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Q&A with John Pavel: General Manager, East Bay

Slalom’s East Bay GM talks Star Trek, fly-fishing, and what happens when you abandon technology at a two-day planning retreat.


A line from Wrath of Khan is on your LinkedIn profile: “A true leader balances the needs of the many with the needs of the few.” Why did you include it?

Wrath of Khan is one of my favorite movies of all time. I put that line in my profile because it spurs really interesting conversations. The line is: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few—or the one.” At the end of the movie Spock gives his life for the many, and at that point you realize that one person can affect the lives of everyone.

I’ve found the big discussion point has to do with emphasizing the group. It’s one thing I’ve tried to do with these fantastic people I’m working with in the East Bay market. Our motto is “All in the boat.” That means getting every single person aligned on what we’re doing as a group, so we’re all pulling the oars the same way. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a boat move like that.

What do you appreciate most about the team you’ve built in your market?

From day one, we’ve encouraged everyone to be challengers, speak up about their experiences, celebrate team successes, and find their own balance with work. I really appreciate how much this team has shared their different voices and experiences.

What concrete steps are you taking to bring in more people from more diverse backgrounds?

Step one—we don’t immediately act when we find the perfect hire. That sounds counterintuitive, right? It’s important to find the person who may have a different experience with life and work. It takes time and effort to look at that person and say, “Where could I find the common ground that Slalom’s looking for?” Someone who works hard and is honest. Someone who’s going to give 100 percent for the project, but who’s also able to balance work with their own life.

We are always looking for the person who we think is going to be able get in the boat with us. They may never have rowed an oar before, but they are excited about learning.

I wanted to be home more and have greater balance in my life—with Slalom, I was able to do that.

How do you keep a team motivated or inspired? And can you give a real-life example?

I just took part of my leadership team to a two-day, off-site planning session—the first time we got together in more than a year. We went “glamping”—everyone had their own tent. We went to a venue where we were outside, under a huge overhead tent with sides that open up, so we were covered and safe from weather.

How do I keep them inspired? I find that both motivation and inspiration come from being together in person again, as a team. We have to find ways to make this happen—even the small connections make a big difference.

Was the outcome of those sessions different than if you’d been sitting in a conference room, and people had had access to their laptops?

When we all sit in a room together with our laptops out, everyone’s heads are down, they’re typing, someone’s presenting, and people are half listening, half looking at the presenter. When you’re (socially distanced) under a big tent, sitting in a lawn chair, and all staring at each other, you have to engage.

I think we have to teach ourselves how to engage as a group again. We’re so good at multitasking now. Without the technology, people who don’t usually use their voices started talking.

If you hadn’t gone into consulting, what career might you have chosen?

I would have become a teacher. Really powerful teachers can pull strengths out of students and get them to find a passion for something they hadn’t considered before. When you find a teacher who can do that, it’s life-changing.

So you like mentoring?

I thrive on it. I love being able to help younger people find their passion and build their careers. It probably gives me more joy than anything else.

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

My sixth-grade teacher, Ms. Williams. She was the hardest teacher I’ve ever had. She said, “There is so much more you can do, and I see it, and I’m going to challenge you.” She gave me harder assignments and more challenging books. She gave me extra work. And she said, “You have to trust me. You need more—you’re not challenged.” I will never forget her.

You were at your last job for almost 26 years. Your LinkedIn profile is short. What attracted you to Slalom?

It was 100 percent the team, the people. I loved what I was doing at my last job, but I wanted to find a way to do it and make more of a local impact. I traveled for 20-plus years, Monday to Thursday. It worked great, but I was missing out at home. I have three teenagers now. I wanted to be home more and have greater balance in my life—with Slalom, I was able to do that. It actually changed our family dynamic—I became the person who was there every night.

Did being home more change your relationship with your kids?

Yes. It’s the best thing I ever did. I became part of their everyday lives—laughing at more jokes and sitting down to watching really bad TV shows with them. I got to know them more as young adults versus being the one who only helps them make big decisions. That’s something you don’t get when you’re not with them all the time.

John Pavel catching a fish

What are you reading or listening to these days?

I love to listen to Kara Swisher on her podcast Sway. Her interviewing techniques and her style are just so raw—what she can get people to say is unbelievable. I love it.

The book I just finished is called The Code Breaker, written by Walter Isaacson. It’s the story of Jennifer Doudna, CRISPR, and the future of gene editing. I found it fascinating because I wanted to learn more about how the vaccines were developed so fast. This book will tell you exactly how it happened.

What do you do to relax?

I’m trying to learn how to take more time for myself, doing activities that I didn’t have time for before. I love to cook—the perfect Sunday for me revolves around making something for my family.

I’m taking up golf again. I’m taking up fly-fishing. Fly-fishing for me is therapeutic. Standing in a river amid beauty and just being present is fantastic—even if you don’t catch any fish.