Personal design Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2007

Sometimes Karen Daroff feels like her head is swiveling around on her shoulders because of information overload, but she prefers having too much information to being left in the dark.

“I’m the kind of person who would rather know what’s going on and be able to address a situation or address an individual need, rather than be blindsided,” says the president and principal in charge of design at Daroff Design Inc. + DDI Architects PC. “With this communication emerges options that I may not have thought of. Through these discussions, we are able to adapt and plan for the future.”

Daroff’s company grew 700 percent from 2001 to 2006, posting 2006 revenue of about $13 million.

Smart Business spoke with Daroff about how to delegate authority and how to identify quality employees.

Q: How do you grow a company?

When you are most busy is when you have to market the hardest. You can never stop marketing. Early in my career, I would stop marketing when we got busy. I would come inside, do the design, and then we would finish the design, and then we wouldn’t have the backlog of work.

You can always turn a project down, but you can’t necessarily have one sitting there right around the corner. So you can’t stop marketing.

Q: How do you identify good employees?

We will generally have an individual back for two or, sometimes, three interviews.

A first cursory review to see if they are somebody we are moderately interested in, then a more thorough review with other people, so we will have several different points of view in the evaluation process because we all look at individuals differently. We’ll also talk to them to see how they respond to the questions with body language and eye contact.

Sometimes, just when they walk through the front door, if they are grumpy rather than having a smile on their face to say, ‘Good morning. How are you?’ — that all makes an impression. We all want people here who basically are happy and comfortable with themselves, able to interact with others and be a team player.

If they can’t manage to come in the front door and have a smile on their face in an interview or be dressed professionally for the interview, then maybe they aren’t really what we are looking for.

Q: How do you retain employees?

We work very hard at nurturing our staff. We encourage people to take ownership. We want each person to feel valued. We want to have a personal connection with our team members.

I manage by walking around each day. I say hello to almost everybody every day. I stop and ask questions about what they are doing. I ask if they have a problem. I give them a compliment about a drawing I saw recently or a finished project or a nice compliment I received from a client. I try to be positive and supportive, and I am liberal with giving praise.

I take a moment each day to try to connect with them. I just look at their faces and sometimes I can see if somebody is holding their head. I ask what is troubling them and how their family is. They also know if they have any personal crisis, I am here for them.

It has benefited us to be flexible and try to accommodate individual needs. Certainly, it makes life more complicated. It’s not as easy from a management point of view because it’s nice to have everyone here all at the same time.

There is some inconvenience associated with it, but we felt the compromise was worth it because we are able to retain these uniquely talented individuals who have made a commitment to us over the years.

Q: How do you delegate authority?

When you give direction to somebody, you give them very clear direction. Then, they go away, do the job, come back and report each step of the way, and you confirm what they are doing.

In the beginning, we have them come back so you have the opportunity to review their work. After you’ve done that several times, you begin to develop a level of confidence in them. The most rewarding and exciting thing for me is when members of our team have gone beyond even what I would have expected.

Now, I’m at the point where many people here take responsibility, and I will do a final review. It has to do with surrounding yourself with capable people, training people to make sure they are doing the due diligence to do the right job.

You have to surround yourself with people who are skilled in their profession, who you trust and who you feel are really taking ownership.

HOW TO REACH: Daroff Design Inc. + DDI Architects PC, (215) 636-9900 or