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Q&A with Tom Kearney: General Manager, Portland

Slalom General Manager Tom Kearney

As he leaves Seattle to lead the Portland office, Tom Kearney talks about staying energized, connecting with his team, and making an impact in the mid-market.

Tell us about your journey to Slalom 10 years ago.

I’ve been in consulting virtually my entire career and had heard about Slalom in the marketplace—particularly its reputation for having a fun culture and a bit of a different feel from the classic Big Four model. At one point, I had friends who were here and encouraged me to come over, but the timing just wasn’t right for me to leave my old company.

About a year later, I started to see that in my role I’d need to start traveling quite a bit more. But my kids were in grade school, and it was important to me to be home for dinner every night, to coach their basketball games—all that good stuff. So Slalom’s no-travel model became super appealing to me. I reengaged with the folks I’d spoken with, and luckily the opportunity was still there.

Before coming here, you’d heard great things about the culture. How have you found Slalom builds that in an authentic way?

For me, it was apparent in the first meeting I ever attended here. It was clear that the decisions people made were tied to the culture that Slalom professed to have. It happened to be a staffing call, where we went through all the open opportunities to match consultants with upcoming projects.

I had literally been with the company for thirty minutes, so I was just an observer at that point. And what struck me was that the conversations were about “Well, this role, or this project, really isn’t what that person is looking for. Why don’t we hold off to see if it’s a better fit for someone else.” Or “This person has been in this role for twelve months and really wants to do something different. How can we transition them out of that role and into something new?”

At companies where I’d worked in the past, that was a conversation we rarely had. It was often, “Even if you’re a square peg in a round hole, that’s where you’re going, and we’ll check in on you in eighteen months.” So from the get-go, it was very apparent that Slalom is willing to walk the walk in terms of staffing. The mentality is that it’s better to lose an engagement than a consultant.

What kind of trends are you seeing in the market right now?

The biggest trend we’re seeing is that there’s an incredible demand for talent as well as a shortage of it, particularly in technology and consulting. There are companies that will allow you to work wherever you want in the world so long as you’ve got a Wi-Fi connection. Not everyone is at that point yet, but I think the pebble has started to roll down the hill and there’s potential for a tipping point at which everybody decides that in order to attract and retain talent, they need to provide that option.

How do you keep your team motivated and inspired?

I think you have to be intentional about making personal connections. As I’ve transitioned from the Seattle office down to Portland, I’ve spent most of my time reaching out individually and connecting with people to make sure we build one-on-one relationships. I want to know where they grew up and how they ended up at Slalom and in Portland. So far, I’ve met with 60 people and have about 60 more to go.

To some degree, I’m regimented about it because that organic interaction we’re accustomed to isn’t going to happen remotely. We won’t bump into each other in the hall. I think that now we need to remember to make the time, put it on the calendar, and catch up. Otherwise, we lose sight of the importance of those connections. It’s one of the things we’ve lost in this virtual hybrid world—asking about soccer games, that kind of stuff.

What’s energizing you and your work right now?

What energizes me is meeting new people and learning about them, especially as I work to understand and explore the Portland office, the culture of the city, and the differences between Seattle and Portland that I’d never fully appreciated before.

The client base is different as well. In Seattle, my focus had always been on large technology companies. Here, most of our clients are mid-market, and that means the work we do can be a big investment—and have an incredible impact. They’re betting on Slalom, and that’s powerful.

What do you look for in a new hire?

Most importantly, you need to be a team player. You need to be energized and enthusiastic about working with other people and playing a role that contributes to the whole. You want people to like you and see that you’re adding value, not wasting their time or money. Those are the intangibles—you just need to be wired that way.

I think you also need to be comfortable with ambiguity. Consultants are often thrown into chaotic situations where it can take a few weeks to get their bearings, get organized, and learn the context of the situation. Being able to do that—to not know exactly what the end vision is but begin to shape it—is a really important skill in a consultant. On top of that, you need to be curious and have a desire to learn new things.

Obviously, you need to work hard—but I don’t regret any of the time I spent with my kids in exchange for not doing something at work.

Tell us what you do to maintain work-life balance.

I make a point to really disconnect from work and occupy that headspace with other passions and interests. I’m an outdoors person, so I get up into the mountains or out on the water. Those are the things that motivate me. When five o’clock rolls around, I know I’ve got to get outside and go for a run and force myself to take that break. I’m not too bothered about cleaning up emails at night because I don’t burn the midnight oil all the time. So I keep a good energy level, I think.

Tell us about a mistake you made and what you learned from it.

We all make mistakes all the time, and the most important thing is to have perspective. When something goes wrong, one of the biggest mistakes is getting too wrapped up in feeling that people don’t understand your side of the story. You can get so focused on defending yourself that you don’t hear valuable feedback that you can learn from.

Have you had any great mentors?

The best mentor I had was my father. He wasn’t necessarily one to give advice, so it was more about observing what he did. He went about his business in a very disciplined, ethical, and thoughtful way. He had the biggest influence on me.

If you could go back in time and give yourself career advice, what would it be?

I think it’s the advice I gave myself, and I’m glad I did: Don’t invest all your time in work. Have balance. Your family needs to be your number one priority, because especially with kids you’ve got to treat your time as precious. They grow up really fast. Obviously, you need to work hard—but I don’t regret any of the time I spent with my kids in exchange for not doing something at work.

Let’s solve together.