In this blog series we're looking at the five biggest nightmares agency CEOs told us about, so that we can dig into the issues and work out how to improve things, to have a great 2022.
Being lonely and isolated was the theme that came up most regularly and strongly in our research interviews with agency CEOs over the last year: they feel they are the only person with ultimate responsibility for the agency, have to make the big decisions, and they can't really share problems and worries with others.
"It's lonely at the top. Especially as a sole owner, I struggle with not having a sounding board and having to make all the decisions myself. "
In start-up agencies, up to about 10 people, everyone is one team around a table together, and just focused on winning and delivering work.
But once the agency grows beyond 10 staff it's in the Step Up phase, when the founder has to become the leader of the company, and do the things that a 'boss' needs to do.
That difference in their role is even further amplified as they pass about 30ish staff and enter the Smarten Up phase, when they then need to become the leader of the leadership team. They now need to let that leadership team take control of the running of the business day to day, which makes their CEO role seem more distant. Even if you try to avoid seeming boss-like, it's inevitably how staff see you.
"Something I've had to learn is the degree to which people treat you less and less like the regular person you are the more we grow, that's something I've had to experience and learn to understand, and account for in my leadership."
Or as one founder of an agency in the 30-75 Smarten Up phase put it, more bluntly:
"I used to be people's friend. Now people shit their pants when I talk to them."
Some CEOs talked about the sadness as the agency grew that they started realising they weren't being invited to beers after work any more, and that they had become 'the boss'. They accepted it was probably a healthy and normal part of growth, but it increased the sense of loneliness all the same.
This sense of feeling more separated from the team as the agency grows means leaders feel they are less able to talk problems and worries over with others in the company. They feel that they need to be calm, to be 'up' and motivational, even when inside they are stressed or worried.
Leaders tend to worry that it will scare staff if the CEO admits to worrying about the business, or upset them if the CEO shares problems.
Even where there is someone in the business they can talk issues over with, that person never has the same ultimate responsibility on their shoulders. For example, the finance director is responsible for payroll to a degree, but if it looks like the company may have a cash flow problem, they just bring the problem to the CEO — and only the CEO is ultimately legally and morally responsible for making sure the business makes payroll.
Therefore leaders feel that the other management in the business never quite share or understand the full weight they are carrying as CEO.
Even talking to family and friends outside of work to try to get some support for the stress doesn't tend to be very useful.
"People won't believe the stress or loneliness or demands on your time. 'But you run your own company! You can do what you want! You must make mega-bucks! How can you say your job is hard and tough?' "
All of this leaves founder CEOs of agencies feeling like they have a lot of responsibility, a pile of stressful problems to solve, and nobody to talk to about them or to share the load.
More than that, nobody really understands what it's like to have all this responsibility of being in charge.
This leads to many founder-CEOs feeling lonely and isolated.
So how can we improve this for 2022?
The first step is just finding your tribe, people you can talk to who are more likely to understand.
"I filled the gaps with community, a coach, an agency mentor and any other support I could find!"
In our Agency Senate survey, 63% of CEOs said they seek peer to peer support as part of handling the pressures on them. Sometimes, this is just seeking out other agency leaders they respect and meeting for coffee and a chat. Sometimes it goes deeper into a mentoring relationship.
One agency leader has openly blogged about how vital one such mentor was to him:
"To put it bluntly, Bear saved me. We would sit and talk for hours. He would talk about his experiences and the processes he baked into his business, and ask me questions about mine (or more often than not, expose my lack of processes). Every time we spoke, a light bulb would go off in my head."
You'll be amazed how many experienced agency founders are keen to 'pay it forward' and help the next generation by being available for a casual chat once in a while, or answering a few questions by email. If they click with you and your agency they may even be prepared to spend more time on regularly mentoring you. I've mentored many agency leaders in this way over the years (and that's what's led to changing the direction of Convivio from being an agency, to supporting agency leaders. So it's what I do with all of my time now!)
As well as in 1-1 chats, peer support is also available at scale. There are a range of great communities for agency leaders you can join, with forums or slack groups, and often with events too. Here you can get to chat regularly with other agency leaders and ask questions.
Some great agency communities I know are:
It's well worth joining one or more of these. I'm in all three. You'll instantly feel like you've found your tribe when you see others discussing the kinds of things you're also dealing with.
However, one CEO did comment that agency communities are:
"...a great place to find people who may be able to empathise with your situation, but it is also a place where we come to partner with other agencies/people and gain leads, I’ve often not wanted to mention certain things because my opinion is that other agencies want to work with people who are on top of their shit and successful, not people who are rocking back and forth in the corner downing a bottle of whisky."
So, even though these communities are very open, friendly and supportive they're not the entire solution. There are still things that need an extra level of more closely engaged support.
48% of the Agency Senate reported that they have engaged a business or leadership coach to support them. They then have regular sessions with someone they can talk completely openly with, and who gets to know them and their business deeply over time.
Many leaders report these coaching conversations as being brilliant to help them offload, and to work through issues out loud. It helps them get a sense of perspective and try out different ideas for approaching an issue. But one agency owner told me:
"I've worked with a few coaches and it's great up to a point. Part of the problem is that they all have their 'thing' and everything is viewed through that lens. So some are all about sales, others are about HR things, others are all about selling your agency, and so on."
So it's a case of finding the right one for your current needs, and engaging with them for a period — then to keep evaluating the match and not being afraid to change coach when your needs change.
Similarly, some agency leaders brought in non-executive directors (NEDs) onto an advisory board to support them. Often these are former agency founders who bring invaluable experience and an external perspective, as well as a listening ear who understands the pressures. But again, one NED can't solve everything:
"I find NEDs are great at giving me shortcuts on specific things — sharing what they did in their agency. And it's good that they understand what it's like to be in my shoes. But it can become a bit like them just sharing war stories."
So there are multiple ways agency leaders can get some support to feel less lonely and isolated.
The key is to taking a blended approach so you have multiple routes to getting that support. We used this insight, and all our research, to design programmes for agency CEOs at the Step Up (10–30 staff) or Smarten Up (30–75) stages — so they get a playbook to guide them through everything, an advisory board with structured discussions, and a coach who has been there/done that. But even outside those programmes, you can find ways to create your own blended approach.
And finally it's important to realise that feeling lonely and isolated can make you feel low, or even depressed and anxious. This can then cause a spiral where you feel like not seeing or talking to others, and so feeling even more lonely.
One agency CEO in my interviews joked:
"Regulating serotonin levels should be part of the [Agency] Owner 101 course."
They were only partly joking. Serotonin is the hormone that acts as a mood stabiliser, so if you're feeling low and despondent, working on ways to increase your serotonin levels can help. Getting daylight, exercise, and a healthy diet are big steps towards improving your mood, and that in turn can help you feel more able to socialise and talk to others about the challenges.
But if you catch yourself feeling lonely and isolated, be self-aware enough (I know it's difficult, but agency founders are generally motivated enough to work on themselves and learn) to remind yourself that there are many other agency leaders who have had, or are having, similar experiences. You are not alone. Make yourself take some action to connect with support and chat things over.
We've all felt these things. Hopefully by reading some of the things agency leaders generously shared with me in my research has helped your realise that you're not actually alone — just disconnected. Make 2022 the year you connect up to sources of guidance and support.
By taking positive action on these 'agency CEO nightmares' you can fix them.
The rest of this series
This post is part of our series on Agency CEO nightmares, looking at these five key themes our research uncovered:
- Lonely and isolated <- this post
- Learning the hard way
- Stuck in reactive mode
- The rollercoaster ride
- The weight of responsibility
If you are the owner, founder, director or CEO of an agency, follow along with this series and see what resonates with you, and what you might want to do to make 2022 your best year yet.
Or check back over the whole Agency CEO Nightmares series.
We can help...
...you fall in love with leading your agency again, with the support of your virtual advisory board. Let's get started.