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Q&A with Chris McGrath: General Manager, New York

Chris McGrath spoke with us about the challenges—and payoffs—of breaking into the tough New York market during a difficult economic period.

For years, we’ve been hearing about companies wanting cut costs to increase profits. Are you starting to see clients wanting to expand their business or grow their revenue, or take some of those business risks again?

It’s a mixed situation in the economy, and I think people are trying to figure out where things are going. But we’re definitely seeing more clients wanting to drive new innovation into their business. They’re engaging us not so much in trying to optimize and cut costs, but much more in the innovation space and developing new capabilities for them that can really drive revenue.

It must be fun to be doing that kind of work again now.

It’s exciting for the office. It’s personally exciting for me. One of the reasons that I came to join Slalom was to do more work like what we’re doing today.

I’ve been very fortunate in the team that we built here. We have really focused on developing some concrete capabilities, and being very smart about how we weave our practice areas and domain areas together to solve much more complex business problems than we would have been capable of 3 1/2 years ago, when we started.

Can you give me an example of a project where you’ve been able to pull in multiple teams to work together?

Sure. I’m seeing a lot of momentum in that type of engagement with clients now. For example, our work at a high-end retailer. We’ve built them what we refer to as a brand new clienteling application. That required the use of our customer relationship management team, our analytics team, our user experience design team, and our business advisory services team.

Do you feel like people are starting to say, “Oh, wow, you know, Slalom can do this very sophisticated work for us now”?

Yeah. I still think we’re only scratching the surface, given the size of the New York market. But we’ve got such great credentials now, and great client references that we can utilize to show clients that not only are we capable of doing this, but we can do it in a way that’s extremely collaborative with the client, and likely in a much more streamlined and cost-effective manner than many of our larger competitors.

Given your experience building this office from the ground up, I’m wondering what sort of leadership advice you would give to another person in your position, starting from scratch building some sort of company or office.

I think for us the key point really is around culture and making sure you’re 100 percent positive that the people that you’re hiring are not just culture fits, but those that will help build the culture and be champions of the culture that we want here.

For us, that’s a lot of team work, a lot of collaboration, having a bit of fun along the way, and adhering to our core values of doing what’s always right.

The only way you’re going to attract talent is if people believe that the organization is a great one and one that is going to grow, and you’ve got to have people that can demonstrate that.

Can you tell me something about your past that really taught you something about leadership?

I’m a pretty big believer in leading by example. That’s just something that I observed in the leaders that I admired as I grew up, and as my career grew. If you want people to follow you, you’ve got to demonstrate that you’re in the boat, rowing with them.

What do you do to kind of keep yourself in the mix and make sure that you are, as you say, in the boat with your team?

That’s a great question and one that gets definitely harder as the office scales.

Certainly when we started, I had my hand in everything from recruiting every person we were hiring to being involved in every single one of our client sales. But as we scale, that becomes more and more difficult, and my role has to change.

We try to maintain a very inclusive and open environment here, so that anyone can reach out and communicate to me at any point. I make myself available here in the office. I sit out in the open, in the cubes with the rest of the team, and I don’t ever view any task or obligation as beneath me.

That sounds like a really great attitude to have as a leader, and it also sounds like it keeps you very busy. Since Slalom is a company that values work-life balance, how do you keep yourself from working 24 hours a day?

I think every office will take on the culture of its leaders. I think we do a pretty good job of encouraging work-life balance and not engaging people at odd hours of the day and night—limiting weekend work and communication.

But it starts first and foremost with making sure you are signing up for obligations with your client that you can fulfill without creating a difficult work-life balance for the team.

We’re certainly not perfect. We have projects that have gotten into tough spots and people’s work-life balance gets out of whack for a little while, but we hope over time that that balance comes back, and that we can provide breaks for people that need them after having a tough assignment.

The work we do is a marathon, not a sprint, and there’s no reason for us or the client to burn somebody out, because we’re both going to lose in that case.