I had a call recently with the leader of a growing agency who was feeling absolutely swamped.

It's a feeling that anyone who runs an agency has faced at some point, and one of the things I hear most often from leaders.

Each person's story is along the lines of: "Between supporting actual project work for clients, managing the team and freelancers, the sales we've just closed and are trying to sort out contracts and schedule in, working on sales currently in progress, HR, recruiting, finances, marketing, going to events, to just responding to emails and doing admin — I'm absolutely overrun. And then I realise I'm not even getting to do the important long term stuff. I'm not building the business. I'm exhausted and I'm not getting any of what I want to do done."

Rather than start straight into recommending techniques for getting on top of things I prefer to first help people to understand why they feel like this.

I talk about the context of hats, and how agency leaders have to wear too many of them, particularly in the early stages (as you grow between 35 and 50 people you have to find other managers to put under all of these hats or the business is headed for trouble). The typical hats you wear in the early stages are: owner, director, CEO, HR, finance, marketing, sales, account manager, team manager, project manager and then a 'practitioner' hat, with whatever your craft is that clients buy.

Four summer hats stacked on top of each other
Too many hats. Photo by Stephen Hocking

There are two rules of the hats:

  1. It's much easier to put on hats that are lower down the list, closer to the client work being done. Those roles generate more noise, urgency and are more what you're used to. But you can create much greater value for the business by wearing the hats higher on the list, mindfully designing the business and planning strategically.
  2. There's a high mental cost with each change of hats. Context switching is very taxing on the brain — you have to unload one set of information, clear the brain, and load up a new set. Except the clearing the brain bit rarely works. Your head ends up feeling muddy.

Once you're aware of all the hats you're wearing, and the rules of the hats, it becomes much clearer why you feel like you do. And then you can start to do something about it.

This week, keep a note of the different hats you wear and how often you have to switch between them — then look for ways to reduce both.

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As this conversation above is one I have so regularly with agency leaders, I've developed a short workshop on Healthy Focus Management for agency leaders (because you can't manage time, you can only manage your focus). There are lots of important concepts to understand about agency businesses in particular, and being a leader in general. Then there are approaches and techniques to shape into what's right for your personality type and agency culture. There are a selection of dates for this and our other agency leadership workshops between now and March.

We've  launched our first online course, with an e-learning version of our popular Healthy Agency Finances workshop. It helps CEOs get to grips with the numbers in a way that connects with how an agency actually works, and set up useful KPIs for tracking progress and balance of the business. It goes live in October, but during September you can get early adopter access using the code 'PRELAUNCH' at checkout.