Honoring Individual Strengths

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts to celebrate the last two decades and the years to come.

As I reflect on what has contributed to our success over the last 20 years, a few things stand out to me. One of them is that the team at Fathom is truly a team of team of learners and leaders. My colleagues are excited about exploring their professional passions and have the freedom to activate the talents that are most meaningful to them.

The associated challenge with this perk? It can be tricky to lead a group of leaders. While it’s thrilling to have team members all empowered to find their own expression of leadership, we do need to find ways to create a cohesive unit that generally moves in a shared direction.

Since joining Fathom Consulting, I’ve had the opportunity to witness, noodle on, and address a variety of organizational changes and challenges just like this one. As someone who pursued a graduate degree in Organization Development, Change Leadership and Conflict Management, tackling challenges like these is the sort of thing I get jazzed about.

And the solution I’ve arrived at for our “leading leaders” conundrum? Fostering an environment that focuses on strengths.

It starts with self-reflection

When I was in graduate school, I was introduced to the concept of “self-as-instrument.” The idea is essentially this: The only tool that any individual has to bring about change, to guide themselves or others in a direction, is themselves—their actions, behaviors, and choices. They must choose to use their skills and abilities in deliberate and thoughtful ways to guide others. In short, they must use themselves as the instrument of change. And getting good at using self-as-instrument requires complete clarity about the unique skills and abilities one most naturally and authentically possesses and can bring to bear.  Getting this clarity starts with a practice of self-reflection.

Being thoughtful and honest about what you are good at—and what you are most interested in—is something that each individual must do on their own.  Journaling, conducting self-reviews in parallel with an annual performance review, and leveraging some of the many existing tools (Clifton StrengthsFinder is one of my long-time favorites) are great places to start. Once you figure out your strengths, you can share these talents within the organization to lift everyone up.

A culture of feedback

In addition to identifying personal strengths, employees get plenty of feedback from coworkers—both formally and informally. One example of peer feedback is Fathom’s High Five program. Each team member gets a budget for the year that can be used to recognize colleagues who’ve done outstanding work. When the occasion arises, the High Fiver chooses a gift for the Hive Fivee and publicly recognizes their awesome work at the monthly all staff meeting. Another example: peer feedback is integral to annual performance reviews. Twice each year, Fathom Consultants identify a handful of others with whom they’ve worked closely in the last six months. Those colleagues are asked to respond to two simple questions: 1) What strengths has the consultant displayed and 2) How can the consultant improve to be more effective in their role? We’ve learned that often your colleagues can spot your own strengths and talents better than you can. 

Using strengths to do great work
Through self-reflection and peer feedback, we strive to uncover the unique thing each consultant brings to the party—subject matter expertise, industry experience, or skill mastery. Strengths are considered  in:

  • Performance reviews
  • Monthly all-team meetings
  • Consultant-driven internal “lunch and learn” sessions on a particular topic of interest
  • Surveys and project checkpoint discussions with clients
  • Talking about and sharing project insights with each other
  • Matching people to projects that let them play to their unique areas of strength


According to my colleague Julie Pettit, a strengths-based environment is not only rewarding, but it’s necessary to best serve clients. She says, “We have come to depend on it. If we were all uniform, we could never survive as a small business. Embracing everyone’s unique strengths allows us to be more nimble and meet a wide variety of client needs.”

Why celebrating strengths is right for us

In a society that often zeroes in on personal deficits, it’s common for organizations to approach employee development by focusing on areas of relative weakness. In fact, this is how we used to approach professional growth at Fathom. But about 10 years ago, we flipped our focus. Now, we encourage people to play to their strengths.

And you know what we’ve learned? Really good things happen when you bring people together and allow them to foster their strengths. Our employee satisfaction scores are consistently above 80 percent. Consultants work with Fathom for more than seven years on average. Fathom has repeatedly made the list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For” in the Twin Cities.

The individual strengths our team members possess (and continue to grow) are a tremendous asset, and I couldn’t be more thankful to have the opportunity to work with such a collection of uniquely talented individuals.

Founding Concepts from our Earliest Days Still Ring True Today

This year, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year, we’re sharing a series of blog posts to celebrate the last two decades and the years to come. This is the second in the series.

On May 7, 1999, Robin Carpenter and Jan Oldenburg founded Evantage Consulting with a focus on bridging strategy, technology, and the customer experience.

Let me quickly set the scene on what was happening as our organization was founded at the cusp of Y2K mania. The internet was gaining traction as a force to be reckoned with (for most businesses). For the first time, IT and marketing teams were required to work together on things like ecommerce and web-based products and services. The inherent messiness of how organizations worked (or didn’t!) was getting exposed to customers, and it wasn’t pretty.

Robin and Jan had hybrid backgrounds, having spent time in marketing, operations, and technology—and they saw an opportunity to integrate the voice of the customer, which could serve as a neutral way to help make decisions about what to do in this new internet world.  While it is more common today, the integration of the customer experience was truly visionary at the time.

Since our founding, a few things have changed. We have evolved our brand to Fathom Consulting. We’ve moved our offices to accommodate a growing team and foster collaboration with our clients and each other. We’ve deepened our research, concepting, and prototyping toolkits, and tackled organizational and operational challenges that span enterprises, not just departments. We’ve also largely stopped talking about “digital” as something different and unique. Even in this era of “digital transformation,” we believe success lies within deeply understanding and delivering on what customers and employees need—with digital as an integrated partof the holistic, system-wide solution—not the endgame.

However, some founding concepts remain the same after 20 years in business. Early in my tenure at then-Evantage, I remember Jan sharing a perspective that made an impact on me. The idea was this: the interesting stuff happens at the intersections of things—at the boundaries, edges and bridges. I remember thinking how true that is,  how important it is to pay attention to those spaces, and get really good at tackling problems and driving new thinking by understanding the multiple perspectives coming together. This sentiment guides our work today—in terms of who we hire (hybrids!) and the kinds of problems we solve for clients.

On May 7, 2019, Fathom still thrives at the intersection of strategy, technology and customers. We are still owned and led by women. We still have a great time working with our colleagues. And we still look boldly ahead to the exciting opportunities that await us in the future.

20 Years of People Propelling Success

This May, Fathom Consulting celebrates 20 years in business. In addition to happenings planned throughout the year (looking at you staff, clients, partners, and alumni), this is the first post in a series to celebrate the last two decades and the years to come.

At the top of my list of things to celebrate? Our consultants—modern-day renaissance professionals who move our clients from complexity to confidence. From our start as Evantage Consulting in 1999, the most important ingredient in our recipe for success has been our smart, creative, low-ego, and collaborative team.

Anyone who has spent time with us knows we’re constantly striving to push the bar higher in all that we do—from client projects, to the perfect team building event, to fine-tuning the mechanics of a well-constructed team.

For many years, we hired largely on instinct. While that served us well – our average employee tenure is over 7.5 years – we recognized it was time to mature our process. With nearly half the company weighing in at some point, we dove deep into giving our hiring process an overhaul.

Like we might approach a project for a client, we took a step back, clarified our objectives, and collaborated to arrive at the specifics of what we needed to do on the hiring front. While it wasn’t necessary for us to develop a fancy tool or a magical test that puts Myers-Briggs to shame, we worked to formalize a process that candidates now follow, including a:

  • Personal capabilities presentation
  • Case study review
  • Hypothetical project approach
  • Conversation with a team of potential peers

As we started to use the new process, we found it to do just what we hoped for: enable our team and candidates alike to have a realistic mutual understanding of one another before taking the next step. With a small, high-performing team like ours, we know this deeper level of knowledge from both parties is essential to ultimate success.

As part of this effort, we also articulated the traits of the consultants who are successful at Fathom, to help guide our efforts to seek out future hires. We look for people who are:

Leaders
At Fathom, leadership means having at least 10 years of experience. It means consultants feel at home in a self-directed environment. It means team members thrive on solving problems creatively with actionable solutions that really work. And it means people leading the charge without ego getting in the way.

Hybrids
By definition, “hybrid” refers to combining two different elements in a mixture. Bringing a mix of experiences to the table enables consultants at Fathom to appreciate the variety of perspectives that often arise in client work. For example, team members have backgrounds that might include roles inside an organization and at an agency, or experience in marketing and information technology.

Curious, analytical, and continuous learners
Changing things for the better—for our team, our clients, or our community—requires consultants to have a desire for absorbing and producing new ideas. To foster meaningful and lasting change, all team members are encouraged to investigate new things, and share these passions and interests with the rest of the group.

Naturals at WOO (Winning Others Over)
Understanding how to connect with people is critical for team members. “Nerds with solid social skills” is something we consistently joke about, yet it’s really true. Consultants aren’t afraid to go deep and get geeky, and are able to communicate these passions effectively.

Once we identify the desired traits are a match, we consider fit with not only current clients and projects, but also with where we see market and client trends heading. Finding the next great addition to our team takes time and it shouldn’t be rushed. Our updated hiring process makes it a priority to set expectations (for ourselves and candidates) that determining mutual fit takes some time—and that’s OK.

For me, one of the joys of working with a team with this collection of traits is that we are always evolving and pushing upward – as individuals and as a team. We always encourage one another to evolve and improve. During my time at Fathom, I’ve been shaped and inspired by my respected colleagues. As consultants, people are the tools of our trade, and I know that finding talented humans that are the right match for our team is essential for success as I look toward the next 20 years.