Q&A: A conversation with Slalom Seattle's Brian Jacobsen
March 2, 2015
Brian Jacobsen is the head of Slalom’s Seattle office and one of the company’s earliest employees. He talked to us about what makes Seattle’s business culture unique and how he stays connected to a growing office.
You’ve been with this company since 2003. Tell me what’s changed the most about the company in those last 12 years, and what’s remained the same.
It’s easier to talk about what hasn’t changed. In my mind, it’s the culture. It’s the people. Generally the people that we are hiring today are the same folks in terms of what they want out of a consulting company: Their passion, their energy, the desire to come through for clients.
While we have grown in terms of people, what that’s given us is breadth of services (so) that we can bring different capabilities to bear for the client.
How has the consulting business changed over the period that you’ve been in it?
It’s shifted. It seems like clients still lean on outside help to help execute their most strategic initiatives, but they’ve moved from bringing in large teams and handing over the keys to smaller, more nimble teams.
(That’s) great for us. We’re able to come in and help out in pockets of a larger program, rather than taking a whole program.
Let’s talk a little bit about Seattle. What do you think makes the Seattle business community unique?
Seattle’s just not that big, so you have a small community with pretty decent-sized dollars, largely, I think, starting with Microsoft years ago. They started innovation in the technology space, and it’s only continued. So I think when you kind of pull that together in the small region — dollars and the desire for innovation — it does create its own unique community.
How does that affect how you do business?
I think, with our clients, we know them, we know their kids, we’re on swim teams together, we see them at the soccer games together.
So, with that level of intimacy, we have to be successful. We have to come through for our clients because we know we’re going to see them at the weekend or see them at the grocery store.
What (are) some of the overarching business trends that you’re seeing right now in Seattle?
The shift to the cloud. And it’s more than, “How do we get our data center in the cloud?” It is, “How do we make our people more productive?”
Are you finding that companies are excited about the move to the cloud, or does it feel sort of scary to them at this point?
I don’t know if it’s scary as much as, “What does it really mean to me?” We’ve been talking about this cloud thing for two or three years, and we’re now over the hype. And I think now it is, “Okay, at the end of the day, what does it really mean? What can I move there? What can’t I move there? How does that impact my people, my staff? Am I able to cut costs? Am I not able to cut costs?”
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Connecting with our clients and consultants.
What does it mean to you?
For example, every couple weeks I have a consultant breakfast, and it’s where I sit down with six to eight consultants and the agenda is no agenda. We talk about whatever’s on their minds.
A couple weeks ago it was probably more on the Super Bowl. Today it was what’s happening in the company, and what concerns they have and issues that they want to address and bring up. It’s just a really frank, transparent conversation. There’s no off-limits talk.
Are there other ways that you try to maintain that connection with the consultants as you grow?
Another thing I try to do is spend time out in the kitchen area. It’s easy to be stuck in my office all day with meetings and doing work, but I love to be able to jump out to the kitchen and hang out there, and work through e-mail, but then also catch up with people as they walk by.
If you’re coming to my office, you’re actively coming to see me. You don’t get the random connections.
How (do) you describe your own leadership style?
It comes down to: Hire people smarter than me, give them a direction, get out of the way, and be transparent.
I don’t have all the answers. I really lean on my leadership team to help us figure out what we do as a market. I don’t want to get stuck in this consensus trap, and I look to make the decisions where I can, (but) I really value their feedback.
Tell me about a mistake you made in your consulting career and what you learned from it.
I think (it) was not letting people know what you are shooting for, what your goals are. It probably delayed a promotion I might have had, but I think it was just a good lesson.
(The same goes for) letting clients know, “This is what we’re trying to achieve and how we’re going to get there.” And then they’re part of that journey along the way.
People sometimes feel nervous about saying, “I want to be at this level in five years,” so do you end up talking to consultants about that importance of being a little more overt about your goals?
We ask them as part of the annual review process, and some people are naturally going to be able to do that. I think your extroverts will be willing to put it out there a little bit more. Introverts aren’t. And I guess being an introvert, I recognize that, so I think it’s easier to also connect with people and ask them, “Hey, where do you want to go? Where do you want to be in a few years?”
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Once a week, look for a situation where you’re uncomfortable, and put yourself out there. Just get out there and do it. And you’re going to live, and you’re going to come out so much stronger for it.