Q&A with Kristine Santa-Coloma Rohls: Chief People Officer
Our Chief People Officer talks about embracing her culture, building trust with clients, and leading with empathy and inclusion.
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 exciting 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 had the opportunity to build Slalom’s Washington DC market in 2016, 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 and shape the business and who our clients will be?” And [Chief Growth Officer] 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. At the start of 2022, Slalom challenged me again with the incredible opportunity to lead our US Human Resources; Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity; and Sustainability and Social Impact teams. With close mentorship from our Chief People Officer over the last two years, I am honored to be stepping into this role as Lucy Hur retires from Slalom. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn from a tremendous leader and human like Lucy.
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 Slalom leaders saying to me, “You do the right thing. The business results will follow.” Holding this value at the center of my current role has helped guide our decisions around our people-centric culture.
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 not met the mark and take full responsibility for ensuring we got it right.
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.
You started out as Slalom’s first 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 are a lot of characteristics of my culture that led me toward being an empathetic and communicative leader.
At my previous 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 was the only place I went where everybody kissed and hugged hello and no one worried about how loud we talked! That inclusion is part of my DNA and directly influences how I operate
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 some of these skills forward to others—things like executive presence, communication, and relationship-building skills.
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.
Have you had any great mentors in your life? How have they influenced you?
I have been blessed with incredible mentors. I found people who were willing to be honest with me and kick me in the rear when I needed it.
Early in my career, my passion led me to get a bit self-righteous. I remember one of my mentors taking me aside and helping me understand what I might have been doing that really was not drawing people in. They helped me channel that passion to influence my colleagues rather than getting up on my soap box.
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.
What keeps you grounded?
Raising two teenagers with my amazing partner of 27 years is what keeps me anchored. My kids keep me humble and focused on what’s most important—if they are ok, all is ok.
What advice would you 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.
Do you have thoughts on how 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.
Today, I’m really proud that Slalom’s executive leadership team now has a CCO, CPO, CIO, and CMO who are all women. It took intentional effort to get there, but now it underscores our industry leadership in executive diversity.
How do you recharge outside of work?
All of my team members know 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’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.
You may also like
One weird trick to diversify your organization
We tend to favor people who are like us. Here's how to hire the best people, no matter how they identify or appear.
Data to protect the planet
Clean Up Australia
We helped Clean Up Australia build data visualization dashboards to track its programs’ progress and create a more sustainable future.
Public & social impact
Nonprofit & philanthropy
How to get the skills your organization needs for the future
If tools were paramount in the past, skills (technical, functional, portable, and adaptive) are the currency of the future.
Enhancing critical systems
We helped the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) modernize its cloud-based systems, including verification systems that process millions of transactions every year.
Public & social impact
Federal & national government