We've all spent the last two years in the midst of a global crisis. This has had knock-on effects to cause personal crises large and small, from losing loved ones, to periods of serious illness, to having to homeschool children while working.
For leaders it's meant a daily task of responding to every new twist and turn. What are the latest developments? How are clients reacting? Who's not okay on the team? How are we doing financially? and so on. Day in, day out.
It's been very difficult to look up and ahead to the horizon. Instead of developing strategy and nurturing the future for our agencies, we're like first responders. Waiting for the 999/112 call, ready to rush out and solve problems.
But the pandemic experience has only dialled up to 11 something that agency leaders already felt. It's all too easy to fall into a habit of rushing around solving problems and jumping on opportunities, rather than stepping back and working proactively on mindfully designing our business.
This response to my research about the challenges of being an agency leader was very typical:
"The thing I know I need to be doing, that I'm not spending enough time on, is removing myself from the day-to-day. I know this is not unique to me, but it's incredibly hard."
The day-to-day work of an agency is like a kitchen — it's noisy, pressured and exciting. Orders come in from customers. A team of specialists bring their different skills together with timing being key to produce what the client wants, quickly. The focus is on the now, now, now.
In small restaurants with no growth plans, that never changes. But in the big-name successful restaurants, the chef needs to lift themselves out of the daily service. Their role instead is to explore and experiment to create new dishes, to be an ambassador for the restaurant with media appearances and cookbooks, and nurturing the culture of the restaurant.
But stepping out from working the pass in the kitchen to leading the restaurant is tough for chefs and agency owners alike. We often started as practitioners, and we love doing the doing:
"I ought to be spending more time working on the business and less time working in the business. Which sucks because I started my agency because of how much I love doing the work itself."
The longer-term work we need to do as CEOs doesn't feel as urgent and exciting as the daily grind of the agency.
And what's more, to step up, out of the day-to-day, we need to invest time and energy in growing our team and our processes so they can run things without us by their side all the time. We have to learn, or sharpen up, a whole new set of skills.
"As an introvert, it is challenging for me in a CEO role where a lot of my success involves people and connecting with them. I had to grow from an individual contributor to someone who leads, structures, motivates, and delegates -- that's a shift that is challenging for some, but the better you do the more you can work on the business rather than in it."
It's also harder to apply ourselves to the chair at our desk and know what to work on, when we're used to working on whatever staff and clients bring to us.
To be proactive, we have to think of what needs to be worked on, before it needs to be worked on or anyone asks about it. That's what makes it hard. We are designing our work, not just doing it.
Nobody is going to come and make us do this work, or check up that we've done it — but if we don't do it, we and the whole organisation will suffer in the future.
That means that, to become more proactive, we have to make ourselves devote solid time to this kind of work. It needs to be enough time to think, to design what work needs to be done, and to do it. And we need to hold ourselves accountable for sticking to it and making it productive.
"I still spend too much time in reactive activities and not enough in proactive ones (sales, marketing, culture, etc) -- I use a variety of hacks to continually propel myself forward, since I don't have a standard 'boss' per se holding me directly accountable."
This is something nearly every agency founder I spoke to struggles with, but most people are taking some steps to improve. There were also lots of ideas people had and wanted to put into action, but hadn't got round to doing yet (yes, ironic, eh?).
Top of the list that people wanted to do but hadn't got round to, was setting up a board of directors, or an advisory board. This doesn't need to be stiff and formal, it's simply a forum in the business where the CEO and whoever they select as board members get together in a strategic, proactive mindset — focused on working on the business rather than in it. The other board members help the CEO think farther ahead, and more broadly — and focus on improving the business rather than just delivering client work.
This is the approach we've adopted at Convivio to support the agencies on our programmes. We help them set up and run their advisory boards, providing the framework and materials for their discussions and planning — ensuring the time is productive and strategic.
Some of the other things people were doing were focused around getting someone else to hold them accountable for the 'working on the business' part of their role. Some people had engaged a leadership/business coach, others had a mentor such as a former agency founder, and some had joined 'master' groups where they met once a month with the same group of other agency leaders to spur each other on.
Other common solutions I heard about from leaders to make themselves do this:
- Sue Keogh, founder of digital marketing agency Sookio, told me on our podcast that she plans time into her diary to get away from the office where she knows she will get a block of time uninterrupted to think about the more strategic, proactive things in her agency. Lots of leaders mentioned that getting physically away from work and home was key.
- Some leaders blocked out days in their schedule as their 'CEO time' so they knew on these days they had to work on the business. I advise that CEOs should block out a day a week for this once they pass having 10 staff, and increase the time from there.
- Some set OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) / Big Rocks (a concept from the Entrepreneurial Operating System) for them and their leadership team about improving the business
In terms of getting inspiration for what to work on when they work on the business, leaders all reported reading lots of business books and blogs, listening to podcasts and comparing notes with other agency CEOs.
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
- Learning the hard way
- Stuck in reactive mode <- this post
- 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
Convivio runs programmes to support founder-CEOs in building a healthier agency through these key stages...
- Our programme for CEOs at the Step Up stage, on the journey between 10–30 staff
- Our programme for CEOs at the Smarten Up stage, on the journey between 30–75 staff
These programmes provide you with the framework and tools to lead a healthier agency, as well as the support to implement them.