How to Be an Influential Leader

Nicole Smartt, co-owner and vice president of Star Staffing, has a few pointers.

Nicole Smartt became the leader of a top staffing firm by the age of 25. Beginning her career as a receptionist for a small, husband-and-wife-owned hiring agency right out of high school, she quickly climbed the ranks and, with hard work and persistence, was promoted to recruiter, manager and eventually account representative.

When Star Staffing approached her to be a sales representative at their company, she set the bar even higher.

“I wanted to be an owner,” Nicole says. “I told them that either they want join forces or I would compete against them.”

Timing was perfect. One of the owners was fading out of the business and Nicole was set to take her place. In 2010, she officially became co-owner and vice president of the firm and, for the last three years, it was recognized as one of the fastest-growing companies in America by Inc.

From her basketball coach to her managers, Nicole learned everything she knows about leadership by absorbing information and keeping a list of her role models’ positive attributes. She packaged all her learnings into a book, From Receptionist to Boss: Real-Life Advice for Getting Ahead at Work, a guide on how to fast-track your career.

When it comes to effective leadership, Nicole believes it all comes down to a focus on your employees.

“So many companies cater to their customers and clients, but we make sure that whatever we provide for our clients, we’re providing even more to our employees internally,” she says. “They’re what make us great. If they love where they work, that’s going to show exponentially to customers, new hires and the community.”

We asked the high-powered exec for her advice on how to be a leader your employees will love.

Lead by example

I like to make sure we set expectations and that I can manage them. Following through on what you say you’re going to do and coming through in a last-minute crunch when your employee needs you garners respect. I also try to be informative and provide coaching so my employees can grow. That way, they can take some of my responsibilities so I can do other things.

Show interest in their growth

From the moment new hires join our company, we have a form for them to fill out where they want to be in two years and what they want from us to help get them there. They also list two professional goals and two personal goals—so if someone wants to go to Disneyland at the end of the year, we can help them put a plan together to achieve that. It immediately creates a bond and shows that we care. We also have a mentorship program that pairs employees with those in higher-level positions and they’ll meet monthly over lunch.

Communicate constantly

I have an open-door policy and my staff knows they can call, text, email or walk into my office if they have a problem. I start my conversations with, “Do you want to be heard or do you want feedback?” That way, I know if they just want me to listen or if they want advice. Besides meeting one-on-one with all the individuals that report to me regularly, I also have larger weekly meetings. If I can’t be there, I will call in and make sure everything’s on track. We’ll discuss performance, metrics and upcoming needs so there’s a lot of transparency.

Gather input in decision-making

If a problem is in an area I oversee, I bring in everyone that’s involved to understand their perspective and get a full picture. Since I don’t like to be impulsive, I’ll make a decision (with the company’s goals in mind) once I have all the facts.

Recognize wins

My business partner and I send handwritten cards and emails congratulating people. Even getting a positive review about them on Yelp or Facebook will be promoted to that individual as well as to the whole company. What you reward is behavior people will continue.


Image courtesy of Ivanka Trump. Illustration by Jonny Ruzzo.