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Proof that openness scales

Lessons from Slalom Consulting’s successful growth prove that openness scales.

This post was originally posted on OpenSource.com, January 12, 2017.

Recently I’ve had the immense pleasure of discovering Slalom Consulting, and I was fascinated to learn how they do open. Aaron Atkins and Shannon Heydt, both working in talent acquisition for Slalom, sat down with me to share challenges related to scalability—and explain how recruiting and talent management play a strong part in shaping company growth.

Slalom’s case is rich and illustrative. But to understand it, we must first understand scalability.

Scalability is the ability of something to adapt to increasing demands. Meeting your business demands starts with your people and frameworks far before you fulfill a service or product.

Scaling is also quite challenging. It can involve (literally) years of doing the hard work with a slower growth pattern and seemingly overnight an explosion of growth occurs to meet your business demands.

When this explosion occurs, workflows suddenly become inefficient. Talent management struggles to keep up with onboarding, retention, coaching, development, staffing appropriately, and so on. What worked last quarter will no longer support the ecosystem you’re facing today.

Scaling in the open

In open organizations, scaling requires a strong identity; successful scaling relies on who you are to carry you and your people through times of intense growth. I’m talking about your core ideas and values. And I don’t mean the wall art in the break room with the really cool font that reiterates your value statement.

Scalability is the ability of something to adapt to increasing demands. Meeting your business demands starts with your people and frameworks far before you fulfill a service or product.

Instead, your organization’s values, ideas, and frameworks should be heard and felt through all interactions modeled from top leadership to the new hire. It should be a living and breathing presence in the room because it is such an integral part of your culture and people.

If you were to build a foundation for a house with different size blocks and heights, the house would collapse as you began to place structural weight on it. One common misconception about open organizations is that they lack structure. To the contrary: in open organizations strong, obvious structures and frameworks set the flow for the ecosystem participants desire. In open organizations, however, structures don’t just allow you to run an effective and efficient organization, but also allow for the emergence self-leadership and autonomy while still meeting strategic goals.

How you address your processes, workflows, and frameworks can make or break you. But, most importantly, your communication strategy and execution will be paramount to your organizational success.

Let’s take a look at how an organization operating with an open mindset—like Slalom Consulting—is handling the challenges of scalability, within their value-driven ecosystem, and with intention.

Tipping point challenges

Founded in 2001, Slalom aims to do consulting differently. It has now landed on Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work (2016). Founders wanted to do purposeful work—and to do it in a way that allowed them to maintain the ability to do great work for their clients.

This meant they had to break typical organizational frameworks and build an open culture. They’ve been experiencing rapid growth, and like all organizations amid waves of change, continue to experience both wins and challenges.

Slalom noted several challenges to tackle when they hit their tipping points: consistency across markets, people development, and communication. Their approach to scalability is to intentionally build a strong, sustainable ecosystem through recruiting, people development and feedback. They quickly learned that what worked for 80 consultants doesn’t apply to the more than 4,000 they now employ.

One thing that has propelled them forward is their cultural ecosystem.

Recruiting for culture

Slalom is intentional about who and how they hire. They seek a culture fit first.

What does that mean for them? For starters, it means:

  • experienced hires with different perspectives and a strong competency for feedback
  • talent acquisition based on relationship first (investing in getting to know a person as more than a resume)
  • looking for innovation tendencies, communication skills, coachability, knowledge and self-governance competencies

Leveraging people

Talent managers at Slalom have found that some people struggle with the responsibility of guiding their own career pathways. So they placed “Learning Leaders” in every market to support continuing education and to provide guidance and empowerment for career ownership.

Slalom encourages innovation and problem solving, which leads to a merit-based promotion system. Without the confines of a “set track to follow,” employees are free to fill gaps they see when they bring solutions to the table.

“We strive to create diversity for our culture,” says Atkins. “We can then use different mindsets to come together as a team and deliver the best solutions for our clients.”

Feedback loops and honest conversations

When an annual culture survey revealed that communication was not keeping up with growth, Slalom took the findings seriously. Leaders took to each market to discuss and ask for shared dialog.

As a result, an incredible number of 9,000 ideas emerged from all over the country. After filtering down the ideas to trends, passions, and strategic directions, Slalom had a strong base for their organizational direction based on feedback from their employees. They ask, listen and put feedback into action.

When an annual culture survey revealed that communication was not keeping up with growth, Slalom took the findings seriously. Leaders took to each market to discuss and ask for shared dialog.

Slalom also upped its communication game in a world demanding digital and real-time feedback, launching a series of videos from each core leader to explain strategic objectives. By taking such a personal approach, they’ve closed gaps that can occur in both distributed workforces and those that have grown to a significant size. The practice uses transparency and human connection to engage employees.

Slalom has also integrated real-time feedback loops into weekly time submissions. Asking their people (in the moment) how things are going keeps the feedback fresh and real. Closing these gaps can increase retention and improve work efforts.

It isn’t easy

Scaling isn’t easy. Even with a strong ecosystem in place, one powered by clear values and vision, growth comes with a fair share of challenges.

However, investing in your ecosystem from the beginning will help lessen the growing pains. Create strong structures for your people to operate. Leverage the wealth of talent within your people. Communicate with transparency and open real-time feedback loops to smooth transitions. Remain agile, and you’ll find the right sustainable business models that work for you.

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