Agency Journey Episode 14 (Y15M5)

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Missing the Office Vibe

I’ve started going into the office at least once a week. It’s been a great change of pace from being in my home office (bedroom) and a chance to serendipitously run into people I know and catch up with some folks face-to-face.

We decided to keep our Manhattan Barrel office even as offers to fully sublease it were available. We’ve sublet some desks and also let friends and Barrel Venture Partners portfolio companies use the space. I don’t see too many Barrel team members when I go in as we’ve spread out geographically in the past 12 months. I do miss the in-person interactions and realize that there are team members I’ve never met outside of a Zoom square. We’ll be investing in get-togethers in the coming year, ranging from smaller group retreats to a full-on Barrel summit with everyone in the company.

I was envious to see my buddy Anshey of Verbal+Visual enjoy Halloween festivities with members of his team at our office (they’re subleasing desks). It reminded me of the old days when we’d have a bunch of social gatherings at Barrel HQ. Those days are long gone, but what we’ve lost we’ve made up with time gained with our respective families, less stressful commutes, and hopefully some more focus time. I don’t think one is outright better than the other, but being a distributed company is a choice we made, so we’ll have to keep finding ways to make collaboration and interaction more fluid and engaging for our team in a remote-first culture. Mixing in the occasional in-person meet-up will be a good addition.

About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings of my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.


Quarterly Partner Meeting In Person

In early October, Sei-Wook, Wes, Lucas, and I met up at the Barrel office for our quarterly partner meeting. It was the first meeting where all four of us were able to get together in person. Wes flew in from Atlanta for the day while Sei-Wook and Lucas drove in from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, respectively.

Reuniting with Wes at the Barrel office for our Quarterly Partners Meeting. He got to pick up his Cha Cha Matcha, something he’s missed since moving to Atlanta.

We focused our morning session discussions around the reading of two books, Leadership and Self-Deception by The Arbinger Institute and The Motive by Patrick Lencioni (see my blog post on this book). We came prepared to talk deeply about our past mistakes and regrettable behaviors in light of the lessons learned from these two books. Our stories ranged from strained family relationships to ineffective management and how, with some greater self-awareness, we could see our own hand in creating the problematic situations.

Book mural board q4 partner meeting

Even though we had a physical whiteboard wall to use, we ended up putting our book takeaway notes on Mural as it felt neater and more convenient.

The afternoon session was a forward-looking exercise of how we intended to become better leaders over the next 12 months, what limiting beliefs and unproductive behaviors we would overcome and stretch initiatives we would take on to challenge our own growth. Here, too, we shared things we hoped to do in our personal lives with family, our health, and our habits as well as with various aspects of work including being better communicators, more knowledgeable thought leaders, and more positive influences on our team.

We ended with a feeling of strong momentum, and more importantly, a stronger bond as a leadership team, having shared some deep and vulnerable moments throughout the day. We celebrated with a leisurely dinner at Hirohisa.

Big props to Wes for flying in for the day and making it back in time to be there for his daughter the next morning. As much as possible, we will try to do these partner meetings in person and hopefully mix up the location as well.

Choppy Waters: Business Struggles & Team Turnover

I’m a firm believer that when things seem to go wrong in a business–that moment when you start to feel the pain–there were events already set in motion weeks if not months ago through a series of decisions and non-decisions that ultimately led to some sort of reckoning moment: e.g. the “sudden” realization that finances don’t look good, angry emails “out of the blue” from clients, “unexpected” staff resignations, etc.

It’s been a stressful past few months, each week bringing new flavors of challenges. First, we’ve lost some major accounts, which has negatively impacted our base of recurring revenues. We’ve also been slow to win new projects and feel the pressure more acutely as we scramble to replace the lost accounts. We’ve also struggled to deliver consistently on our projects, leading to cost overruns and unhappy clients. Lastly, we’ve lost team members, some really good ones, which has impacted morale and our capabilities.

I have no doubt we’ll work our way through these problems as we’ve done so in the past, but my mind has mainly been on trying to figure out what factors contributed to our current situation and what decisions/non-decisions from months ago led us here. I have a theory about this that I talk about in the next section.

Top of Mind

Sports Analogy: Taking Our Eyes Off the Games

I painted this picture for my partners recently when reflecting on our challenges:

Imagine a sports team that, under new or invigorated management, wanted to take the franchise to a new level. The management brought in new coaches, assistants, trainers, therapists, psychologists, and players. They also invested heavily in the facilities, perhaps securing upgrades to the stadium, the practice areas, the training gyms, the equipment, and all the tech that goes along with cutting edge team development. They’ve also greatly improved the perks and benefits for all the employees and pride themselves in having a clear org structure, vision, mission, and values.

Just one problem: management, too busy on these “foundational” areas, haven’t been paying too close attention on the games themselves. The coaches and players, while incredibly pedigreed and talented, haven’t quite gelled, leading to subpar product versus opponents. The employees working the stadium are proud of the flashy new facilities and nice uniforms, but the processes are brand new and unproven, leading to various game-day issues that negatively impact the fans’ experience. Management has tried to solve things by rushing in additional talent, tech, and processes, but with little or no direct knowledge of the actual deep-down issues happening on game day.

The franchise might, on paper, seem more valuable because of all the infrastructural improvements, but at the end of the day, they are a losing team with unhappy fans that feel under-appreciated. The team is at an inflection point – further losses mean talented players will sign elsewhere when their contracts are up and fan enthusiasm will wane, which could mean a decrease in ticket sales and revenue for the team. All the investments made to enhance the team will be for naught because, at the end of the day, the team didn’t win enough games.

In Barrel’s case, management made great strides this year in upgrading the infrastructure, from modernizing our finances, our recruiting process, new employee onboarding, CRM, marketing, and more. But as we focused on these initiatives, we stepped too far away from what ultimately matters in this business–our clients and the work we do for them. While we brought in talented managers and individual contributors, we didn’t provide enough support and guidance to ensure their success. We were also largely absent or oblivious to any early signs of trouble, having delegated such responsibilities to relatively new team leaders, who, understandably, wanted to try their best to solve things themselves without our involvement. Cries for help from team members went unaddressed or ignored, which, in some cases, built up resentment or disillusionment, and ultimately, attrition.

It hurts to admit that we weren’t on top of our clients and the work. It wasn’t that we weren’t busy–we got a lot done and had a ton on our plates. But the lesson here, drawing from the sports analogy, is that what ultimately matters is our performance with the games we play. Nobody cares if we have the spiffiest training facilities or the softest towels. What matters is that when we take on a new engagement for a client, we deliver for them and ensure their success and satisfaction.

We’ve thought hard about what this means for our involvement as management in the day-to-day. We have a two-pronged approach that we’re splitting across the four partners:

  • Lucas and I will focus our efforts on the overall client experience, especially in establishing deeper relationships with all of our clients. This way, we can be more accessible if an escalation need arises, but more importantly, we can be a value-add resource beyond the work we’re doing at the moment. This can be in the way of connecting clients to other clients for their mutual benefit, sharing knowledge about business and different industries that may be helpful to them, or pointing them to vendors and partners that may help address their other needs.
  • Sei-Wook and Wes will focus on project delivery, ensuring that we always have clarity on scope, the proper staffing needed to do a good job, and quality controls to prevent mistakes, bugs, and faulty outcomes. They’ll combine the resources of finance, talent management, project management, technology, and quality assurance and be in-the-know early about any potential risks across projects.

I think of these steps as a correction to where we were previously, a laser focus on working solely on the business without enough oversight of what was going inside it. This level of reactivity, I hope, allows us to continue developing our team leads to run the day-to-day on projects while we serve as an ever-present support layer if they run into challenges. We’ll have to be mindful that we don’t overstep and micromanage situations, having felt “burned” in the past. This will require continual reflection and conversation over time to get just right.

If these decisions prove effective, I hope that we’ll be able to look back in 6-9 months and see much of the setbacks present today largely reversed. I’m also optimistic that we’ll be able to generate a greater sense of momentum as we emerge from these stressful, high-pressure times and start to see some wins (in client satisfaction, in the successful launch of projects, in the happiness of the team, and in new business gains) pile up.

Shared with Partners

“A long historical view not only helps us to keep calm in a ‘time of trouble’ but reminds us that there is an end to the longest tunnel. Even if we can see no good hope ahead, an historical interest as to what will happen is a help in carrying on. For a thinking man, it can be the strongest check on a suicidal feeling.” (B. H. Liddell Hart and Giles Laurén, Why Don’t We Learn From History?)

The toughest and most stressful moments shall come to pass, is how I read this. We’ve had some rough days and being steadfast to holding a long-term view of things has been incredibly valuable.

“Emerging visions can also die because people get overwhelmed by the demands of current reality and lose their focus on the vision.” (Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline)

We’ve reminded ourselves over and over again in the past month that putting out fires cannot become the norm. We still need to make space to think big, to look forward to building for the long-term, and to continue in our pursuit of our vision.

“Becoming a real team requires an intentional decision on the part of its members. I like to say that teamwork is not a virtue. It is a choice—and a strategic one. That means leaders who choose to operate as a real team willingly accept the work and the sacrifices that are necessary for any group that wants to reap the benefits of true teamwork. But before they can do that, they should understand and agree on a common definition of what a leadership team really is. A leadership team is a small group of people who are collectively responsible for achieving a common objective for their organization.” (Patrick M. Lencioni, The Advantage)

Lucas has been doing a great job of leading our Barrel Management Forums with our team leads, creating space for discussions around managing teams, dealing with client challenges, and forming effective discipline structures. The work ahead will be to develop a strong collective responsibility towards clear organizational objectives among all the team leads.

“This is why we’re here. To fight through the pain and, when possible, to relieve the pain of others. So hard to see.” (Andre Agassi, Open)

An inspirational quote for challenging times–”relieving the pain of others” is something we’ve not done enough for our team and something we’re intent on improving.

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