To wrap up our series on being more comfortable with being 'the boss', we'll tackle the hardest part of the role — creating a culture of accountability in your agency.

Because this is a tricky issue, this week's Agency Espresso is more of a long black — so find a comfy chair, and a biscuit, and let's dive in...

A culture of accountability means making it the norm that everyone:

  • does what they say they're going to do
  • communicates clearly about what they're doing, how it's going, and their next intent
  • takes responsibility for any mistakes or failures
  • fixes any problems that come up

When starting out, in my first agency, I was hopeless at creating this culture.

I avoided stepping up to be 'the boss', and a key part of that avoidance was only saying what people wanted to hear, not holding anyone to commitments, and brushing over any problems or failures.

So many things drifted in that agency because nobody had any accountability — and it was all my fault.

I've got better over the years, but creating accountability is still one of the things I need to consciously work on, so I developed an approach to help...

A helpful framework for accountability

To get better as a boss in designing accountability into your agency, it helps to think of the 7 elements in the Convivio ACCOUNT-ability framework:

  • Alignment: At the very start of any initiative, ensure you and the team members involved have the same understanding of the desired outcomes, how this fits into the wider world of the agency, how they will interact with and involve others, the constraints to be observed (time, budget, people, etc), and the cultural norms with which the work will be done. Explicitly discuss these, rather than leaving it to unspoken assumptions.
  • Commitment: Clearly and explicitly agree what is going to be done and any necessary metrics or conditions for knowing that it's done-done (really done rather than just 'done'). For example, a project to organise an event for 20 key agency clients may have additional completion criteria of sending out a follow up survey and writing up a guide for running similar events in future. Have one person who is ultimately in charge of the project who makes the commitment and takes responsibility for delivering on it.
  • Communication: Agree a cadence and approach for how the team will keep you, other key people on this issue, and the wider agency up to speed with what they're up to and how it's going. Working 'out loud' is the ideal approach, keeping a regular stream of micro-updates and progress going. When kicking off the work, communicate the intent and expectations of the project to the wider agency.
  • Observation: Beyond the updates from the team, a good boss is proactive in getting off their arse (even if just metaphorically in a distributed team) and going to see what's going on and how it's going. Notice and celebrate milestones and successes, find out how you can help with any questions or issues, and then spread stories of great work you observe to the rest of the agency. It is also vital that you also notice any problems, including deviation from the Alignment, Commitment and Communications steps above.
    When your agency kicks off a new project or initiative, I highly recommend you schedule actual blocks of time for this observation activity into your own calendar over the expected span of the work. If you can't commit some time to observe, then the work clearly isn't valuable enough and the agency shouldn't be doing it.
  • Understanding: When you observe problems or failures, or have concerns, you need to discuss these with the team straight away. Ignoring them or hoping they go away is a terrible strategy (trust me, I've taken the hard route on that one). Your first responsibility as the boss in these discussions is to seek to understand what's going on. Ask great questions. Start with the assumption that your team knows more than you do on this issue, because they're closer to it. So, before you make pronouncements, state opinions, give advice or react with any emotions, ask the questions that will help you understand.
  • Notes: Your second responsibility if you notice deviations from expectations is to give useful notes. Develop a healthy approach to feedback in your agency, something we call 'giving notes' like the movie industry. The focus of everyone should be improving the work, and notes should be given and received constructively to create the best results. (Members can follow our guide for creating a healthy 'notes' culture in the Playbook.)
  • Trust: This is the overall guiding principle. Trust that everyone is working to the best of their ability within the context they are working in, with the information they have. Trust that everyone is trying their hardest to achieve the best possible outcome with the work. Trust that everyone cares. Start with this trust as the default. Avoid micromanaging or meddling. If someone is losing your trust, you must discuss this with them, and if they lose your trust completely they must go.

This framework can help you design how your agency runs key internal projects, and how you assign initiatives to team members and support them. It can even help to design a healthier approach to how you deliver client projects.

Holding yourself accountable

An organisation becomes the behaviours exhibited, and tolerated, by its leader.

So, to create a culture of accountability, you need to hold yourself accountable too.

As the founder there isn't really anyone 'above' you. That's one of the key attractions of entrepreneurship to many agency owners.

Therefore, it's really valuable to have an advisory board for the agency. The board isn't 'above' you, you're still your own boss — but you've engaged them with the direct request to help you hold yourself and the agency accountable. The board meetings become a time and a place to help you do that.

Amazingly, this idea of having an advisory board still works even if the board is made up only of founders, and even if you're a solo founder meeting on your own. It's the discipline of taking that time and space to step into the role of being the board that matters.

(And, hint hint, this is a key part of my value as a 'virtual non-exec' or agency advisory board member on our Convivio membership plans — providing you with the framework and guidance. If you think these newsletters are helpful for helping you think at a higher level about your agency, wait 'til you see what members get 😉)

And finally

That's it for this series on 'bossing it', all about stepping up to proudly and confidently be the boss in your agency. I'll be back in your inbox next Monday morning with a ristretto edition of Agency Espresso to balance out this long black.

You can hold me accountable for that.

Have a great week,


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