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How a life on the open seas prepared me to live Slalom values

A data engineer in Slalom Build Boston shares his personal perspective on Slalom's beloved core values—and what it takes to truly live them. 

by Nick Calow

Every company has values. That much is obvious. Values help shape and guide a company’s decisions, project a certain image for clients and consumers, and most importantly, they help drive the culture and norms of their employees. But even so, there is often a disconnect between the values a company holds and the values an individual may hold, whether that be due to different beliefs, different preferred outcomes, or just different lifestyles. Fortunately, in the time since I joined Slalom, I have come to understand that not only do I agree with Slalom’s core values, I had already been living them.

Slalom has ten core values, which were developed over the course of years and fully realized one October’s evening around a fire on the beach. Between all ten of them, there are enough lessons, guidelines, and directives to live a healthy, fulfilling life, while also driving success in the business world. That is no small feat.

 

 

I have not always been in the world of consulting, or even in the world of information technology. In a previous life, I was a theatrical professional who worked on the high seas for Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines as a member of the technical stage staff. Through that, and through my own personal experiences, I developed a set of values—values that are very closely aligned to Slalom’s values, which is one of the reasons I was so interested in working with Slalom in the first place. Because I have developed a very similar set of values, I can be far more confident in recommending them, and the fact that those values exist in the first place gives me hope for Slalom’s future.

Instead of going through each of these values individually, I grouped them based on theme, and will tell a story about each.

Group 1: Drive connection and teamwork. Do what is right, always.

Theater is, first and foremost, a collaborative exercise. I may have worn many different hats in my time in that world (technical director, lighting designer, master carpenter, etc.), but I’ve never done it alone. I could never have done it alone. For every actor or actress on stage, there are at least three technicians who work behind the scenes to make sure everything is ready for the actors to take the stage and wow their audiences. Whether it be in lighting, sound, staging, costuming, makeup, or many others, no production could survive without them.

It was in this environment that I grew to understand the power of teamwork to solve problems I would have never been able to solve on my own. I am only one person, with one perspective, and one set of skills. However, by working together with a group of people with differing perspectives and skillsets, the final result can only be made the better for it.

The question of ethics, morality, and the “right” thing to do will often come up in the world of theater, for the simple reason that most plays have made some sort of stance on some subject, or are trying to draw attention to a certain way of thinking or of a problem in the world. The Laramie Project, for example, tells a story, through staged interviews after the fact, of the murder of a young gay man, Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wisconsin. Hamilton, the musical that took the world by storm, tells the story of our country’s founding through the eyes of the first Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton. Through all of that, Hamilton still has quite a lot to say about the treatment of people of color, the issue of slavery, and the promise of America as it was founded. Theater generates conversation about the world we live in, and the morals that we ascribe to. Doing what is right is hard. There’s often no easy answer. But by understanding what theater is trying to say, one may find it easier to understand how to do the right thing.

Every person has a different set of values, and that is to be expected. However, doing what you consider “right” in a situation and having other people, both employees and clients, agree with you, is really the main thrust of this ideal as far as I’m concerned. Doing what is right involves using your own personal sense of right and wrong to help understand the needs of the people around you and work to fulfill them.

The best way to do what is right is to know what is right. The best way to know what is right is to agree with others on what is right. The best way to agree with others on what is right is to have those in power set clear lines of distinction on what is right and what is not right. And the best way for that to happen is for leaders to present themselves and their choices as a moral standard to measure against. To me, that is one of the most important aspects of leadership.

Doing what is right involves using your own personal sense of right and wrong to help understand the needs of the people around you and work to fulfill them.

Group 2: Take ownership. Get it done. Focus on outcomes

After graduating with a degree in theater and starting with Royal Caribbean, I found myself not in a theater, which I had expected, but instead a small ice rink, where Olympic-caliber figure skaters would strut their stuff in five shows a week, every week. It was part of my job to make sure that everything was ready and safe for each show before it began. The most important thing that was done each time was to prepare the ice itself.

A few hours before the show began, I would go out onto the ice riding a Model 3B Ice Resurfacer, an electric vehicle about the size of a golf cart, where I would cut and resurface the ice in a specific pattern that would make the ice flat, smooth, and free of imperfections. When a skater does a trick, the first thing they do is to kick the ground as hard as they can via a part of the skate called a toe pick. That kick launches them 1–2 feet in the air, where they spin, land, and complete the trick. If the ice has imperfections, growths, or bumps, the trick can fail, and the skater can fall and potentially hurt themselves. When you are on a moving, rocking ship, you need as many advantages as you can. It is a question of liability, and trust.

When you are trusted with somebody else’s safety, it is your job to make sure that you do everything in your power to get it right, every single time. No passing the buck here. In consulting, it is the same. It is not someone else’s solution you’re working on; it’s your solution. Now of course, it is hardly the case that there is a life riding on every press of a button; however sometimes it does, and if you live by these values, you’ll be ready for that too.

Group 3: Inspire passion and adventure. Celebrate authenticity. Smile!

Believe it or not, there are some advantages to traveling the world on a cruise ship, when the vast majority of people on that ship are there for a vacation. As an American, I was in a significant minority of crew members, and I got to know people from all around the world, from all kinds of different contexts and lifestyles. From the mountainside castle of Kotor, Montenegro, to the white sand beaches of Bridgetown, Barbados, the ability to experience things outside of a normal work life made returning to that work that much more palatable. If you love what you do, and you love how you do it, you’ll do it better. Simple as that.

Contracts for Royal Caribbean lasted seven months, and a lot of those seven months would be spent with the same people. In my team of “blackshirts” (for the black polo shirts that were our uniform), everyone learned a lot about everyone else, and after enough time spent together, each one of our authentic selves came through. When you know exactly who it is you are working with, and those same people are often your drinking buddies and the people you go on adventures with off the ship, your working relationship is that much better, and genuine, authentic bonds start to form.

In any workplace, utilizing passion and adventure with your fellows is a great way to foster deeper, far hardier connections, in times of joy and in times of hardship. Any hardship shared is a hardship lessened. It’s not just about putting on a brave face and smiling through the hardship, but rather to be able to give an authentic smile because of the people and work that surrounds you.

This entire group is based less on a set of actions to take or methods to use, and more about a mindset of genuine optimism. Which is hard, because many people find it hard to be genuine, and even more people find it hard to be optimistic. The secret is, nobody is doing it alone. Passion, adventure, authenticity, a positive outlook on life, these are all things that are much easier to foster in a supportive group environment than by trying to do it all alone. It always pays to know more about the people you are working with, and to trust the people you are working with. After all, it’s much easier to smile when you have good reason to.

It’s not just about putting on a brave face and smiling through the hardship, but rather to be able to give an authentic smile because of the people and work that surrounds you.

Group 4: Fuel growth and innovation. Stay humble and curious. Build and shape a better future.

When I was done with the cruise ship life, I was 23, and I had no idea how best to live in this world. All I knew was that I would rather make a life based upon the skill of my mind and fingers, not my back and shoulders, and I knew that I wanted to be part of building the future. I did my research, and after a time I discovered the world of data, and figured out the best way to enter that field. I took a 12 week, 500+ hour bootcamp style course, and after a summer of learning and a fall of applying, I started at Slalom just as winter began.

Innovation, curiosity, and a desire to plan for the future all led me to attempt something so far outside of my wheelhouse, so unattached to anything I had ever done before, that without those qualities I would still be on a cruise ship, sailing the world. The present is amazing and there will always be more to learn from that which already exists, but the future is where new things form, the envelope is pushed, and unexpected opportunities arise.

Twenty years ago, “the cloud” was just something overhead that could tell you if it would rain or not. Now, the world is more interconnected than ever. By living these ideals, by sharing in this mindset, imagine what new innovations, new technologies will be created, all without straying from the values that ground you.

The core values espoused by Slalom’s leadership are not just empty words on the page. They have meaning, and value, and those that choose to accept these values see their worlds change. When I first applied, even then I could see and appreciate the way that Slalom does business. Once I was actually here, I was blown away with the amount of care and respect Slalom’s leaders return to their clients and employees.

Living your own values is hard, and trying to just start living your company’s values is even harder. But you cannot hold any values you have not worked towards yourself. Think about these core values. Really think. Compare them to the beliefs you hold sacred, and only then will it become possible to include some more. Then comes the hard part, of living the things you say you believe. But it’s very possible, and it could change your life. I wish you all the best of luck.