Talent agents Featured

8:00pm EDT July 26, 2009

Mary Stengel Austen didn’t get much sleep last night.

It doesn’t matter what day you’re reading this, she almost certainly got fewer than four hours.

“That’s the truth — I don’t get a lot of sleep,” she says with a dismissive laugh that makes it seem as though the whole world dealt with sleep deprivation so well.

Sleep is far from Austen’s top priority. Besides having five kids, she is also the co-founder, president and CEO of Tierney, a full-service marketing communications firm. The company has 145 people, and Austen wants to have a connection to all of them. She believes every person is a chance for Tierney to take on a new opportunity, so she spends her hours helping with everything from interviews to getting people to laugh off a crisis.

Smart Business spoke with her about why it’s important to take a close look at any potential hire and how important it is for you to find some mentoring of your own.

Take a look at your hiring process. You should surround yourself with people who play better tennis than you do — that’s not a great analogy for me because I don’t play tennis — but the idea is that you want to surround yourself with people that make each other better and that push each other in a collaborative way. That means they really provide a different skill set than you have, and that helps to foster more creative and innovative thinking.

I see all (senior and midlevel) people before they get hired. People can look very different on paper than they are in person, and that cultural piece is critical. Each new person creates new opportunities to change your business, and it can be positive or negative, so I feel really strongly that I need to see the senior and midlevel people and, frankly, sometimes junior people before they’re hired. I’m really pushing as we hire new people that we hire a diverse group of people. And diverse meaning not only the color of people’s skin, but their headset, meaning we have art majors, we have business majors, we have philosophy majors … and that’s by design, not by default. That ultimately provides you with more depth because you want people who think differently and come at problems differently. You want people who are really big out-of-the-box thinkers, and you also want people who are more engineer-minded in terms of, ‘OK, that’s a great, big idea, now how do we tether that to the ground and how do we pay for it [and] will it work?’

Start grooming new talent. When we have interns come in, we have them compete against a challenge. For instance, I sit on the board of Bryn Mawr Rehab Hospital and they have a program trying to (stop teens from drinking and driving), and one of the challenges was how do we continue to make that program relevant to today’s teenagers. That’s an opportunity where my senior managers, the client and I come together and listen to intern presentations. … What I’m struck by every year is really smart people that have great ideas, that may have a different point of view than I do. They have this whole layer of social marketing that I didn’t grow up in and how they communicate their strategies might be different. So that’s an avenue for them to have exposure to us.

The intern piece is also an opportunity for us to mine for talent, which is one of our challenges. That’s a really good thing for both of us. They get a test drive, and we get a test drive. Do they culturally fit into the organization? Do they have the chops to do what they need to do in the business? And vice versa — do they like what they see?

Help people keep perspective. You really have to keep a balance and recognize that sometimes there are certain things you can’t control, and you have to keep a sense of humor about it. I am not a brain surgeon. You have to really keep it in context and make sure that, yes, you work really hard, but you have to keep things in perspective and say, ‘You know what, we’ll move on.’

Much of my career has been issues management and crisis communications work, and I’ve learned that if you push people to step back from the actual incident or issue at hand, it tends to slow things down and people start to take a deep breath and say, ‘You know what, this is manageable; let’s take it piece by piece.’

Just chunk it out, so to speak. It’s not as overwhelming when you step back from something and, quite frankly, sometimes when you’re involved specifically in it from a client perspective, it’s harder to step back. So provide, as a third party, that ability to say, ‘Let’s step back and look at the big picture. What is the issue, what’s the strategy, and how do we go about working at it?’ That helps people stay focused on the big picture. So, yes, you have to think about your short-term goals, but you also have to think about what’s the ultimate goal, and that allows people to step back and think, ‘OK, how do I tackle this then?’

Find multiple mentors. I was very fortunate a few years ago to spend time at this event with Jack Welch with a total of about 100 CEOs. … He was really interesting because I had an opportunity to have a drink with him and he was pushing me about who my mentors are, and I told him (former executive at The Interpublic Group of Cos. Inc.) David Bell, and he said, ‘Well, who else?’ And I said, ‘I don’t really want to impose a lot on other busy people’s time.’ He looked at me and blurted out, ‘What is the matter with you?’ And I said, ‘Excuse me.’ And he said, ‘People kind of expect that you’re going to ask. They’re most of the time flattered, and if they’re not flattered, then something’s wrong with them.’ … That really did push me to kind of look to other organizations and other people and provide me with a different dimension.

How to reach: Tierney, (215) 790-4100 or www.hellotierney.com