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Bull’s-eye Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

Rocco Di Lillo leans forward in a booth at a bustling east-side eatery, regaling his lunch party with the story of the Spartans’ stand at the Greek pass of Thermopylae. The narrative wasn’t prompted intentionally. The seasoned businessman was originally asked a question about company culture. But Di Lillo — who has successfully founded or led seven companies in the past 30 years, several of which exceeded $100 million in revenue — says that while you may forget exact words, you’ll always remember a good story.

“There’s only one way to get into Greece if you’re an army, and that’s through this pass called the Thermopylae,” he says while drawing an invisible pass on the white table cloth with his finger. “The Greeks knew that, and they kept stationed there a troop of 300 Spartans — their best soldiers.

“They wake up one morning, and there are 10,000 Persians at the gate of Thermopylae. When the Greeks saw them there, they did two things. One, they sent a guy back for reinforcements. The second is, they made a pact that they would hold the pass until the reinforcements came.

“At the end of four days, all 300 Spartans died, but in the process, 3,000 Persians were killed,” he says, tapping the table with his hand for emphasis.

“The king of Persia stands in the pass, now able to get into Greece, and an adviser tells him, ‘There are 8,000 Spartans in the country of Greece,’ so the king turns, and he leaves.”

Di Lillo pauses and leans back with a satisfied smile and wide, bespectacled gaze. He’s been telling this story to employees for nearly 30 years, and he’s learned not to divulge its correlating moral without letting the details sink in first.

“My definition of a great company culture is when everyone is looking for ways to serve the customer better using their creativity, competency and skills, and accepting ownership for the success of the endeavor,” he continues. “When you do that, then 300 can beat 500, 1,000 or 10,000.”

Since he founded his first company, City Visitor Inc., in 1980, Di Lillo has sought out the best employees — Spartans, as he often calls them — to take on the corporate armies in whichever industry he finds himself. Before taking the company public and selling it, he led his team to impressive market share in the travel industry at Corporate Lodgings Inc., which provides fully furnished apartments and town houses for traveling or relocated executives. Years later, he helped turn PCX Holdings LLC into the largest manufacturer of electrical mechanical gear for the new construction industry as chairman. Most recently, he’s made a claim in the alternative energy industry with Advanced Hydro Solutions LLC, a developer of hydro-electric facilities.

As varied as these endeavors are, Di Lillo says the one constant has always been his people.

“There’s nothing more magical than a team where people are having fun, making a contribution, making a difference and succeeding at being the best,” he says. “And yet, there are some people who own businesses who don’t recognize the magic of that.”

Di Lillo says too many leaders skimp on the hiring process. If you want team members who will take a stand and give their all for a common goal, then you’ve got to give your all to find them.

Target character

In 1980, not long after graduating college, Di Lillo sat at a desk to write his first employment advertisement. City Visitor Inc., a publisher of in-room visitor’s guides and specialty travel publications, had really taken off, and the founder needed someone to deliver the magazine to 145 hotels throughout Northeast Ohio.

For inspiration, he started flipping through the employment section of a local newspaper. What he found were monotonous blurbs detailing requirements and responsibilities.

“None of them seemed to appeal to anything to me,” he says. “They were just boring and not exciting.”

Instead of mirroring those ads, Di Lillo reflected upon those characteristics he wanted in the future employee.

“I said, ‘What do I want in the delivery person for this company?’” he says. “I started to write down ‘friendly, dependable, courteous and knowledgeable of the area.’ I made a big circle around them, and I put ‘postman.’ At that time in my life, the postman was dependable, always friendly and courteous.

“I ran an ad that said, ‘Looking for a part-time delivery person,’ and I described the characteristics. Then I put, ‘Ideal opportunity for retired postman.’ I think I had 26 responses, and I had a postman do this for the first 10 years.”

When writing an employment ad, Di Lillo says to clarify what you want in a candidate. Don’t just list the job’s requirements and responsibilities. If you want a certain personality to fill the role, then ask for it.

“I would be less afraid to talk about the soft issues,” he says. “We say, ‘We’re looking for people who want to be part of a winning team and will join us in the effort with hard work and camaraderie to excel in what we do.’ Would those be things that you would like to have? If that’s what you want, why wouldn’t you ask for that?”

In other words, focus on the characteristics of the person whom you want to fill the job and not the characteristics of the job itself.

“In the hiring process, most companies just start listing what the job is about,” he says. “If you find something that says ‘editor’ or ‘salesperson,’ you don’t have to say too much more about that. Applicants already know what that means.”

Skill sets should never be the sole criterion for a potential candidate’s eligibility. Di Lillo says you can always increase an employee’s expertise through training. Behavior, on the other hand, is a completely different story.

“It’s really three components to what people can bring to the table,” he says. “They have their character, they have their experience, and they have their behaviors. I can do something about the experience. I can teach a salesperson or a secretary to answer a phone, but I can’t really impact your character, and it’s hard to change your behaviors.”

When you write ads that emphasize character, not only are you targeting candidates who have the desired attributes, but you are also screening for people who value those all-important “soft issues.”

“You don’t have to be a fisherman to know if you want wall-eye, if you want pike or if you want trout, you have to use different bait,” Di Lillo says. “They all bite and nibble on the things that are important to them. I decided I wanted people with character, with strong beliefs, good work ethics, and had good values and belief systems. I wrote that and spoke about those issues.

“Now, if I wrote an ad like everybody else did in the paper, that means I could get whatever was out there. But I wanted to find a way to have a selection process. I wrote ads that appealed to the characteristics that were important to build a great organization, and it worked.”

Di Lillo says that writing a great employment ad does take some time. It’s not a matter of churning out whatever pops into your head. But if you reflect upon the attributes that will best serve your company and culture, the hour you devote on the front end will be offset by the years of a great team member’s service in the long run.

“I guess people try to do it, but I don’t know if they take enough time,” he says. “They just think you put any ad in the paper and magically the right people will show up. They forget what’s important, and they focus on what’s busy. Take time to understand, analyze and invest in that process.”

Hire by committee

A flustered waitress is buzzing from table to table as the lunch-hour crowd bulges to peak capacity. When she approaches the corner booth and hands Di Lillo his entree, he asks her to “please pass the salt and pepper” with an air of sincerity that throws her slightly off guard. She smiles, nods politely and passes him the shakers from the far opposite end of the sizeable table. “Thank you so much,” he offers with a pleasant stare of acknowledgement. She smiles again, replies with a “You’re welcome,” and turns back into the fray.

In the hiring process, Di Lillo says a simple “Thank you” can make all the difference. He places so much emphasis on the pleasantry that he’ll actually turn down candidates who don’t offer it after their first one-on-one interview.

“If someone interviews with me, I say, ‘I’m not going to ask you for a decision,’” Di Lillo says. “‘I want you to take this application home. If you have an interest in taking the next step, you need to send this back. If you don’t, it was really nice meeting you.’ If they send it back without a thank-you note, they never hear from me. That was one of the tests. Either they weren’t aware of a simple courtesy or they were lazy, and I didn’t want either one of those two people on the team.”

For those that do respond favorably, the next phase of Di Lillo’s hiring process is a group interview.

“I’ve always wondered how (arranged marriages) actually worked,” Di Lillo says. “They’d say, ‘Here’s a person you don’t know, and now, you’re going to be married.’ That seems like a tough deal. But, in a way, when we’re hiring people, oftentimes, that’s what we do inside a company. A lot of people will hire somebody and say, ‘Here’s a new team member. You’re going to work with that person.’ If the work environment is important, it seems to make good sense to let your people participate in the hiring process.”

Di Lillo says a group interview is one of the best ways for potential candidates to vet your company’s culture. It also gives your current employees a sense of ownership and responsibility and leads to valuable feedback and insight that you might overlook in the initial interview.

“When they come back, they typically will interview with a team of five to six people,” he says. “The team members all get really involved in that. They have such great intuition about what the character of the person is. It also gives the interviewee an opportunity to ask somebody outside of the leader, who is going to be somewhat biased or too optimistic, [about something] that the team members have a better opportunity to clarify.”

When choosing who will participate in the interview, Di Lillo says to choose the team members who would be working alongside the candidate if he or she was hired. That’s typically as easy as picking within departmental lines. In the process, leave yourself out of the proceedings. Your absence will lead to a more revealing discussion.

“Don’t participate in that interview portion of the hiring process,” he says. “They’re with the individual team members and get to ask, ‘What’s it really like here? This guy over here told me that everybody works well together, there’s a culture of excellence, blah, blah, blah. What do you say?’”

Di Lillo says if any of your team members say no to that candidate progressing in the hiring process, then you’ve got to respect that feedback. If you truly want buy-in and the best employees, the whole team has to sign off on that individual before they advance any further. This may slow things down at times, but he says it’s necessary when hiring. If you really want team members who will give their all while working toward a common goal, then you can’t just accept everyone who turns in an application.

“If you get good quality [people] in, you have a better chance to succeed,” Di Lillo says. “No good leader ever wants to fire people or let them go. If you do a good job of screening, qualifying and identifying, then you won’t do as much of the firing. That’s a person who could be with you for 25 years. Choose wisely."

HOW TO REACH: City Visitor Inc., (216) 661-6666 or www.cityvisitor.com; PCX Holdings LLC, www.pcxcorp.com; Advanced Hydro Solutions LLC, (330) 869-8451 or www.advancedhydrosolutions.com