Q&A with Darrin Ahrens: General Manager, Minneapolis
Slalom’s leader in Minnesota talks ice fishing, learning when to ask for help, and how Slalom’s client approach makes us unlike the Borg on Star Trek.
You’re a 30-year veteran of the consulting industry. What makes Slalom unique?
The culture is the biggest differentiator. It’s not just culture in terms of how we balance our work and our lives but also how we work with our clients, which is much more collaborative and “partnerial” than some other firms. Some firms go in insisting on their own way of doing things. It’s like the Borg from Star Trek: “We are the Borg. You will be assimilated.” Slalom is not like that. We try to meet our clients where they’re at and partner with them to create solutions together that they can sustain after we’ve left.
Tell us more about how Slalom collaborates with clients.
It’s a fine balance we have to strike because as consultants, we shouldn’t go in and do things to clients—we should do it with them. At the same time, it’s important for us to bring thought leadership to the table, plus tools, lessons learned, and knowledge of what others are doing. We bring a point of view and solutions for how to help them get the outcomes they’re trying to achieve, but in a way that brings them along.
What attracted you to Slalom?
What first attracted me was the balance of work and life, and the opportunity to work in the market where you live. Prior to joining Slalom, I worked for a consulting firm for 21 years and traveled all the time. I have four kids. My wake-up call came eight years ago when my youngest daughter started first grade. She told her teacher, “My dad travels all the time. I hardly ever see him.” And that’s when I started looking. Finding a place where they talk about “loving your work and your life” hit home for me. That’s exactly what I was looking for.
And before I was an employee I had a unique opportunity to attend one of the first quarterly meetings in Minneapolis. All the executives from Seattle were there. I got a chance to meet them all, and I was impressed with their unique blend of confidence, positivity, and humility.
How long have you lived in Minnesota? And what do you love about it?
I’ve lived here since I graduated from college, so almost 32 years. I love the outdoorsy nature of Minnesota: the lakes, the forests, the parks. I like the variety of the weather through the different seasons even though winters can be harsh.
What’s your favorite outdoor activity in the winter?
I like hiking. And occasionally I’ll go ice fishing. I live on a lake, and I’ll just go out back and pop up the tent. I’ve got a heater. I’ve got snacks in a cooler and a deck of cards. I put on music and fish through the ice. I usually catch crappie and sunfish. I’m 95% catch and release.
What makes the Minnesota business community unique?
While Minneapolis is only the 15th largest market in the US, it has the highest per capita number of Fortune 500 companies headquartered here. And from an industry perspective, it’s a diverse economy. We’ve got healthcare, retail, consumer packaged goods, financial services, manufacturing. We’ve got it all.
It’s also unique in that despite everything we talked about regarding the weather, people tend to stay here after they move here. It’s hard to get them here, but once they’re here they don’t leave, and that includes our clients. My experience in other cities is that people will change their geography to remain in their industry. But in Minneapolis, people will change their industry to stay here. And that benefits Slalom because when we build a relationship with a client and they switch industries, they’ll bring us with them.
What does it take to build a diverse and inclusive team? And how are you approaching this in your own market?
It takes some very purposeful focus and commitment to sticking with it through the ups and downs, as well as a plan. We’re getting creative and partnering with a group called the Page Foundation to build a pipeline to bring more diverse talent into our organization. It was started by Alan Page, an NFL Hall of Famer who served as a state supreme court justice in Minnesota for 22 years after his Vikings playing career. He and his wife began the foundation to advance opportunities for Black high school students. We’re partnering with them to provide scholarships to Page students and build relationships with them while they’re attending college. Hopefully we’ll be able to attract some of them to join us after they graduate. We’ve got a couple of terrific former Page scholars who work for us now.
We’ve also launched a sponsorship program for internal Slalom employees where we’re engaging the entire senior leadership team to provide active advocacy and support for our diverse employees with the goal of helping to advance and retain them. We’re starting with our principal-level leaders to try and get more of them into our senior leadership ranks. We plan to roll this out to our senior through associate consultant ranks as well.
Tell me about a mistake you made in your career and what you learned from it.
As a young manager in my mid-20s, a partner pulled me aside and said, “I’m giving you this assignment, and I know that I’m throwing you in the deep end. And the most important thing you need to do is to know when—not if, but when—to call for help.”
The mistake I made was not heeding the advice. I allowed myself to struggle to the point of high stress before I realized I’d passed the point where I needed help—I was screaming for it. I worked myself into a state of almost complete physical and mental exhaustion. After that, I learned to recognize the signs of when I should engage and get help earlier.
What’s your favorite Slalom core value?
"Do what is right, always." If you get that one right, everything else will flow from there.