The Assistant’s Manual: Building a Family with Alissa Zimmerman
“When everything goes to hell, the people who stand by you without flinching—they are your family.” –Jim Butcher
Over the years with Team Cincotta, I have learned a lot of very important lessons—about business, life, working hard, and never forgetting to reflect on where you came from. I think the most important lesson I have learned on this journey is that when you set out to conquer the world, you can’t do it alone. You need a team.
But it’s so much more than just a team you need—you need your people. Your people are the ones who are there with you to celebrate the triumphs but, more importantly, never leave your side through the seemingly impossible times when the weight of the world is caving in on you. Your people will go to hell and back with you. These people are your family. And what better way to spend the rest of your foreseeable future than to wake up every morning and go to “work” with the people you love and trust the most? (I put work in quotations because, let’s be honest, can we really call this life we live actual work?)
Finding the right people is, without a doubt, the number-one challenge we have faced (and continue to face) as a company growing at such a rapid pace. We have tried it all when it comes to the interviewing process—what to ask, what red flags to look for, etc. When we first started hiring for our design team, we sought perfection, people who could hack it for the long haul. We were very particular about the type of person we were looking for. In fact, we were too particular—we were in the pursuit of perfection right out of the gate.
It took us almost eight months to finally hire a junior graphic designer at one point, and that only happened because Sal got tired of wasting time. We were in a team meeting, and about two minutes before the candidate walked in for the interview, Sal turned to me and said, “I don’t care anymore. Does she have a decent portfolio? No, never mind, it doesn’t matter. If she has a pulse, hire her.” And with that, we finally had a second designer on staff—but she never quite made the turn.
Making the turn. What does that mean? What kind of employee was I during my first year? I was a worker bee. I took direction and did my job, but never really went outside of what was asked of me. I took initiative, sure, but was never able to see the bigger picture—to step outside of the bare minimum and start proactively proving myself and taking on tasks without having to be asked. It’s a strange phenomenon around here with this team—you either get it or you don’t. We like to refer to it as “taking the red pill,” to borrow the famous phrase from The Matrix. Once you take it, there’s no going back—you’re fully aware, you’ve seen the light and it’s as if the world really is just a simple math problem.
Now, how do we get our people to finally make the turn from being an employee to become part of this insane family we have built? Like I said, the actual formula and science behind it is still a phenomenon to us. I believe the following key factors are what got the switch to flip for me.
Build a family structure with your team.
We all have fairly specific roles on our team: Sal, CEO, is the quarterback, and we, the employees/partners, are his teammates, providing support and/or defense for him as he runs toward the flag.
That’s huge for us: setting a flag and everyone marching to the same beat in reaching that flag. Sal’s flag last fall was to get Shutter on the shelves of Barnes & Noble. The team sat down and listed the steps we’d have to take. We had to first get the magazine to print, then market the crap out of it, then continue pushing to build our subscriber base—all of which had to be done before we could reach out to Barnes & Noble.
Your team leader, the head of the family, if you will, is the member of the team who designs your strategies and plays, a plan of attack to reach your flag. From there, tasks are delegated and executed until your unit has reached the end goal. For some, that means the end of one mission and time for relaxation. Those who are as insane as we are know there is a very short window for celebration before the next 10 flags have been recognized.
Learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
As an owner and/or CEO, you will find the most success from your team if you manage to the strengths of each employee. To help him find the strengths in each team member, Sal uses the Clifton StrengthsFinder personality test, which measures for 34 unique “talent themes.” Clifton defines these themes as “people’s naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” Sal, our quarterback, has these top five themes: focus, achiever, command, strategic and communication. All of which play a large part in his leadership role within the family, as he is able to take control and make sure we all stay on the path to the flag. His bottom talent theme? Adaptability. Coincidentally, that theme is found in the top five of the remaining members of the family. We are able to quickly adapt when things go sideways to ensure we continue moving forward in execution of the family’s plan.
Another point to the strengths and weaknesses of your team: Make sure to pinpoint each other’s strengths. Build on them together; work together and encourage one another to be the best versions of yourselves. A team is only as strong as its weakest link. And when it comes to family, no one is ever left behind.
Build your family on honesty and respect.
What’s worse than constantly being told no? For our team, it’s having those around you always agree with you, no matter how bad your idea is. This is where Sal’s second-generation Sicilian-by-way-of-Brooklyn personality really shines for our team dynamic. Outside of Sal and Laurin, the core team consists of a bunch of hormonal, emotionally driven females. Without brutal, raw, mostly pretty painful honesty, we would never be able to get out of our own way.
But how can you expect to grow as a person and together as a business without knowing right from wrong or a good idea from a bad one? It’s simple: You can’t. And you never will. During my first few weeks on the job, Sal told me something I’ll never forget: “Suck it up, Zimmerman. Time to put on your big-kid pants—this is business. Nothing I say to you regarding the business will ever be personal.”
With that honesty, however, comes the most crucial part of this whole family equation: respect. Respect for your boss, respect for your peers, your employees, your partners and coworkers. Most of all, respect for yourself. If you can’t look yourself in the mirror and have respect for the person you are and the decisions you make that impact the success of the family, you’ll never succeed. The same goes for the other side of things: If you can’t look one of your teammates in the eye with respect, you’ll never really be on the same team—so you’ll never even be on the same playing field.
My team, my family—we’re a fast-paced, well-oiled, borderline-insane machine. We each make up our own strategic part of that machine, and when one part stops functioning, the entire mission comes to a grinding halt.
As a family, you never give up on each other. And as long as you have a group of people that much in sync with one another, you’ll forever be an unstoppable force.