Poised leadership

Deni Tato has always known she would do well as a leader. Not only was she bright growing up, but she had incredible self-confidence.

“I was one of 11 children,” says Tato, president and CEO of Contract Interiors, one of the largest commercial furniture dealerships in Cincinnati. “My mother did not know what to think of my confidence at times. She would ask me, ‘Who do you think you are?’ But the truth is that I always had a strong sense of who I was and what I wanted.”

Tato put her confidence and drive to good work when she began leading Contract Interiors. And her leadership has paid off: The company’s revenue in 2005 was $12.5 million, and Tato projects 2006 revenue of $15 million.

Smart Business spoke to Tato about how she accepts mistakes, finds the right employees and earns respect.

How do you recruit and retain great employees?
If you are running a healthy company, your employees are your best advocates. They will promote your company as a fantastic place to work.

When we find a candidate with the right skill set, that is just the first step. The next, and perhaps more important, is to ensure they fit into our company culture. You will not confuse Contract Interiors with another office furniture company. We have a distinct culture where motivated and self-directed employees flourish.

I sit with every new employee and tell them they can be here 30 days or 30 years — either one is fine — and I mean it. I believe in cutting my losses quickly if the fit is not a good one. Typically, 30 days is enough time to determine this.

How do you handle employees’ mistakes?
One of our greatest strengths is our healthy view toward mistakes. Most corporate environments train people to fear mistakes because they are punished. We literally celebrate mistakes because they are great growth and learning opportunities. In fact, we used to reward employees in staff meetings for the biggest screw-up by giving them $50.

Although we don’t do that any longer, we still have the same perspective toward mistakes. This is a safe environment where people can be human and authentic. Failure is viewed as a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

How do you earn the respect of employees?
I can only communicate effectively if I have credibility. That means delivering on every commitment. Employees want to follow a leader who is respectable.

To be respected, you must earn credibility by showing integrity and commitment at all times. There is no margin for error.

How do you maintain a strong customer base?
It’s not complicated. We practice the Golden Rule, which is the key to happier customers. We have also modified our approach over time from expecting employees to be jacks of all trades to a more specialized approach.

We are able to draw on the strengths and talents of our staff and customize a winning team to complete a particular project. It essentially comes down to putting the right people in place depending on the priorities of the project.

What is the most important business lesson you’ve learned?
When we expanded our operation to another city, I went into it with lots of confidence. After all, the city was close by, and we certainly knew how to sell furniture. Unfortunately … I ultimately had to close the operation. Through this experience, I realized how essential it is to have leadership in place who embraces the same value system and management philosophy.

They must have a common unchanging purpose that mirrors your own. If you choose to expand your business, pick your leaders carefully.

How to reach: Contract Interiors, (513) 641-3700 or www.contractint.com