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Proactive Leaders Series: Cynthia DePaula

The Proactive Leaders Series aims at finding out how leaders throughout New York are handling the current economic crisis and the strategies they are using to organize their staff and push their agendas forward.

Name: Cynthia DePaula

Company: DePaula & Clark

Number of Staff: 6

Years at Company: 19

Position: President

Location: Chelsea, NYC

Cynthia DePaula has always taken the road less traveled. Her initial bookkeeping business was originally a one-man-show but it has now grown into DePaula & Clark–a friendly and successful bookkeeping, accounting, business & personal management, and tax preparation company.

Hanging out in Cynthia’s office is a true pleasure: it’s a home away from home and her staff are always wearing a friendly smile. It’s no surprise to find out Cynthia believes that the foundation of a great team lies in a positive and beautiful work environment.

Cynthia, originally a film producer, started her company from the ground up and now has a 6 member team that she leads by example. We recently had the fortunate chance to sit down with Cynthia and ask her about her leadership style and how it’s being tested as people are starting to lose confidence in the economy.

1. How big is your team and how does everyone get along?
Well, I always try to foster team-work. It’s the best way to get things accomplished and moving quickly if everyone can get along.

However, the nature of my business requires that everyone has their own specific clients that they handle. Everyone does what they need to do for their client. From that prospective—it’s an individual situation for everyone. Bigger clients may require assistance and everyone here is comfortable volunteering their help and time. Overall though I look at everyone as a team in this office—and I think it’s great that way.

2. What do you do to build and cultivate the ‘sense of collective’ among your staff?
We don’t have meetings everyday—there aren’t that many of us so I can take time to personally talk to everyone and work out their problems. I’d like to start holding meetings so we can all get on the same page and figure out how we can help each other….

I really relay on one-on-one. You have to have the right personality for this job and for this office. If everyone has a happy personality it’ll be easier to work here and get along with the staff.

3. It seems the size of your company and team really shapes the way you attract and do business?
Totally. Even as we grow bigger in the future I still want to keep the atmosphere of a smaller sized company. The clientele we have like the small setting now and are relaxed doing business with us. They can call us at anytime and we’ll get back to them right away—instead of bigger firms where you’re left on hold half the day.

Our client’s appreciate it…even if I had an office twice this size, I’d still like to project the image of a smaller company. I think it’s more comfortable for our clients and the employees. It’s more family friendly. Everybody knows everybody–everyone brings their kids and dogs in and it’s a great atmosphere.

4. So a solid environment is a major factor in creating a healthy team?
Yes. That’s why we have all the art and the fish tank around. Our work takes a lot of thinking and focus and the surroundings make it easier to relax when you need to…having a nice work environment where everyone gets along is pretty much the solution to a lot of work problems.

For instance, when Obama was inaugurated I put the TV on—and said, “Do not miss this. I insist you see this”…or when the market tanks I get everyone in here to watch the news and it’s fun to create that environment where we share our thoughts and interests. No one is out the door at 5:56. They’re here until 6:30 of 7 pm normally. People will do what they need to before they leave. They are that way because I try to treat them like grown ups.

5. How do you enlist support from your team? What’s your leadership style when it comes to pushing your team to achieve your goals?
I let my staff do things the way they want to—unless they are doing something clearly wrong or I know, from my experience, they are making a mistake. I think people enjoy what they do—and quite frankly, do a better job—if they feel that they are responsible for their work.

I don’t want to hover over people and be a ‘micro-manager’. The more freedom you give people the happier they are working for you and they’ll take more pride in their work and it’ll be a better quality.

6. Do you try to keep a tough ‘game face’ on even when the economy is bad and business is looking uncertain?
I think we’re all aware of what’s happening. My staff can see that their clients’ bank balances are shrinking. We have a lot of clients that are really busy and doing well—but unfortunately some are not doing well.

I would confront my staff about any problems that were to happen internally. I couldn’t just say ‘don’t worry’ because I myself am a worrier and I know that answer never helps!

You have to have some dialogue with your staff and answer their questions and, as the employer, state your financial or personal position as clearly as possible.

7. Do you think your leadership style needs to be altered to suit the challenges of the present economic climate?
My ideas on certain things and the way I approach certain problems may change but my general overall style—I don’t think will change.

I feel the way I operate this office works for everyone, I hope [laughter]. In a crisis I might change my method of decision-making. But, it has taken me a long time to hone my leadership skills in a way that produces a great working atmosphere. I wouldn’t want to mess with that unless something really drastic happens.

8. What helps keep you and your staff’s momentum going during the current hard times and is the economy affecting your staff?

I try to be as creative as possible—it’s our job—in order to get our clients and everyone here through this. These difficult times will be over. No one knows when, but we have to try to help and keep everyone afloat. The one thing that’s very important for people to remember is that this had to happen: people were spending too much, making too much, and buying too much…it’s better to look at your portfolio now and see it’s real value rather than focus too much on how much you lost.

I want to help my clients by getting creative. For some clients we’re refinancing, other we’re borrowing against things they own and putting up collateral, we’re borrowing against pension funds…we’re doing anything we can to get from here to there, together.

As for the economy, it’s not affecting us as far as our company is concerned. It’s tax time now so it’s extremely busy. Come this summer I may have a different answer [laughs].  If anything bothers us—it’s watching our clients hurting. We’ve known a lot of our clients for years and they are considered friends and it’s hard to see them lose their savings.

9. How are you getting people on your side, within your company, as the economy is looking shaky?
We offer a service—we offer strategies based on our skills and experience. Our clients are creative people—they don’t have finance backgrounds. They want to take my advice. It’s a lot of advice giving. I don’t want to present my self as someone who tells people what to do.

Even with my own staff I don’t want to force anything. I want everyone to feel a sense of independence and that they have a say in what they are doing.

10. What’s the biggest challenge you faced leading your team?
The biggest challenge was getting this business off the ground. I had two kids and absolutely needed to make a living. I decided on bookkeeping even though I came from a completely different profession. So, after I made my decision I went around the West Village and I hung up small fliers selling my bookkeeping services with my number and address available on tabs—at the bottom of the flier.

A big photography studio down on Hudson street took my whole flyer and ended up calling me for an interview which lead to a part time job with them—and I didn’t know what I was doing—I had to learn everything from first hand. The time I spent their helped me get the majority of my fashion business clients that I work with now. Its all about referrals in this business!

Honestly, and I would never recommend this [laughter], but I put myself out their with confidence and had to start learning from the ground up how to do what it is I do. It’s probably been my biggest challenge — reinventing myself and my career–and turning that into something I can now share with my staff.



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