16-year Slalom consultant Erin Aten doesn’t care about job titles or climbing the ladder. She cares about helping people solve problems and be whoever they want to be.
by Randi Eicher, photographs by Rachel Shaver
When Erin Aten greets me at the door of her house on an 85-degree Tuesday night, she’s wearing workout shorts, a tank, and sneakers. And she’s sweaty.
On summer days like this, when the weather in Seattle isn’t dark and rainy, Erin has been running to her client’s office (one of Seattle’s most iconic companies that we can’t name) and walking home every day. 10 miles roundtrip.
“When Erin does something, she goes all in,” said Donna Riddell, Erin’s long-time friend and Slalom colleague.
Erin and I shake hands—it's our first time meeting each other—and she welcomes me in. She introduces me to her roommate, offers me wine, tells me to feel free and look around. She’s relaxed, comfortable, comfortable having me there. I get the sense that she’s the type of person who could host big parties at her house without completely stressing out. (She was, in fact, hosting a big Seafair party the next weekend. When we talked on the phone before we met, she invited me to come. I couldn’t—I was going to be out of town. I wanted to.)
We sit on her deck that looks out over Lake Washington and dish up the Thai food we had delivered. “It’s going to be hard for me to talk about myself this whole time,” she says, glancing at my list of questions. And it will be.
Before I met Erin, when I was deciding who at Slalom I was going to write a profile on, I looked at her LinkedIn profile. I saw that her title has stayed the same since she joined Slalom 16 years ago: Consultant. I’d never seen a LinkedIn profile exude such quiet confidence.
I ask her about it. “I don’t bother with all that senior crap,” she says, laughing. “Titles are just unimportant to me. When I’m helping people solve their challenges, that’s when I feel important. That’s what I care about.”
This is really weird, but I am not a goal-oriented person, which is completely opposite of every single leadership and management book you'll ever read.
When I asked people around Slalom to tell me about Erin, they said she’s extremely perceptive. She’s someone who knows how to be both a coach and mentor. Someone who senses when a person is a little off, and asks them to grab coffee so she can help them sort it out. Someone who always takes the time to send people kind feedback, making sure their managers see it.
“She supports people in quiet ways that the rest of the team doesn’t really know about,” said Donna. “That's a great skill to have as a leader.”
Erin is fiercely loyal. She tells me about the friends that have become her family, and I later see pictures of them throughout her house. She’s been a volunteer at the Jubilee Women’s Center for 17 years—an organization that helps women who are experiencing poverty rebuild their lives.
I see that she’s also fiercely loyal to herself. She doesn’t put a “senior” in front of her title on LinkedIn, because who would she be doing it for? She doesn’t text, because she doesn’t like to text. She doesn’t make yearly performance goals, because she wants to focus on real problems people and companies are facing right now—not goals she wrote for herself months ago.
“This is really weird, but I am not a goal-oriented person, which is completely opposite of every single leadership and management book you'll ever read,” she says. “As I see something that really grabs my attention that I think I can make a difference on, I'm going to do that. I pay attention and I look for those things, because I want to affect change wherever I can . . . Because I’m not a goal-oriented person, my managers have a hard time knowing how to deal with me.”
She supports people in quiet ways that the rest of the team doesn’t really know about. That's a great skill to have as a leader.
Erin’s manager, Thane Liffick, described Erin as “one of the bedrocks that helped build this company and our reputation.” He said when Slalom was hiring people in the early years, she was a model of what we were looking for. “We’d ask, ‘Is this person like Erin?’”
When I asked him what it’s like to manage Erin, he laughed. They’ve been friends for almost 20 years, before he was her manager. “She’s extremely self-directed,” he said. “She’s very passionate and focused in terms of how to get things done, which may not always be the mainstream way, but it’s always successful, and she stays true to who she is.”
Erin is the epitome of organization, of having “her s--- together,” said Donna. She’s a pro at organizing big teams and complex projects, at keeping everything and everyone on the rails. “I’m a follow-up freak, but I can relax that part of my personality when I’m working with Erin because she’s even more of a follow-up freak than I am. When you’re working with Erin, you know stuff is going to be looked after.”
But as I talk to Erin, I see another side: someone who embraces the fact that life will always be unpredictable. Who isn’t afraid of twists and turns, but sees them as opportunities to grow.
Over a decade ago, Erin tried to be a surrogate for her best friend and his husband, but it didn’t work. Then, four years later, she did get pregnant, unintentionally.
“Some people might have really stressed out about it, but I thought, ‘I don’t know. This is just life. I gotta roll with it.’”
She decided to have the baby and help her friend and his husband adopt her. Today, her seven-year-old daughter lives with her dads ten minutes away, and Erin spends a lot of time with them.
“It’s amazing all the things you can do in this life, right? My daughter is this beautiful, headstrong, super smart girl. She's reading Harry Potter and doing all this crazy math. You just never know where your life is going to turn.”
Whenever I ask Erin a question, she answers and then asks me a question: about my career, my passions, what I’m struggling with.
I tell her I really identified with what she said about not being goal-oriented. I tell her I sometimes feel insecure when I compare myself to my friends who are climbing ladders and will probably rule the world. I tell her I just want to be a good writer. I just want to keep getting better and better at it.
“It's interesting when you say it, and I hear myself saying it too, ‘I just want to do this,’” she says. “But ‘just’ pulls this societal judgment into it. It makes it sound like it's less than it is, but it's really important. The fact that you love your job is fantastic because most people can't say that they love their job. And for me, working with different clients and solving all these challenges, it's not a ‘just.’ It's the opposite of a ‘just.’ I think we tend to minimize ourselves because other people think that we should be trying to go up the ladder, become a manager, whatever those different things are. But it's kind of devaluing. And there's nothing to be devalued about someone who's kicking butt in their job, and loves it.”
Almost three hours later, when I’ve asked her all the questions I wanted to ask (except Will you be my mentor?), she walks me to the door.
“Oh! I have to show you my battle scars,” she says, smiling. She shows me the dark bruises on her thighs from wakesurfing and the scabs on her hands from falling when she was running.
I think to myself, Wakesurfing sounds terrifying. But Erin can’t wait to get back out there.