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Keep fighting Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

If Paola Schifino had any doubts that the advertising agency she had co-founded would bounce back from a devastating fire, she didn’t reveal the fears to her employees.

“We got up and running very quickly due to our tenaciousness,” says Schifino, who is a principal at Schifino Lee. “We didn’t lose any of our data, and we didn’t lose any of our people, so it was all good in the end.”

It’s that philosophy of tackling challenges head on and moving through them as quickly as possible that has helped the 30-employee agency be successful through challenges. That includes the April 2007 fire that scorched one of two agency buildings and the ongoing economic recession.

“It’s keeping people going because they are stressed and fearful,” Schifino says.

Smart Business spoke with Schifino about how to assemble a strong team and work with that team through challenges.

Always be looking. We continuously interview whether we have a hiring need or not because it’s just great to stay connected. So whether there is a position open or not, if I see a good resume come across my desk, I will interview that person.

Last year, my partner and I hired someone and we really had no work for him. We just knew if we got him on board, within six months, we knew there would be an account for him. Don’t bypass great talent. Every single resume that comes across my desk is usually unsolicited.

It’s a result of research they have done in the Tampa Bay market. They all looked at our Web site. To have a high-quality Web site that sets the standard for who you are and the work that you produce and who your clients are, that’s extremely important.

Learn before you hire. The question I always ask is, ‘What role did you play in this particular project?’ They might have been part of a huge project or a very successful project. They might have been the one that made the copies. Sometimes it will come out that they actually played a very small role in a particular project or they were the one that spearheaded it. That’s a key question to ask.

It tells me a lot about the person and whether or not they are honest. I’d rather somebody be honest and know that they did little. I think there is more value in that.

Assess cultural fit. Just because someone has the right skill set, that doesn’t mean they are culturally the right fit. They have to fit in with the culture of the company. Interview them multiple times with multiple people. Get lots of references.

Just before we make the hire, we take (job candidates) to lunch. If you can relax and have a good time and behave professionally and socially at lunch, to me that’s a key component to being able to work with customers. We don’t hire the person at lunch. It’s more like, ‘This is the person we want to hire, the top candidate.’

That’s one of the skill sets that you have to have. You have to be able to communicate with clients whether you’re having a working lunch in the conference room or taking a client to lunch and working through lunch. You have to be able to do that.

It’s also just a good test of personality, instead of giving them the written personality test.

Stay busy; avoid fear. Communicate with employees optimistically but also realistically. We’re pretty open on where we stand. They have a clear understanding that new business opportunities are extremely important and have to have as much focus as current clients.

That equals harder work and more hours because we cannot lose the client base that we have today. Recently, we had a whole slew of people working over the weekend to get pitches out. While in the past, they might have taken several days off to make up for the time they worked over the weekend, that’s just not acceptable anymore.

Don’t command, empower. Our people have a tendency of including me on every single e-mail, and at one point, you realize it’s not necessary for me to be in on every e-mail and at every meeting. It’s a great sense of pride to be independent and successful. It kind of helps them grow their own skills and their own style.

You develop that by letting them handle clients from start to finish. Empowering employees is letting them know all their ideas and improvements are welcome. That’s one of the things we say when we make a hire.

We let them know, ‘If you see something that you do not like and that you think we can do better from an operational or a customer perspective, please let us know.’ If it’s a great idea that will benefit both the customer and the company, we let them run with it.

They become charged. They decide whether or not it’s really important. We’ll let them know, ‘If you want to make this change, you need to spearhead it. You need to put a committee together and you need to run it.’ I always ask, ‘What are the benefits? How does it benefit the customer and how does it benefit Schifino Lee? How much does it cost?’ That’s the proof on whether or not they believe it is a worthy change.

Share great news. We give a lot of praise when we win an account or when a great job went out the door. Some parts of the team might not even know what was just completed or they might not have worked on a pitch, so we share that with the entire company. It’s sharing successes and giving people praise and making them feel proud of working with each other. Take the time to do that.

‘Hey, this is what we’ve done in the last two months. What have you been working on?’ That way everybody kind of stays connected.

How to reach: Schifino Lee, (813) 258-5858 or www.schifinolee.com