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Slalom's Rich Coughlin on consulting

Q&A: A conversation with Slalom Minneapolis' Rich Coughlin

October 14, 2014

Rich Coughlin is the general manager of Slalom Consulting’s Minneapolis-St. Paul office. He shared his thoughts on what makes Slalom different, being true to yourself, and why it’s OK to make mistakes.

What attracted you to Slalom?

No. 1, I think the talent and the quality of people that exist in the Slalom organization.

No. 2, I think the model and the philosophy that Slalom has on consulting and doing business locally, and the culture and the values which are incorporated into how we work with our clients, how we treat our team, and our people. Having consultants working side by side with our clients, and doing it locally, is a very unique and very interesting model, not only for our team but for our clients.

How is this local model that Slalom uses different from what other consulting firms do?

I think our teams and the people that are part of Slalom have a very entrepreneurial feel and responsibility, just because of the culture and the DNA of the company.

We kind of say this often in Slalom, but it’s really a very real situation where you have consultants that are able to actually live and work in (their) communities. That’s really something that a lot of the other consultancies aspire to and drive to, but they really haven’t been able to crack the code on that.

What was your leadership approach when you started to build the Minneapolis-St. Paul office?

My leadership approach as we started to build our office here was really kind of simple. You find leaders—other leaders—that complement the skills and the capabilities of yourself. And so, to me, it was finding those other individuals and those other leaders in the office that had very similar desires, aspirations, (and) philosophies, but also very different and unique skills and attributes.

Tell me a little bit about what makes the Minneapolis-St. Paul business community different.

The mix of the industry that we have here in Minneapolis is very, very diverse. We have very strong Fortune 100, Fortune 500 companies that are in the healthcare and medical device (field). They’re in the financial services and insurance industry. They’re in the retail and consumer products industry. And then we have a lot of manufacturing, industrial, and transportation companies here.

That diversity, I think, is great from a consulting standpoint, because you have an opportunity to offer a lot of unique experiences and a lot of variety to our consultants.

Are there some overarching themes or challenges that you’re hearing from your clients across industries right now?

It’s a very healthy economy—very healthy from an employment front—so finding really strong, good, talented resources has been a challenge for our clients, in the technology space as well as the business space.

Our clients are also seeing some challenges in the areas of getting programs and projects done in shorter order. Everything is moving at a very fast pace. There’s not a large appetite anymore for the big, massively elongated programs and projects. (Companies are) really trying to focus on, how do we get business results faster? How do we get points on the board faster?

So those are a couple of the challenges that we’re seeing from our clients, and we’re obviously very uniquely positioned to help them.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?

The best piece of advice that I’ve ever gotten is, “Be true to yourself, be authentic, and be who you are.” I think that if you can anchor back to that, people will respect you, and you can work with a high level of integrity. And people—not only yourself, but others—know who you are and what you stand for.

What do you think makes a great consultant?

No. 1, passion for the business. No. 2, I think the ability for people to take ownership, take accountability, and feel a sense of entrepreneurial spirit in terms of what you’re growing. Because in the consulting organization, it’s really kind of the sum of the parts that make the organization tick.

I think the other thing I look for when we’re hiring people is their ability to quickly adapt to the changing environments.

And finally, and probably most importantly, everybody we hire (has) to have a sense of community and engagement with our team and our people. People need to treat others with respect, give other people an opportunity to grow, mentor other people. In the consulting business, your asset is your people. It’s kind of a cliché, but that’s the reality of it.

What’s your approach to dealing with a consultant or somebody in the company that makes a mistake?

I think making mistakes is absolutely OK. I think, actually, people grow stronger and quicker by sometimes making mistakes. And I don’t want to create an environment—I don’t think our team has ever created an environment—where it’s (driven by) the fear of making a mistake.

We’d rather have individuals make decisions, and if those result in a mistake, acknowledge that it was a mistake, take accountability for that, and also look for the opportunity to learn from that. And as long as we’re doing that and not repeating those mistakes consistently, I think it’s actually a great learning opportunity.

And, frankly, you know, you like to see some mistakes being made, because I think those are the individuals that are actually going out there and trying to make things happen, making decisions, and trying to move the ball down the field.

What would you do for a living if you weren’t a consultant?

Well, if I didn’t want to make any money, I’d try to play golf every day, but that’s not going to happen.