My friend, Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about
entrepreneurship. Her credits include Fortune, Money, Inc.,
Forbes and numerous other outlets. She is truly an amazing writer and editor and has a long career with Business publications. She interviewd Don Zinn, Managing Partner, Exigent Search Partners, Inc. and me for an article in EXECUTIVE TRAVEL magazine.
I hope you find it interesting.
The Entrepreneur: Donald J. Zinn, Managing Partner, Exigent Search Partners
Inc., Tarrytown, N.Y.
Our company is an executive search firm. My partners and I opened right after
Thanksgiving in 2010. Yes, it was a crazy time to start a search firm, but we
decided that the struggling economy would not stop us from reaching for our
Since then, we’ve done searches for iconic brands such as Hershey, the global
professional services company Navigant Consulting and a technology start-up in
San Diego. We’ve also helped local clients. I recently did a VP of finance
search for Clancy Moving Systems in Patterson, N.Y, and have helped Digiscribe,
a local technology company, build their sales team. Typically, the searches are
for the director and vice president level and up, with salaries of $150,000 or
more. This year, we expect to double our revenue, and the company is
We’ve grown to a seven-person firm, and everyone is spread out, from Chicago
to Boca Raton, Fla. We have a corporate headquarters in Westchester County,
N.Y., but everyone really works virtually, because we’re often traveling. Our
team works with clients and candidates at their location—and they are based all
over the country. We believe it is important to interview every candidate
face-to-face before we send them to a client and have traveled around the
country for searches.
To bring our team together, we have a group conference call, at minimum of
every two weeks. Usually, it’s been 45 minutes to an hour, at 5 p.m. on Mondays.
In the past, it was clear that people were not always 100 percent focused on the
calls. They were multitasking and checking emails.
Our communication as a group was also strained. With two people on the phone,
you will rarely step on each other’s sentences. I can hear your breathing. I can
hear that you’re ready to pause. When you put six or seven people on the phone,
three people can jump in at the same time. In today’s world of Voice over IP,
you can talk for 30 seconds before you realize there are two other people
talking. People were talking over each other.
I knew Andrea Nierenberg, an executive coach, from attending a lecture she
gave on networking years ago. I asked her to coach us on improving our
communication about a year and a half ago. Andrea worked with us on skills like
listening and understanding the difference between communicating virtually and
face-to-face. She suggested that we substitute Skype calls for phone calls.
Conversation is only a small part of communication. Facial expression and body
language are part of it, too. We’ve switched to Skype for a lot of our internal
communications in the last four to five months.
Better communication is hard to measure, but I’ve definitely found that we
focus better and listen better on Skype calls. On Skype, one person has to
initiate the call and conference everyone in. Then you get a screen that has
everyone’s picture on it. The system is sensitive to who’s speaking. It
highlights the speaker and elevates that person to the top of the page. Seeing
each other has helped our communication. People are communicating in a more
natural way. The calls are a little bit quicker and nowhere near as tedious.
They’re more interesting and more fun.
When I went on a trip to Florida last week, I didn’t bring my laptop. I
brought my iPad instead, so I could use Skype and email. There is almost no
reason to carry a laptop anymore. The iPad had everything I needed to stay in
touch with my clients and my team.
The Expert: Andrea Nierenberg, Principal, The Nierenberg Consulting Group,
New York City
When Don asked me to help Exigent Search Partners communicate more
effectively as a team, we decided that I’d join the company’s conference calls,
so I could observe what was happening. I could see right away that people were
hearing, yet there was room to improve the way they were listening to each
other. They each had their own agendas and wanted to talk. Some had worked
together for a long time. Their patterns of communication had been formed, and
we needed to do some work to change them. And some participants were obviously
multitasking and distracted on the team calls.
I suggested switching from phone calls to Skype calls, so everyone would
focus. On Skype, everyone else can see when you’re checking your email while
they’re talking, so it happens less. You also have to look polished and dress
professionally—something that virtual employees don’t always have to do. It’s
surprising how much this raises the level of professionalism.
To make sure everyone was engaged in the calls, we set up a system where we
rotated the responsibility for managing the call and setting an agenda among the
participants. If certain people were not involved in a project we were going to
discuss at 5 p.m., they could join at 5:30. And if the call was turning into
more of a one-on-one, we scheduled a separate work session for those involved
and moved on. Those changes helped to shorten the meetings from an hour to 45
minutes and made the calls more productive.
Improving how the team communicated wasn’t just about using a different
technology. Initially, I had everyone in the group do a listening exercise,
based on the DiSC assessment (a personality test that many employers use) to
determine what their natural communication style was. Sometimes when people
don’t have the same style, they don’t feel they can get along well. Someone who
is more analytic and methodical might annoy another person who is a big-picture,
bottom-line thinker by reciting a long list of facts and figures, for instance.
Once I determined what each person’s style was, I coached them on how to flex
their styles so they could communicate better with others who had a different
style. The analytical type might prepare for the call by selecting just a few
key figures to mention, to hold everyone’s attention.
I also taught them how to recognize signs that listening could be improved,
as can happen with any team. I suggested they ask themselves questions like: Who
is someone you listen to well? And who is someone you don’t listen to well? How
do you behave when you are listening well—and what do you do when you are not?
Often, there are patterns. For instance, some people get angry and interrupt
when they are not listening well. Now that everyone has learned to recognize the
signs that this is happening, we’ll joke about it and nip it in the bud. Someone
will say, “We’re not really listening. Let’s get back on track.” And we do.
Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance writer who specializes in writing about
entrepreneurship. Her credits include Fortune, Money, Inc.,
Forbes and numerous other outlets.