Kory Kimball is the general manager of Slalom’s Portland office. We talked to him about leadership lessons he learned from his dad and why consultants sometimes need to be brave enough to say no to a project.
You’re a native to the Pacific Northwest. Tell me a little bit about what you think makes this area of the country unique from a business perspective.
A challenge for us in the Northwest — Portland specifically — is getting the business environment to match the family friendly and cultural environment the city has.
There’s definitely a balance. The consulting business is a challenging one, because clients are demanding and business problems are sometimes hard to solve. We’ve got to find that unique balance of a person that loves the Northwest for what it is but also wants to accomplish great things in their career, which will translate for us into being able to move mountains for our clients.
What are some of the biggest challenges or problems that you think your clients are facing right now?
One key area (we’re working on for) one of our biggest clients is being able to maintain a growth path that they have been on for a long period of time. Part of that is finding out new ways to connect with their consumers across all of the channels, whether it’s coming into a physical store, being on the web, and any sort of outbound campaign.
That is a big challenge from a technology perspective, but it’s also a big challenge from a business perspective.
How do you approach that, as a consulting company, when you are working with a client who is having to transform on both those fronts at the same time?
We’ve now proven that we can change business processes relatively quickly, but if we can’t get the people engaged and bought in then it’s not going to be successful. So, our approach in Portland is to (include a people component) in every project and every proposal that we do. And oftentimes, it’s a point of contention with our clients, because they think, “Oh, we can handle that business process change. We can handle that people change.”
And more often than not—because it’s the hardest part of the project—if we’re not able to convince the client to allow us to help them with that, we actually won’t do the project.
That’s a difficult thing, to be brave enough to say, I need to walk away from this because it’s not going to be successful. Tell me how you handle those tough calls.
It comes down to the relationships that we build with our clients.
This is a market where I see my clients at Starbucks, at Safeway, at the mall, on the soccer field or the football field all the time, and my consultants do the same thing. So, it’s imperative for us to be open and honest, (and to) have that dialogue with our clients that may be challenging. In the end, if we’re not providing value, I really don’t want to be doing the work because our clients should be spending the money elsewhere.
What’s been your strategy for retaining your best consultants?
The more engaging work that we find, the more our consultants want to stay here. I mean, consultants (aren’t) doing consulting work because it’s easy.
It’s our job as a leadership team, here in this office, to build the relationships with the clients, to understand the challenging business problems they are faced with, and then craft solutions and projects that our consultants find to be challenging and ultimately motivating for them to stick around.
Another way to make sure that you’re keeping your best talent is to hire more top talent. I find that people love working with smart people. So, if we are successful in attracting the best talent in Portland, and outside of Portland, we’re going to have a better opportunity to keep the people that are here in this market already.
What do you say to recruits when they ask why they should come work for Slalom?
I believe that my email address is going to be the last corporate email address that I ever have.
Will I have the exact same job that I’ve got for the next 20 years? Probably not. But is there going to be something for me, as my career progresses, each and every year? Yes, there will. I don’t know what that is, but I’m confident there’s going to be something as interesting and challenging as this organization continues to grow and evolve.
Tell us about a mistake you’ve made in your career, and what you’ve learned from it.
I used to believe, early on in my career, that my success needed to be driven off of beating somebody else. And I’ve experienced a—call it a career battle with another individual at a previous company. He was out to beat me, and I was out to beat him, and in the end, no one won. We both expended a bunch of energy towards being competitive with one another, when if we could have gotten out of our own way, and looked at helping our people, and helping our clients, he and I probably would have landed in a spot further down the road that neither one of us did.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I was 10 years old, my father managed several small office buildings. We were driving one day to a particular building, and my dad said to my brother and I, “Who do you think picks up the cigarette butts in the parking lot at my office building?” And we’re like, “I don’t know. The janitor?” He pauses, and he says, “No. I do.”
His point was, sometimes there’s dirty work that has to be done, and the owner is not immune to it. There’s no job too big, and there’s no job too small.
I have taken that lesson to heart. I’ve told that story 9,000 times, and I believe I’ve lived that story. I will do whatever it takes, whether it’s with our clients or with our people, to make us successful. And I think a lot of it comes down to the moral behind that story of who picked up the cigarette butts from the parking lot.