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Creative genius Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Pam Gaffen works hard and plays hard, and she wants her employees to do the same.

“I am constantly searching for innovative ways to reward and motivate our employees,” says Gaffen, co-founder and co-owner of Gafcon Inc., a diversified construction consulting company. “My instinct is to nurture my staff. I believe employees who work and play hard and are consistently rewarded for their efforts are the most loyal.”

As part of those incentives, Gaffen provides lunch each day for employees and offers flu vaccines each year in the office.

“As a result, we have very few people out of work during flu season,” she says. “This is a real win-win. When an employee misses several days of work, it costs the company a significant amount of money in lost productivity. It makes sense to pay a doctor to administer shots rather than to take this risk.”

Gaffen founded Gafcon with her husband, Yehudi, in 1987, and today, the company has 100 employees. Gaffen’s husband runs the business development side of the company, while she handles operations.

Smart Business spoke with Gaffen about how she motivates her staff and manages growth.

Q: What key skills does a leader need?

The ability to hire and retain outstanding employees is essential. We don’t build machinery or sell a physical product. That’s not where our assets are; our business is all about people. Our assets go up in the elevator in the morning and go down at night.

To find the best employees, I start by reviewing their resumes. I tend to focus first on longevity. Our company is not meant to be a revolving door for employees. We are looking for employees to invest in our future and be part of the growth and reward of our organization.

During the interview process, I depend on my managers to assess technical abilities. I observe the applicant’s interactions during the process and rely on my intuition when making a hiring decision.

After bringing the best employees on board, great leaders keep them inspired and move them forward careerwise. I believe in allowing employees to expand their horizons. Sometimes a great employee will become intrigued with a different role in the company but lacks the education to be considered.

I will help him or her get the training and education needed. It can be the best investment you ever make. Not only does this employee now bring a broader base of skills and knowledge to the organization, they also feel a heightened sense of loyalty.

Q: What has been your greatest challenge, and how did you overcome it?

Growth can be a real challenge. We have had years involving 30 to 40 percent growth, and it’s been tough to keep up. Growth needs to be well-managed. Otherwise, it can get out of control quickly.

Some years will be flat, and that can be a blessing. You need time to catch your breath in order to do thoughtful planning for the future. Continuous huge jumps are not always healthy.

Another challenge was staying ahead of the technology curve. With changes occurring at such a rapid pace, we decided to make a significant investment in current and future technologies, giving our employees an opportunity to truly innovate.

One important area we addressed was the Web-based document management and collaborative portal environment. Today, we are starting to see a positive return on those decisions by empowering our people with better tools to do good work, while at the same time increasing value to our clients by providing anywhere/anytime access to information.

Q: How do your inspire creativity in your staff?

Creativity flows in properly managed brainstorming sessions. I constantly invite my employees’ opinions and regularly act upon them.

During these brainstorming sessions, I throw out ideas that may seem off the wall or unrealistic. This opens the door for out-of-thebox thinking from the group.

You can’t have real creativity without a comfortable and spontaneous flow of ideas — including what may seem like silly ones. My job is to take all these ideas and filter out the jewels.

Q: How do you multitask?

I wear many operational hats, including legal, financial, IT, HR and marketing. I must rely on good talent, but I also need to be extraordinarily efficient. This includes careful delegation, organization and maximizing use of technology that helps me get the most out of every workday.

One other practice that has worked well for me is to work hard while at work but refrain from bringing work home. Especially in light of the fact that my husband and I are co-owners, it is important to have boundaries.

I want my personal space at home to reflect an aspect of me other than the professional. If I have work papers strewn everywhere or constant conversations about work while at home, I cannot achieve balance.

HOW TO REACH: Gafcon Inc., www.gafcon.com or (619) 231-6100