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Carl Johnson

Q&A: A conversation with Slalom San Francisco's Carl A Johnson II

September 12, 2014

Carl A Johnson II is the general manager of Slalom’s San Francisco office. We asked him to share his thoughts on leadership, consulting, and what’s next for the San Francisco market.

How did you end up with a career in consulting?

After grad school, I wasn’t sure where I really wanted to focus. It seemed to me that consulting would – at least – provide me an opportunity to see lots of different industries, talk to different clients, travel around a little, and kind of experience different types of work so that I could buy time while figuring out what I wanted to do. And that’s how it all started.

So in trying to figure out what you wanted to do it actually sounds like you built a career. Is that right?

It turned out to be an industry that fit me pretty well. It is fast-paced, lots of different challenges, things constantly changing, always something to aim for next. I ended up really, really loving consulting.

What do you think makes a great consultant?

I think a natural curiosity is probably the most important thing. I know I made this mistake earlier in my career, but I assumed that consulting meant that people really only wanted to hear your opinion. And, in fact, as a consultant you need to do a lot of investigation about what’s important to people. What are their goals or their objectives?

I also think that no consultant can be in it for the glory. We’re typically there to help make other people look good, look better, or succeed.

If we are asked to help someone move their initiative forward, it’s our client that will stand up in front of the room and announce the next big thing, and it’s our client who will receive the accolades. As a consultant, you may get a head nod or a pat on the back at some point, but typically you’re in the background helping make someone else successful.

What do you think makes a great leader?

There’s a certain amount of team empowerment that I think is important. So, building and developing a strong team, a team that you trust, and a team that is capable of making their own decisions.

The decisions they make are not all going to be great, but they’ll learn from their failures. They’ll adapt from the failures. They’ll be better, more improved decision-makers because of these failures.

The other thing, I think, is inspiration. It is important to have a vision and communicate this vision. I think that people gravitate toward people who are inspirational and look for that in their leaders.

What are some of the big questions that you see companies struggling with right now?

I think some of the biggest questions that we’re seeing are around how you respond to the threats that are unseen or maybe just on the periphery today.

There’s so much going on in the San Francisco Bay Area in relation to disruptive technologies, disruptive tools, and disruptive processes. Companies are trying to figure out, “What is the company that’s starting right now in a garage somewhere in the Bay Area that is potentially going to ruin my business?”

That’s an interesting challenge. We have to help our clients figure out a) how to protect themselves, and b) potentially even how to create that disruption themselves so that they aren’t the ones who are disrupted.

Let’s turn to the industries and technologies Slalom San Francisco is specializing in right now. What are you focused on?

Well, our biggest industry by far is retail. We have consultants that are now coming on that are specifically retail consultants and leaders dedicated to the space. We’re trying to get smarter and better at getting deeper into the business of retail so that we can continue to be experts for our clients. We’ve even developed something called Retail University, which is a basically a training program for consultants in the market.

There are five main industries that we’re focused. In addition to retail, they are energy, financial services, health care and life sciences, and technology.

For the health care and life sciences, this is an area that is really able to impact people’s lives. In the technology space, the compelling thing here is that we are seeing companies that are really changing the landscape of their competitive environment.

San Francisco’s incredibly rich in diversity. What are you doing at Slalom San Francisco to promote diversity in the office, and why is that important?

I really do believe that San Francisco is one of the most diverse – if not the most diverse – cities in the entire country. By thought, action, activity, gender, race, color, creed, or anything, really. When you look out the window here, you see this amazingly diverse city.

We have to have our market look and feel like the community and the place that we live. So we really are focused on making sure that there are no barriers to entry for joining Slalom. We want to make sure that everyone has an opportunity to be here.

And then once they are here, it’s not just passively waiting, hoping that someone will stand up and say, “Yeah, I think I’d like to be a leader,” but having an active conversation. “We think you’d be great at doing more at Slalom. Have you thought about that?”

I’m wondering how you think that San Francisco’s business culture is different from other areas where you’ve lived and worked?

I do feel like here, more than anywhere else I’ve lived, being part of the community seems to matter a little more. There are great companies here that pride themselves on being not just an American brand but a San Francisco-based company. When we’re able to go in and talk to them about our team of amazing consultants and mention that they all live and work here in San Francisco, it does matter. It’s a little bit more meaningful.

I think the same concept extends to Silicon Valley. We’ve gone in and talked to companies down there and they say, “So, you’re local, but I see in your presentation it says 201 Spear Street, San Francisco. Is that really local?” And that’s part of the reason why we’ve created a new market in Silicon Valley, because we know that it does matter to many of the companies that are our neighbors.


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