totally committed to what they are doing they may not see their colleagues for ages: this is the best way of bringing people together,” says Altschuler.

Leading change

Having fun is certainly important, but so is having the right skills and qualities. Leadership is at the top of Altschuler’s list; not just because every firm needs a direction and strategy, but because consultants are inspired by certain leadership qualities.

“In consultancy it is particularly important to have inspired leadership; someone who is passionate and committed to what they are doing and where they are going. Leadership is also about vision and that vision leading somewhere. My passion is to grow consulting in Sema Group and to make it a growing part of our overall offering.”

Altschuler adds: “People come into consulting to gain depth, breadth and experience in business. They don’t come into it just to have a job, so they need constant stimulation and inspiration.”

The consultancy group has seen steady growth over the last three years and now makes up 11 per cent of systems integration work within the group.

The fair is just a part of the strategy to make consultancy more visible within Sema.

By creating a positive, inspiring work environment with the space for her consultants to develop, Altschuler aims to create greater visibility for the consultancy and increase its size.

One of the main issues that needs to be addressed is the working environment and Altschuler advises people: “Recognise if you are in the wrong environment and do something about it. It is quite easy for people to get stuck.” She adds: “In a bad situation, women are prepared to carry on for much longer than men would.”

While addressing these issues, she is taking great pains to use all the positive lessons she learnt on her way to the top and replicate those in her current environment: “a positive top-down move”.

Client relationships

As head of the finance sector, processes, information systems consulting at Sema in 1995, she had the opportunity to become involved in recruitment and take on an operational role.

Playing second fiddle for a number of years, she believes, gave her the necessary knowledge and insight into what it is to be a leader, but it still allowed her to see what was really going on in the business.

“Being number two is a privileged position to be in because you can see how it looks from a leader’s point of view. But you also have people telling you things that they would not normally tell a leader,” Altschuler says. “What I rely on is people being really honest with me because otherwise I don’t get the feedback.”

What gives Altschuler the greatest buzz is working on new projects with new clients. She is driven by a desire to network and start up relationships with clients, doing that first piece of consultancy work and ensuring there is repeat business. She is in at 7 o’clock in the morning, sitting at her desk and wading through e-mails. She spends her days addressing client problems and advising within the practice.

“The most exciting thing has been working with clients,” she says. “But I have also enjoyed putting the processes in place to grow the consultancy, so that we can serve clients.”

Being able to put new processes in place was one of the reasons she came to Sema.

Altschuler joined in 1991 when Sema Group’s consultancy practice was in start-up mode under Nick Griffin. And she has been ringing the changes in the consultancy ever since, introducing her own particular brand of leadership. “I was attracted to Sema because I heard that it was starting up a consultancy from scratch in the UK,” she recalls. “It was the excitement of building something new and it was also a very large stable from which you could build a consultancy.”

When Altschuler joined Sema it had a small consulting information division, which operated separately from the main group. Part of her brief was to merge that information division with Baddeley Associates, a consultancy firm that the company had acquired in 1989, but that had also continued to operate separately.

“It was fun merging the division and the consulting firm because the people in each firm were very different,” she says. “At Baddeley there were many young, change management consultants; Sema’s information consultancy division was made up of much older people, who had particular technical specialisms. It was a good mix.”

Altschuler believes that her energy and commitment and prior experience of merging another slightly smaller practice helped her to drive through the changes.

One of the most interesting projects she has undertaken since then was for energy provider Powergen.

The aim was to prepare one of the generator’s large coal-fired power stations for “The Environment of the Future”. She and a team of 25 consultants were based at the Hilton Hotel on one of the exits on the M1 in the East Midlands for about 18 months.

Altschuler found the team environment stimulating, as the group would work into the night discussing and formatting a strategy for changes to the technology and processes; and how best to introduce a programme for changing the behaviour of employees within the energy provider.

“It was great just knowing what the issues are and working out which are useful to the project and what the politics are,” Altschuler says.

She says that she has tried to take all her positive career experiences and use them to introduce new processes into the consultancy. Her aim is to enable Sema’s consultants to attain their highest aspirations and be most inspired by the leadership.


17 September 1998 Anglo-French computer services firm, Sema Group announced that it would be selling its stake in joint venture BAeSema to British Aerospace.

11 September 1998 With #77m to spend, Sema Group was looking for a major takeover in the US.

9 September 1998 Sema won a #35m, 10-year contract with the UK Rail Settlement Plan to develop a new system for the UK rail revenue system.

8th September 1998 SG-RS, Sema Group’s business unit set up a new disaster recovery unit in the London Docklands area.

19 August 1998 Sema Group’s SMS2000 message centre was selected to supply text messaging services to CDMA-based network customers by cellular operators serving the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.

3 July 1998 French Banking Group, Paribas sold its 8.3 percent stake in Sema Group, making #270m. The sale enabled Sema to expand into the US. US Banking Acts had previously prevented the group from making headway in the States.


A period of consolidation and solid organic growth despite adverse currency effects; Continued growth across the core business systems and telecoms markets; Significant contract wins including BAMS, Rail Settlement Plan and Societe Generale; Margins improved and sustained increase in earnings per share (20.5 percent); The strong order book and continued growth of telecoms, finance and public sector markets underpins prospects for the second half.

Altschuler ? the early years

Born and bred in South Africa – but with parents who came from England – Altschuler decided to leave Cape Town in 1978 to build a professional career in consultancy in the UK. She had already worked as a systems analyst for Mobil Oil and was keen to experience the sights and sounds of London. 1978 was also a time when Apartheid rule in South Africa meant that you either had to live with the politics or you had to risk your life to change.

Altschuler opted for business change.

Her first job was based in London with Marine Systems, a shipping systems company which sold information to companies about ships. Here she made some good friends and had fun.

In retrospect, she says, she stayed too long: it was a little too comfortable, although travelling and looking after the firm’s European customers was an interesting challenge.

Altschuler then did a stint at PA Consulting, where she was a senior consultant, but she only stayed a few years. Feeling a little stifled because she spent 18 months with one client, she decided to move on.

“When you do well, because you are so valuable, it is difficult for a firm to let you out of your position. I left because I was stuck on one client site for so long – it seemed that the only thing to do was to get out,” she says.

She then spent four years at Enator, a Swedish systems house in the late ’80s. “There were only 50 employees and the main thing that attracted me was that it was a warm, friendly, flat structure,” she recalls.

She says the firm not only worked very closely with its clients, it also spent time socialising with them and inviting them to internal events.

“The environment at Enator gave me the space to take some risks and I gained a lot of confidence through that. You could be promoted very fast if you had the potential, so people felt valued for themselves, not just because of what they could do for the company,” she says.

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