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Q&A with Kristine Santa-Coloma Rohls: General Manager, Washington DC

The GM of Slalom DC talks about embracing her culture, building trust with clients, and leading with empathy in 2020.

 

Tell us a bit about your journey to Slalom.

When I left Andersen Consulting [now Accenture], I joined a startup. This was back in the late '90s, and it showed me how much fun a startup could be. I caught that entrepreneurial bug—fly by the seat of your pants, build something from scratch. Then I moved to DC for my husband's job with the government, and I wanted to get off a plane. So I started working in federal consulting, with a large firm, and I loved it. They were very good to me, but I always had this itch to start something on my own. I just never had the guts to go hang my own shingle.

When I met Slalom, it just seemed too good to be true—the idea that I could flex those entrepreneurial muscles while standing on the shoulders of an incredibly strong firm with fantastic values. I kept asking them, "So, you're going to let me make the decisions about how we open the business and who we hire?" And, Troy Johnson kept saying to me, "Yep. Yep."

I knew I would regret it if I let the opportunity pass me by, and I've never looked back.

What’s unique about Slalom DC and the work you do there?

I've been in the DC area for almost 20 years. There is, of course, a very large giant here in our federal government. Sometimes the commercial market gets overlooked. Slalom has been able to come in and establish a strong, innovative brand in the commercial space—and now we’re leveraging that in the federal market to really differentiate ourselves.

Trying to break into the federal market in the traditional way is difficult because it's a highly regulated process. It's all on paper, filling out requests for information, writing 60 pages of narrative trying to qualify your company. Paper to paper, it's difficult to really demonstrate how Slalom is different. We do our best when we can get into a room and interact with clients to demonstrate our value proposition.

A couple years ago, in partnership with our incredible Slalom Build team, we entered a hackathon for the Department of Homeland Security. In a traditionally stuffy environment, our Build team showed up as themselves. And we really turned participants on to buying technology solutions and building those products very differently. We need to find those opportunities where we can show people who we are.

I grew up in a large Cuban family in Miami, and when I look back, the culture I grew up in is absolutely what shaped and prepared me for the person I show up as today at work.

How do you keep your team motivated and inspired?

I think a big part of keeping people motivated is being as honest and transparent as I can be. It’s creating a safe place where people trust that I’m going to tell them the truth—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and that we're in it together.

A lot of folks come to Slalom from very competitive firms, where if you show that you're challenged with anything, it comes back to bite you. You hear about it later in some formal assessment or promotion process. At Slalom, we give people a safe place to try new things, fail, learn, and keep going. Everything is going to be on the table to be talked about in an honest and transparent way. I think if people know you're putting it all out there, they will trust you. Whether we're growing like crazy or running into a tough spot, we're in it together.

Has anything shifted for you as a leader during the tough times that we've gone through this year with the pandemic and all the other challenges?

It's been a hard year. When a high-performing group of people feels like they’re not performing or achieving like they're supposed to for a sustained period of time—and they're dealing with everything else at home—it’s bound to take its toll both personally and professionally.

I've doubled down on just calling people up, checking on them, and reassuring them that we’re all in this. We’re all weathering this storm together, and I don't think there are many organizations that can say that.

The other thing is just giving people space and grace—allowing people to opt out if they're drained, or if they've got a kid that they've got to get online or get lunch to or what have you. Each individual needs something different. You can't apply one-size-fits-all in 2020.

Have you had any great mentors in your life? How have they influenced you?

I have been blessed with incredible mentors. I found people and developed relationships with people who were willing to be honest with me and kick me in the rear when I needed it.

Early in my career, I would get self-righteous, up on my soap box. And I remember my mentors taking me aside and helping me understand what I might have been doing that really was not helpful as a leader. They helped me with my presence and self-control. 

I meet people today, especially senior women, who say they have never been given honest feedback or they've never had coaching. My mentors advocated for me to take advantage of coaching programs and outside leadership development programs, and it made all the difference with how I developed as a leader.

Is there advice that you would give yourself if you could go back in time?

I’d tell myself not to take everything so seriously. There were things that didn't work out in my career that I look back on and I'm so grateful. I’d tell myself to have a little faith that sometimes, when you let things play out, they work out—or they don’t work out—the way they’re supposed to. You can't control every single step.

Kristine and her family in their "happy place"

You’re the executive sponsor of Unidos, Slalom’s Hispanic/Latinx employee resource group. What inspired you to take that on?

My culture. I grew up in a large Cuban family in Miami, and when I look back, the culture I grew up in is absolutely what shaped and prepared me for the person I show up as today at work. There were a lot of cultural characteristics led me toward being an empathetic and communicative leader.

At my last firm that I was with for 13 years, I led our Hispanic agenda there, and it made a large organization feel much smaller and more intimate. We would get together and we had that automatic, common bond. It's the only place I went where everybody kissed and hugged hello.

I received great coaching on how to use some of what I learned in my culture to my advantage. I am passionate, open and direct (and at times loud!) in engaging with others. I look you in the eye and say what I mean, with a strong sense of who I am and who I come from. I believe in paying that forward to others—things like executive presence, communication, and relationship-building skills.

Do you have thoughts about what we can do better to recruit and retain a diverse workforce?

Accept that it's going to be hard work—especially in a company that has historically grown so aggressively. It may take some extra steps and extra time.

We have to hold one another accountable for ensuring that we don't make key hiring decisions without assessing if we’ve looked at a diverse set of candidates. It starts with getting involved with college and university programs to get young adults interested in consulting. When I was starting my career, I had no idea what consulting was. If you're in an MBA program, you certainly know what consulting is, but outside of that, we need to make the effort to reach people before they're making career decisions—and then, ensure, even as we hire experienced folks, that we’re absolutely measuring and assessing the diversity of our candidate pool.

When I met Slalom, it just seemed too good to be true—the idea that I could flex those entrepreneurial muscles while standing on the shoulders of an incredibly strong firm with fantastic values.

What's your favorite Slalom core value and why?

That’s easy: “Do what is right, always.” If you keep that value in front, it's easy to make the right decision. I've sat down with clients that we've had to walk away from, and it's not easy. Always having that value in my mind—knowing it’s what my team is expecting of me—forces me into some tough conversations. But it leads me to the right decision because I know I’m doing what's right.

I remember John Tobin saying to me, "You do the right thing. The business results will follow."

What if it’s hard to know what’s right? How do you decide?

Oh, I’ve had many, many sleepless nights. I've tried to figure out, for example, when to call it if a situation is not working for a team. Or, we've had situations where we were struggling to really come through for our client.

I had a client one time who said he almost fell out of his chair because he had never had a vendor or partner admit that they had done something wrong. I basically said to him, "We did not understand what was going to be involved once we saw under your hood, and we did not scope the testing part of this correctly. You probably had a good laugh when you saw our estimate." It happened to be a fixed fee contract, so it was on us to get it right, but I just called it out.

There have certainly been some calls I've looked back and gone, "I jumped too soon, or I jumped too late." And, the only thing you can do is look back, learn, and move forward. I don't think there's a science to it.

How do you recharge outside of work?

All of my team members knows how much I love dancing. With my kids, we turn on music in the kitchen and dance. At every single Slalom party, we have to have dancing. We had a Slalom party at a bowling alley, and I said, "Fine, as long as they put in a dance floor."

I will get out there and dance by myself if I need to. I just love music. It brings me joy. It’s not that I have any skill. It's just good for my soul.

What makes you optimistic about the future of Slalom DC?

Every time I talk to a client or a recruit, I know wholeheartedly that I 100% believe in what I’m selling. We have the best people. We have teams of people who care about doing what's best for the client and following through on our commitments. So, every time we walk into an orals competition, I say to my team, "They are lucky to have us in this competition because we're really good and we really care."

That's what makes me optimistic. We're not going to win everything, but if a client or a candidate is open to being part of something special, we will be successful.

What’s one rule you live by?

Practice gratitude every day. I don't let a day go by without reminding myself, especially this year, what's important and all that I have to be grateful for.