Four and a half years ago I hired the best assistant I have ever had at Art Biz Success. She has been loyal, prompt, 200% dependable, and absolutely indispensable.
She was 21 years old at the time—about to turn 22—and had just graduated early from college.
I hit the jackpot.
In this episode of the Art Biz Podcast, I tell you exactly how I hired the perfect person for my business at the time. I also going to give you the steps I put in place to make sure that we maintained a good relationship and that, above all, she enjoyed her position.
I’ll touch on the hiring process, setting up an assistant for success, working together, and keeping her happy.
I’ll also share my mistakes. I’m sure there are more that I’m unaware of, but I can tell you about those I know.
I’ll be getting a little vulnerable and a lot sentimental. I’m sharing the story because I don’t know of a single artist who wouldn’t like a little more help with their business. Perhaps you’ll benefit from my experience.
I’ll start at the beginning, when I first began looking for a new assistant in early 2016.
Music by Wildermiss
Writing the Job Description
[ Hiring tips ]
My primary criterion was that I needed to be able to trust someone to do the tasks without my having to micromanage. I needed (and still need) someone who pays close attention to detail.
I created a proper job description and ad. In it, I wrote these two sentences:
This is an administrative position. No art background is necessary, although we welcome creative thinkers and art appreciators.
I was trying to get across that I wasn’t looking for artists in this role. I asked applicants to submit the following via email:
- Their resume in MS Word format
- Their requested salary requirements
- Two paragraphs about why they would be a good fit
- Names and info for three references
- A short video that told me a little about them: what they love and how it may help them in this role
I also gave them a precise subject line to use with their submission.
I was very specific because I planned on considering only people who submitted their application exactly as I wanted it. Again, I was looking for someone who paid attention to details.
Wading Through Applications
For the first time, I posted an ad to online hiring sites because I was being coached by a human resources expert who was a member of a mastermind group I belonged to back then.
These sites were a huge waste of time for me.
It's a trip to deal with some of the applicants on help wanted sites. Many seem to submit to anything and everything. Hey, I understand that you might be a little anxious about finding a job, but you'll never land a good position if you don't follow simple directions.
I somehow attracted an applicant who copied and pasted one of her previous applications and told me how much she had been wanting to learn about careers in the mortuary field. Hmmm. Mortuary business. Art Biz Success. No, not many similarities. No I am not the right person to teach you about the mortuary business. No, I won't consider you for a job that requires incredible detail. Good luck.
The request for a video with the application turned out to be one of the best things I did. It was important to me that even if they had never made and emailed a video in their lives, they would figure it out for a job they really wanted. That was the type of person I wanted on my team!
Watching the videos is where it got pretty entertaining.
Some applicants gave me a show of their art on video. They sat in chairs and pulled out one canvas or drawing after another. Another wrote (I’m not kidding), “I don’t know how to make a video, but here are 25 photos.” To myself (picture gaping mouth): No, I'm not hiring you for your art. No, I didn’t ask you for a video because I wanted to see 25 different images. B-bye.
A few of the videos were perfectly acceptable.
Selecting The One
I narrowed down the applications first to those who submitted exactly as I requested, including one person whose video, blessedly, stood out among the rest. She wove together photos, video footage, and her voice—resulting in an engaging video that was actually fun to watch. I could tell that special care was put into its making.
Then I selected people to interview on a Zoom video call. Quickly I narrowed it down to 2 or 3 people to interview in person.
I ask finalists to take, at my expense, the Kolbe A Index test, which measures natural strengths. I'm looking for someone who has a high number in follow-through. That was Mesa.
I offered her the job of my new administrative assistant. That title would change within 6 or 7 months, but that’s how we started out in early 2016.
By the way, Mesa hadn’t seen my ads. She came by word of mouth. It turns out that she was working as a barista at the café next door. Right. Under. My. Cappuccino-loving. Nose.
The biggest mistakes I have made with contractors and assistants is that we didn't communicate our mutual expectations to make sure we were on the same page.
That’s totally on me. It was my responsibility, as the employer, not only to communicate my expectations, but to also ask my assistants about their expectations—and to be open to their feedback.
Now, with new hires, I lay out milestones for proficiency, which provides a marker to look at when it comes time for a performance review.
By this date, I expect you to be able to do [this or that].
Nobody can do their job well until it is clearly defined.
Before Mesa’s first day, I sketched out a series of regular performance reviews. I was determined to follow this wise advice: Hire slow and fire fast. In other words, take your time getting it right, but figure out early on if you got it wrong.
With performance reviews in place, I had an out should she not be the right fit.
After a couple of those reviews, I joked that I was a broken record. Here's what I repeated:
You're doing fantastic. Don't ever leave me.
That about sums up what I had to say to her.
And I rewarded her with frequent perks and regular raises. My mantra was simple: Keep Mesa happy. I’ll tell you how I tried to do that in a minute.
Most people hang onto the wrong employees or assistants because they dread searching for replacements. I know that was true for me. We know that not only is the search time-consuming, but that it will also take a lot of effort to teach that person how to do the job.
I have learned that it’s better to have no help at all than to invest in the wrong person for the job. Or to not do my part to make sure my team member receives proper training.
Don’t hire because you’re lonely or because someone else said that you should. Hire because you have specific tasks that someone else is actually better qualified to do than you—so that you can focus on the work in the studio and making important connections for your art business.
Temporary employees or interns often aren’t worth the trouble because of all the time you need to invest in training them. And then they’re gone. You have to start over again.
When you bring someone new onto your team, you must dedicate time and energy up front to training them. You have to help them succeed in their new position. This means blocking off time on your calendar to spend with a new assistant. It’s also possible that there are in-person or virtual trainings that could remove some of the weight from your shoulders.
When Mesa started, I sent her to Phoenix for a multi-day training for our customer management software. For too long I had been the software expert and I was ready to pass that baton to someone else. This was one of the wisest business investments I made.
It’s vital to communicate with team members openly and professionally.
Mesa and I shared an office for about 2 days a week before she moved away last year, so we talked regularly. I was so accustomed to having someone working next to me that I worried what a long distance relationship between us it might be like. (She said she wouldn’t move if I didn’t want her to, but it was I who had encouraged her to enjoy her youth. To be adventurous.)
At that point, we started our twice-weekly Zoom sessions, which we call board meetings.
Those meetings were repeated appointments on my calendar. We may have had to adjust the time on certain days, but they always happened. We used these meetings to review the status of every program and project on our plates—from online classes and students to private clients, newsletters, and new initiatives.
As an aside, we use the Notion app to organize everything. The board meeting agenda has a separate page for the status of each program and project.
Mesa was in charge of organizing the board meeting agenda, but I had access to add things. I did my best to review the agendas in advance in order to cut down the length of the meeting. Nobody likes meetings that are longer than necessary.
The meetings aren’t for me to tell Mesa what to do. I want anyone I work with to be invested in Art Biz Success. I want them to believe in what we are doing and that helping artists is rewarding.
To be invested in your position, you need to be part of the decision-making. I, as CEO, might know exactly what I want to happen, but most of the time it isn't critical how it happens. I'm more than okay with team members deciding how we'll get from point A to point B. I make a point to seek their opinions and listen to their ideas.
When edicts are handed from higher-ups, there is more resistance to the task. When team members are brought into the process, they are empowered in their positions. They become better employees.
When you hire correctly, provide proper training, give ownership, and communicate openly, you are more likely to trust that the job, whatever it is, will be done to your liking.
It should be noted that a good employee is not going to do the task exactly how you would have done them. As I said, the how is rarely critical. You have to be open to the fact that there is more than one way to finish the job, and that your way isn't the only way. All of these lessons in trust have taken me 3 decades to understand.
Trust starts with my clarity about the position and, again, my willingness to invest in training and providing the proper tools so that a team member can succeed. If she doesn’t succeed, I don’t succeed.
I've found that the more I trust someone, the more likely they are to come up with a better solution than what I had in mind. I love it when that happens! And I like to reward initiative.
Acknowledging and Rewarding
Mesa earned numerous raises during her tenure with me. By the fall of her first year, she had a new title to go along with that raise: Operations Manager. She had proven that she deserved that title. That she would do a better job than I at making sure every aspect of Art Biz Success ran smoothly.
As a very small business, I can’t afford big benefits packages, so I made it a point to let Mesa know how important she was to me and to reward her whenever I could. I’m pretty sure that travel was a big perk of the job for her. In addition to her training time in Phoenix, she accompanied me to Asheville (twice), Santa Fe (twice), Scottsdale, Seattle, Reston, Virginia, and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
We toured Biltmore (twice — once for the Christmas trees). We saw Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound outside of Phoenix, experienced Amish country, and hung out at Seattle’s Pikes Place Fish Market.
When we traveled together, people often assumed we were mother and daughter, which was fine with me. If I had only been so lucky.
When Mesa lived nearby, we scheduled irregular field trips that were closer to home.
- Attended art shows
- Drove across town for the orchid show at the botanic gardens
- Skipped out in the afternoon so I could show her the fairy gardens at my favorite nursery
- Took a more than 1-hour roundtrip drive into the mountains for a favorite view and Mexican café
- Had team holiday parties in Denver and Boulder. By the way … yes, you can have a party with just 2 people.
I also frequently took her out for lunch and coffee.
And now Mesa is moving on.
I’m a little heartbroken, but also very happy for her to continue growing professionally. And I’m kinda proud that I was her first full-time employer after college.
Honestly, I hope I spoiled her for other people. I hope she looks back later and says I was the best boss she ever had.
Yes, I made a lot of mistakes in the past, but I finally got it right.
Music by Wildermiss
Why I Love Systems So Much
I'm grateful that Mesa and I have dedicated so much energy to greasing our systems. All tasks are properly documented in our Notion app, and we've spent three weeks poring over them to make sure that someone else could take over the tasks.
THAT's why I love systems so much—because they help my business run (almost) on autopilot.
See The Art Biz ep. 78: How to Increase Your Productivity and Creativity with Art Business Systems.
In episodes 104-106 of The Art Biz podcast, I talked with artists who hired and had successful relationships with their assistants.
The Art Biz ep. 104: Trusting Another Artist to Help You Run Your Art Business with Angela Fehr and Robin Edmundson
The Art Biz ep. 105: How to Work Successfully (and Sanely) with a Relative with Trudy Rice
The Art Biz ep. 106: Learning How to Be a Boss with Ali Manning
This post was originally published on April 4, 2014. It has been updated with original comments intact.