I want to write about this topic since it is an issue a great many of my clients face.
You have built your agency up to a certain size where you have a good team beneath you. You had hoped this would result in spreading the work load and taking some weight off your shoulders. But you find yourself still being run ragged, clients still want to talk to YOU and you're frustrated that team members beneath you just don't seem to step up and fill the gap between you and the rest of your agency. This is compounded by the fact that new business still seems to sit on your shoulders and as much as you would like your senior team members beneath you to step up and take on more proactive business development they just don't seem to do it.
If you can relate to any of this then please read on…
You're the brains behind your agency. You're the reason why it has been flourishing for the last few years. Clients love you. So much in fact that all key clients want you to be working on their account and before you know it you've become the bottleneck to growth. Whilst exhausted you finally recognise this cycle and are determined to do something about it.
So now you're turning your attention towards developing the next layer of leaders in your agency. You recognise that you need to ‘get out of the way’ to enable your future leaders to flourish and for them to become a key contact point for clients.
I am sure the above scenario is familiar to you. Yet sometimes its easier said than done, to create space for your senior team members to step up. In the early days of running your agency you may have not been able to afford to hire the best staff and overtime this results in a big gap appearing between your skillset and the next tier of team members skillset, so make sure when you are hiring staff, you get the best staff you can find (and don’t be fearful of them challenging you!)
It’s amazing how many owners believe that telepathy exists or what's in their head will automatically be transferred to others via osmosis! So you need to make sure that your team are as excited by the vision that is in your head as you are. It's also worth noting that the owner is always several steps ahead of the rest of the agency in terms of the development of the agency, so it's crucial that you communicate your vision clearly and get them excited to come on the journey with you.
If they don’t understand the vision for the company it’s going to be difficult to get them to act independently or make intelligent decisions.
To solve this problem, you need to take the time to articulate and document your company vision to get everyone in your company moving in the same direction. Depending on your leadership style and agency size, you can do this by yourself, or involve your team in the process - but either way, you will need a process for communicating these things to your team once you have them articulated.
Most visionary agency owners are ‘knowing’ people. This means they hate the minutiae and can easily get annoyed by having to manage the details and repeating themselves. An Integrator (the person in charge of day to day operations) is a person who sits between you and your team to make sure that any friction is smoothed out and converted into energy that will power the agency forward. This person needs to love managing and resolving day to day issues, have a passion for clear communication between teams, and must have a tolerance for repetition and process. Now I appreciate in a small agency you may not be able to hire an Ops manager/integrator but you will be able to give this as a functional part of someone's bigger role.
As the owner, you need to focus on the things that only you can do, and delegate the rest. To that end, make sure you ask yourself the right questions. Not “will they do it as well as me or as fast as me?” but “will they do it well enough?” and if the answer is yes then you should be delegating. If you delegate down then this will encourage others to do the same. However, if you hang onto all the tasks you will encourage others to role model that behaviour too.
Chaos can reign in a small business. Frequently, these entrepreneurs (myself included!) hated all the meetings, processes, and systems they had to follow in their previous world before they started their own business - so they resist creating these things in their own agency. Unfortunately, non-entrepreneurs (i.e. almost everyone working for you) like and need process - they want to know what is expected of them, and they want to be able to make decisions and get work done without having to run to you all the time (more on this later).
If you have the right Integrator/ops person in place, he or she can help you create and manage a robust set of systems and processes your team needs to function efficiently - and minimise the number of processes and meetings you are involved in. When meetings run efficiently, decisions are made quickly and processes actually speed up your business, your culture and bottom line will begin to improve dramatically.
If you would like to read more about staff retention and growth then grab a copy of my free e-book.
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you have a superstar team member who is doing really well and clients love them and you now put them into a managerial leadership position. You've done this as a reward for their hard work and you see it as a natural part of their career progression. However, you quickly realise that this person is not a natural manager and is failing to motivate and direct their team. As a result team morale is at an all-time low so you are forced to make a difficult decision that could result in this (previously superstar) team member exiting the agency.
Why is it that we invest a lot of time and money training our team to have great technical skills (e.g. web development, design etc.) but we don't invest the same time or money in giving people managerial skills whilst somehow assuming that as their career progresses they will naturally be a good manager (because maybe you were)! Crazy!! Don’t be THAT leader. Instead have a clear career development path that includes leadership and management training as well as technical training. Remember these skills are useful for not only managing team members but also for managing clients and suppliers.
So now you have these steps in place lets look at how you can get your team members to take responsibility and be accountable.
When a team member is clear about what their role includes (and doesn't include) they are much more likely to take ownership and step into delivering that role.
Make sure you are setting regular (e.g. quarterly) SMART objectives that are owned and delivered by each team member.
If you have a team member that you want to develop then a great way to expedite and broaden their development is to get them an external mentor or coach. You could set finding a mentor as one of their objectives. The mentor should be someone who is several steps ahead of where your team member is and ideally, are external to the agency and therefore they bring a different set of experiences.
As your agency grows and you develop more leaders beneath you, you should plan to create a leadership or management team who can collectively own aspects of delivering the vision and take more responsibility from your shoulders.
I spoke about this earlier when I talked about the Integrator or Ops Manager. Your leadership team will have their roles & responsibilities but you can also give them some additional functional responsibilities such as Operations, New Business, Marketing, IT etc. This not only takes responsibilities from you but also further develops the team member.
As we discussed earlier, each year you will create your agency vision and communicate this to the rest of the business. In order to deliver the vision (and it not just stay as a dream!), you need to break it down into quarterly strategies and have the leadership team take responsibility for delivering these strategies.
This is a classic one that deserves a blog post of its own but as a leader, you need to separate the difference between being a supportive manager and a rescuing manager. A supportive manager will coach someone through a problem whilst a rescuing manager will think it's quicker to do it themselves and take the problem away.
This is another example of slowing down to speed up we don't spend enough time giving our staff constructive feedback (both positive and negative) yet according to this study, 65% of employees want more feedback.
Get into the habit of giving feedback at the end of a project and ensure that the feedback includes an action plan so that the team member learns.
I've said this a number of times throughout this blog and it is really an overarching summary of this whole post - which is slow down, invest time giving feedback and developing your team members in order to ultimately move forward more rapidly.
The entrepreneur, leader and agency owner who recognises as early as possible that they need to make themselves dispensable, are the ones who will rapidly develop a flourishing, growing profitable agency full of eager motivated team members. However, those who believe it's quicker to do it themselves and that they don't have time to develop team members will quickly find themselves the bottleneck to growth and under a great deal of stress. Make sure you are opting to be the former rather than the latter.
Welcome back to the final article in this series. Last time, we covered some of the most common problems you encounter when scaling your agency from “small” (5 or fewer employees) to “boutique” (10-15 employees), and how you can avoid them. If you missed that instalment, you can check it out here.
This week, we’re going to look at the next stage in the process – moving from “boutique” to “medium” (10-15 employees to 25-30 employees). Just like the last stage, there are certain challenges that routinely crop up as you start to add more employees into the mix. Let’s examine those issues in more detail.
Scaling your agency from 15 employees to 25-30 employees is not as simple as stacking more and more people on top of existing infrastructure. As we discussed last week, a dysfunctional foundation will collapse when it’s put under too much stress. Similarly, if your agency doesn’t run well when it’s small, it’s unlikely that things will improve as you get bigger.
However, the single biggest issue that holds back agencies looking to make the leap from boutique to medium-sized isn’t infrastructure. If you focused on putting the right systems & processes in place earlier on in the process, you should find that most of your systems scale up readily to accommodate new employees. Sure, there may be some hiccups, but overall, intelligent design and selection of your internal processes will serve you well.
Anything you neglected to reinforce earlier on (e.g. IT systems, finances, communication) may come back to bite you here, so make sure to take the time to strengthen these systems now, before they can cause real problems.
Neglected system upgrades notwithstanding, the principal obstacle you must overcome at this stage relates to skills.
When scaling your business from solo to small, you had to grapple with making your first hire. Here, you had to make good choices and bring on employees that possessed the skills your agency needed.
As you continued to scale your business from small to boutique, your attention shifted away from people and onto systems. Making good hires was still important, but you also had to ensure that your infrastructure was robust enough to sustain your growing operations.
And now that you’re looking to scale from boutique to medium, your focus returns to people. But it’s quite possible that the skills you need at this stage in the journey are different from those you needed earlier on.
Many agencies are top-heavy when they start out. If you have multiple owners, it’s likely that you’re all doing a substantial amount of work. When you take on a few employees, the work starts to get more dispersed and your time frees up. The top-heaviness of the agency decreases as more and more lower-level employees join the ranks. However, this leads to a growing gap between top management (i.e. you and the other owners) and junior staff.
This gap can cause problems, particularly as you endeavour to scale your business further. Making strategic business decisions and focusing on the future of your agency requires the space to do so – breathing room from the everyday hustle and bustle of managing operations. Without being able to safely delegate your duties, it can be hard to get this time to work on the future. And this can be compounded by the fact that your key clients all expect YOU to be working on their account!
If you’re not careful, you can be caught in between roles: not stuck in the business, but not free to work on the business either.
The solution to this problem is twofold:
Let’s look at these two areas in more detail.
Simply put – if your skills/expertise are integral in delivering great client work, you won’t have the time you need to focus on scaling the business effectively.
There’s nothing wrong with having an input into the work, or being in a position to guide your team. But if your valuable time is spent doing work that someone else could be doing, you need to consider introducing more senior experienced staff into the organisation.
The best way to determine if this is an issue in your agency is to look at your current employees. Consider the following:
With reference to questions like these, it should soon become apparent if you have issues in this area.
If you’re still required to oversee day-to-day operations and closely manage employees, your time is still being used up IN the business, so who is working ON the business?
The lines between your competing delivery, managerial and leadership roles blur as your agency scales. It can be hard to grow the business effectively when you have so many demands on your time.
When scaling your agency from 15 employees to 25+, you’ll probably find that there’s an awkward transition period. The demands on a handful of vital core staff (e.g. yourself, or some key employees) increase dramatically, which can then lead to decreased performance, slower delivery, and even burnout.
The solution is to identify these issues before they can cause real problems. You know you need to invest in people, but what does that look like?
Whatever the case may be, you have to invest in people at this stage in your journey. The systems you put in place previously (when growing from small to boutique) should serve you well, but remember to proactively improve matters in this area too.
This is the final article in this “Scaling Your Agency” series. When moving from ~15 employees to 25+, it’s rarely systems that hold you back. There’s little difference (conceptually speaking) between the infrastructure required to run an agency of either size. Payroll, communication, IT, finance… unless you’ve seriously neglected one of these areas, it’s unlikely to be your primary stumbling block.
Instead, the obstacle you must overcome at this stage relates to skills. Whether you restructure your business, hire new employees or train up existing staff, you have to ensure your agency possesses the skills required for growth.
As you continue to scale, you need more time to work on the business, not just in the business. If you’re trapped in a functional role all day, you won’t have the time or energy to make smart strategic decisions. For the good of your agency, you have to step back from day-to-day operations (in both a functional and managerial capacity). Take care of this, and your journey towards building a bigger, more profitable agency will be a whole lot easier.
We know all the great leaders lead by example; inspiring their staff and exhibiting great management skills but sadly that isn’t always the case in every SME business. So what happens when senior managers expect their managers to show strong leadership skills but don’t themselves? What are the consequences when someone like me is brought in to deliver some leadership & management training yet the senior managers don’t participate because they think they have all the skills already themselves?
This happens to me occasionally where the leaders are endorsing and/or organizing the training; believe they have excellent leadership skills themselves so don’t take part. Yet the reality often is, that they exhibit the worst leadership skills because they are running around doing 1001 tasks so ‘don’t have time’ to manage. And the managers quickly identify this as an issue – “it’s great that we are learning these skills and techniques but our managers really need to be here too.”
Let’s explore the consequence of this:
Lack of a consistent management approach
Managers will gain some new skills, tools, techniques and language that they can implement with their teams. Yet if their managers haven’t attended the same training then we already have an issue of differing management approach in the same organization. The most likely outcome will be confusion from team members and the good work the training did, quickly dissipating away.
Cynical lower manager
This in turn will create cynical managers because they already know that their managers aren’t great so wonder why they are not attending the training. Senior managers derail the good efforts of the managers by showing the hypocrisy of asking them to attend management training whilst not attending themselves!
Lack of delegation
Strong management is a huge part of creating a successful motivated and cohesive team. Weak managers don’t delegate because they believe “I don’t have time” or “it’s quicker/easier to do it myself”. Those senior managers who didn’t attend the training and are running around doing 1001 things will be the ones who don’t take the time to successfully delegate thus increasing their own workload and creating demotivated teams. A lot of my time is spent training and coaching managers around the art of good delegation. Not something that comes naturally to everyone.
So if you are in charge of management training or are one of those senior managers who doesn’t believe leadership & management training is for them. Think again!
If you are a business owner/leader and have a clear vision for your business, then does all your team share in your vision and buy into it as much as you do? I explain to clients that a vision is a like a desert island in the distance. Once we have decided that is the place we want to get to, we have to be sure that our team all want to get there too.
However, it’s worth remembering that business leaders are usually some ways ahead of the business and can typically be ALPHA-type characters, which means they lack patience and assume everyone understands, as they do. Not the best combination!
I sat through a presentation recently of an MD presenting the vision to the business and there was definitely a disconnect between the excitment of the MD and the audience’s reaction to the content being presented. The issue was the MD was ahead of the business in her thinking and wasnt ‘standing in the shoes’ of her audience. This was the feedback I gave her afterwards, when she was dissappointed that the team didnt seem to share in her excitement.
Sharing that vision with others in a way that compels them to act is the secret to a successful leadership vision yet to do this you have to have strong empathy with your team and acknowledge that not everyone cares as much as you or has the ability to think in a ‘bigger picture’ way. Which also means that you might need to cut down on the bigger picture and present in more manageable chunks – chunks that team members can relate to and therefore buy into.
To create that inspiring vision, ideally leaders need to create a process that involves everyone, that allows people to contribute to a shared view of the future, which is powerful and engaging for all. It’s simple – but it isn’t easy.
How do you fulfil your vision? Design a plan that focuses everyone’s efforts solely on its achievement. As a coach, this is an area I work with many business leaders on.
Now comes the tricky bit… Live, breathe and role-model the vision every day. Successful leaders never assume that their organisation is ‘on board’ with the vision – they go on and on and on about it. This is the primary job of leadership – not the day-to-day detail.
Concentrate on clearing obstacles to fulfilling the vision. Every person needs to understand why they’re doing what they’re doing, and why it’s important to the overall vision of the organisation. Don’t do people’s jobs for them, or chase them to do their jobs; clear the way for them to do their own jobs effectively (see my last blog post on perfectionism and delegation).
So make sure you’re the type of leader that is not only excited about the vision but shares and excites everyone else, so they can deliver it and you can all arrive together on the desert island.