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Culture

Practicing leadership

At this point in my life, I’m ready to be a leader.

You might be wondering, “What makes you qualified to lead others? The fact that you’re yet another white, entitled male who feels as if he deserves it?”

I promise it’s not this simple.

From freelancing full-time to co-founding companies with others, I’ve spent the past decade fumbling through the process of creating my own path and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First and foremost, I’ve learned that leadership isn’t about dominance or having the right answer - quite the opposite.

Some of the best leaders take a much different approach.

Instead of telling others what to do, they lead by example. They know their actions speak louder than any of their words and they do their best to align these actions with the things that truly matter.

Instead of taking credit for the accomplishments of their team, they know that credit for one person depletes ownership by many (Thanks Scott Belsky for perfectly capturing this idea using these words).

Instead of being the first and loudest person to talk, they listen first with the intent to understand. They are self-aware individuals who strive to be empathetic towards everyone, especially the people on their team.

These are just a few of the many ways in which great leaders facilitate great teams and honestly, I’m ready to roll up my sleeves and show that these things truly matter to me.

Being an ally

I’m lucky that I get to work with a company that values having intentional conversation around what it means to be diverse and inclusive.

Each month, some of us meet at a different coworker’s home for an event called Homecoming where we discuss specific topics and share personal stories.

Last night, we talked about what it means to be an ally.

As someone who usually falls into the privileged majority in almost any situation (a straight, white, cisgendered male), I want to be an ally for individuals and groups who aren’t so lucky.

Admittedly, I don’t do nearly enough, and usually for one reason - I struggle not with what to say, but how to say it.

Sure, I understand that in the real world, you don’t get a gold star for doing the right thing. Speaking up for others (when that is in fact what they want) should be a given and we should just be able to do it.

The thing is, I also understand that we’re human, which means we’re messy, imperfect creatures that fall back on habits when shit hits the fan.

I’ve learned that if you really care about making a change, you have to consider the habits that drive (or don’t drive) your actions.

In my case, I’m focused on developing the habit that when I hear or see something that could be considered discrimination or injustice, I first ask the person being discriminated against, “Hey, are you OK? How do you feel right now? What do you need?”

As we talked about last night, not everyone wants or needs to be saved. As someone in most majorities, I’m sure it can be much too easy to default to a savior complex.

I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations and doing what I can to become a more effective ally.

Culture is inevitable

I’ve been thinking a lot about culture over the past few months.

From joining a larger company culture early on to helping shape it on a smaller scale within my own company and a cappella group, I’ve noticed something that is probably self-evident to most:

Whenever you have two or more people working together, culture is inevitable.

From the tone and topics of conversations to the way in which you make decisions, culture simply happens.

In the same way that indecision is still a decision, not intentionally crafting your culture will still give you a culture, it will just be one in which you won’t have any control.

That is why I’m learning to pay more attention to my actions and how they affect the people around me.

Ultimately, these actions contribute to the collective culture.

Believe it or not, when I respond to a Slack comment with a specific GIF or an emoji, this becomes part of the documented culture.

When I have certain conversations within earshot of others, this becomes part of the undocumented culture.

It’s easy to forget these things when we prioritize our work over the people doing the actual work.

In my mind, mindfulness should be just as important as margins, more urgent than email, and prioritized just like profits.

How are you contributing to your company culture?

Support and discovery

Last week, I had a client call that didn’t go so well.

We were in the middle of our discovery phase for the project and there were some concerns about where things were heading.

The thing is, I wasn’t worried because, deep down inside, I knew everything was going to be OK.

How exactly did I know this?

Simple - I had/have the support of a solid team behind me.

At Slalom, everyone really does look out for each other, especially while solving complex problems for our clients.

You better believe I went back and reviewed what happened in order to avoid making the same mistakes in the future, but overall, my team reminded me that this is part of almost any discovery process.

Organizing chaos and understanding uncertainty is never going to be neat and tidy, but as long as you can communicate learning and progress while trusting everyone around you, everything will be just fine.

Closed mouths don't get fed

As an adult, I think it’s obvious that you don’t get what you don’t ask for.

When I freelanced full-time, my survival depended upon whether or not I spoke up and shared how I could be of value to someone else.

Now that I work with Slalom, this idea means something a little different to me.

It means that, even though I consider myself to be fairly proactive, I still need to ask for help when I need something.

In this type of setting, I don’t always know if there is a mechanism already in place in order to accomplish the thing I want to do.

I would assume this is pretty common with a lot of companies in hyper-growth mode, but the thing about Slalom St. Louis is that I have the ability to help create those mechanisms.

Basically, if I need to accomplish something and I don’t see a good process or system in place, I have the autonomy to help create one.

I’m learning to speak up when I see room for improvement and connect the dots when the opportunity arises.

Emerging strategy

It blows my mind that I get to be a part of a company that is actively involving everyone while creating an emerging strategy for the future.

Yesterday, I participated in one of the many small group discussions meant to gather insight from all of the consultants here at Slalom.

We explored questions like:

• What might the future landscape look like?
• What do we want to preserve and grow?
• What do we want to modify?
• What do we want to eliminate?
• What do we want to prioritize?

Think about this for a moment.

How often does management ask you to give feedback on questions like these at your company? How often do you feel as if you have any say in the direction your company is heading?

The beautiful thing was that Slalom’s management didn’t mandate this initiative from the top-down. A group of consultants got together, used our “Request for Comments” forum, and started sharing this from the bottom-up.

Since everyone is encouraged to participate, we have insight from people who have been here for a few days all the way to a few years.

Is this process perfect? Of course not. But the fact that we’re being intentional about it speaks volumes about where we’re heading in the future.

And that is a future I want to be a part of.

Problems with success

For the first time in my life, I’m working with a company that is facing the right kind of problems, the kind of problems that naturally come with success.

For the most part, successful growth means more revenue, more people, and more impact thanks to more audacious goals.

Much like when a child hits a growth spurt, a successful company experiences growing pains when this growth happens a little too quickly.

What do these growing pains look like day-to-day?

When a company grows too quickly, there can be overall ambiguity for people, both at the management level and for those with boots planted firmly on the ground.

Where does this ambiguity come from? During this period of hyper-growth, key processes and systems fall by the wayside which, ironically, are needed for future scaling.

No matter how hard people try to avoid these growing pains, it’s almost inevitable. That is, unless intentional growth is made a priority from the beginning.

I haven’t been at Slalom from the beginning, but I have had the pleasure of seeing what hyper growth looks like firsthand and I can confidently say, this team is different.

It’s exciting to be part of team of people that is willing to slow down and put people first while turning hyper growth into intentional growth.

Bringing people together

This past Friday, I had the chance to come together with all of the other experience design consultants from Slalom for an all-day offsite get together.

We reviewed where we’ve been, what we’re doing now, and where we want to head in 2019.

Not only was it productive in the sense that we all got to express and align our ideas together, but we also got to know each other a little better.

With many jobs, you work in the same office with the same people and the culture organically grows around you.

With consulting, many people are offsite with clients, which means you may not get to meet everyone until an all-hands meeting or a quarterly get together.

Because of this, it’s much more important to spend the time we have together intentionally because, whether we realize it or not, we’re setting the tone for how things will be in the future.

I am truly grateful for a company like Slalom that invests not only in their people but in the time those people spend together.

Space for creativity

It seems like the older we get, the less space we create for creativity.

That is, unless you work for a company like Pixar or IDEO.

These organizations not only promote creativity, they rely on its application in order make a living. They’ve learned what it takes in order to successfully apply creativity year after year, project after project.

If these select groups can embrace child-like curiosity and create the space needed to foster creativity, why can’t other lesser known companies? After all, the results speak for themselves.

Like most things in business, I think it all comes down to ego.

People are so focused on appearing professional or that they already have all of the answers that they’re afraid to acknowledge more abstract concepts like creativity or vulnerability.

If you ask me, these things make business even more human, They remind us that business isn’t just B2B or B2C - its P2P, or people to people.

Since most companies still don’t recognize this truth, the ones that do have a competitive advantage.

Which type of company sounds more appealing to you?

Safe and connected

A few days ago, I started reading The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle and I’m surprised to see elements of this book already in action.

Within the first few chapters, Coyle shares that in order to create an effective culture, members on a team need to feel safe and connected.

After working at Slalom for a month, I can understand why so many consultants here read this book. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe and connected around a new group within such a short amount of time.

People here tend to go out of their way to create experiences that promote safety and connection. From conversations to courses to dinners, I’ve had the chance to be vulnerable with so many people in a safe setting.

Not everyone is this lucky.

When it comes to a company with this many high performers, I imagine it would be easy to let friction and ego get in the way while delivering value to clients.

Instead, people go out of their way to help even if it means a few lost minutes.

Thanks to this book and this company, I’ve learned that a rising tide really does lift all boats.