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Q&A with Jila Javdani: General Manager, Seattle

Slalom Slalom General Manager Jila Javdani.

Our Seattle GM reflects on mentorship, customer love, and the baseball autograph that got away.

You’ve been a Seattle GM for five years, and you’ve worked at Slalom almost 15 years. What’s your favorite part of your job and why?

All of the things that are important to me in work—finding purpose, building a business, helping people, helping organizations, helping the community—they’re present in this job.

I love working with each person in Seattle and helping them achieve their career ambitions while fulfilling their personal and community aspirations. I love interacting with our clients and helping them shine. I love the ability to have an impact on our community.

You mentioned helping the community. Is there a project that comes to mind that you’re particularly proud of?

One that comes to mind is what we’re doing with Springboard8. Springboard8 is Slalom’s partnership with Seattle Central College where we provide cohort-style mentoring and peer collaboration for Black male students. We worked with Seattle Central to determine where its highest attrition was and then developed a program to support those students. We have a team of really passionate Slalom volunteers who mentor the students and help them navigate whatever obstacles they’re facing to keep them going in their education. The program also opens up possibilities for the students in terms of training and social capital. I love seeing the impact this program has had in the community.

You founded the Slalom Women’s Leadership Network, which also emphasizes mentoring. Why do you think mentoring is important?

Being a mentor means helping people through their challenges, but it also means painting a picture of what’s possible. Mentors see people’s strengths, help challenge them in the right ways, and also help them achieve their personal aspirations. It would be really tough to go at this world alone. Being able to lean on those around you, who understand you and believe in you, is really important.

Have you had any great mentors in your life?

I have. I use this concept called the personal board of directors. My personal board ranges from friends to colleagues to mentors to family members. Whenever I’m wrestling with a tough decision, I’ll reach out to my personal board—maybe all of them, maybe some of them—for their counsel. Each person on this board really pushes me, inspires me, challenges me in their own unique way, and I think together as a whole they have a really positive influence on me.

You are a big champion of customer love at Slalom. How do we approach that?

One of the things that makes us special is the relationships we build with our clients. We truly care about them as professionals and humans. Customer love is all about going beyond the amazing delivery work we do and doing the big and small things that tell our clients we’re there for them. It’s showing that we are invested in them and in their success. The work we do for our clients to make them successful in turn makes us successful, not the other way around. This mindset is a core part of who we are and why our clients continue to come back to us.

You lead Slalom’s largest market, and it’s one that has grown rapidly. What are you most proud of in your work to grow Slalom Seattle?

It takes all of us to make what’s happening in the market happen. It’s not one thing that I’ve done. Within the Seattle market, there’s a culture that exists where we work together to make things happen: from a really challenging project where we need to team together and support each other and our clients, to incubating new capabilities, to challenging the status quo, to giving back to our communities, to helping one of our team members who may be having an off day. One of the things I’m really proud of—and I can’t claim credit for it—is how we truly come together. We support each other. When you do that, when you have the right team and you have the right culture, I don’t think there’s a limit to what you can achieve.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

When you’re looking at what you want to do from a new role or title perspective, it’s easy to dismiss positions where the current occupant may not think, act, or look like you. But instead of discarding those roles as possibilities, take time to picture yourself in that role and what you would make it. Don’t compare yourself to who is there now. Because when you go into that role, you’re going to apply your own strengths. I think sometimes people limit themselves because they say, “Well, so-and-so does it like this. That’s not me.” But that’s not the role itself. Make it your own.

I want my children to have an awareness of their opportunities but also the responsibility to help others whose opportunity may not be the same.

You spoke at a TEDxSeattle event earlier this year about inclusion, diversity, and moving race conversations forward. What does it take to have these conversations? How is Slalom doing that?

I don’t have all the answers, but the way I approach it is, first, normalizing the conversation. It can’t be a special event where we’re discussing ID&E. It needs to be part of the day to day. The more we normalize the conversations, the more depth we can have in our discussions and the more layers we are able to uncover. Secondly, all of us need to seek to understand and challenge our existing beliefs. As with anything, it’s difficult to move forward if we’re closed off to learning and understanding. We can leverage each other and the tools we have within Slalom to do that. Also, as leaders, we need to be open to feedback and be willing to engage in tough situations. I think we all have good intent, but we may not be completely aware.

We’ve come a long way at Slalom in a short period of time, and we still have room to grow. Within Seattle, we have a Race and Equality Action Committee that is working very hard across multiple different dimensions. We’re looking to reflect our marketplace in terms of our diversity at all levels of the organization. And, we are, of course, continuing the conversation.

Is there an experience that has shaped your perspective on diversity?

I’ve always been passionate about diversity, inclusion, and authenticity. My father is the son of an Iranian civil servant and homemaker, and my mother is the daughter of a US Marine and a registered nurse. They met at Berkeley in the ’60s and then moved back to Tehran, where my sister and I were born. Then, right near the fall of the Shah in 1979, we fled Iran and moved back here. I saw the impact on my dad: his struggle to be authentic to who he was as the news and day-to-day conversations were painting the entire Iranian people in a negative way. He is a very peaceful man who was proud of his heritage and centuries of Iranian cultural leadership, but he was in a situation where it was unpopular or dangerous to show it. I believe that a drive towards authenticity, inclusion, and truly understanding everybody’s background brings a richness to what we do and to who we collectively are, rather than the opposite. It’s our job as leaders to cultivate environments that enable people to show up authentically. When we achieve that, the result is really powerful.

How do you pass those values on to your own children?

I have four kids, ages 20, 18, 12, and 10. In addition to teaching them kindness, understanding, and being authentic to themselves, I think it’s important to expose them to other countries, cultures, and ways of doing things. One of the ways we do this is taking an international trip once a year. When my kids turn 15, they can pick a place in the world, and we’ll go as a family. My eldest picked Peru, and we went and experienced Peruvian culture. We saw things that I don’t think my kids—who live a pretty comfortable life—would have ever had the opportunity to see otherwise, and then we talked about it. We talked about how that three-year-old working in the salt mine is only different from my kids because of who they were born to. That child could have easily been any of us. I want them to have an awareness of their opportunities but also the responsibility to help others whose opportunity may not be the same. We talk about that a lot.

What’s something about you that would surprise us?

I have always been a big baseball fan, and when I was younger I wanted to grow up to be a baseball player. By chance, when I was 11 or 12, I met Willie Mays in the San Francisco airport. We were waiting at a gate for my dad to land from a business trip. I walked up to him and said, “You’re Willie Mays!” I didn’t have anything for him to sign except the Jane Eyre book I was reading for school. So he signed my Jane Eyre book. And then I turned it back in to the school when the class was done reading it because I didn’t have the money to pay for the book.

Wow. That’s a story.

There’s still some Jane Eyre book with Willie Mays’s signature in it out there somewhere. I should have just paid the $3.75.

Let’s solve together.