Agency Journey Episode 8 (Y14M11)

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Even after all these years, it still stings when I learn that a Barrel team member has decided to give notice and move on from the company. There are many reasons why people leave, but I can’t help feel like we’ve let them down somehow. It stings the most when I first hear the news because my mind races towards thinking about all the things we failed to do to keep that person. With time, I chill out, accept the reality, and try to take away a few lessons that hopefully can improve how we do things. The exit interviews sometimes provide good insights. And then, as the company adjusts and new faces come in to fill the void, life goes on.

I’m reminded of the ship of Theseus, a thought experiment that asks if a ship that embarks on a journey has all of its planks replaced one by one during the trip so that no old planks remain at the end of the journey, is it still the same ship?  Nearly 15 years in, the planks have been replaced countless times, and yet, this ship called Barrel still sails. Is it the same ship?

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

Highlights

Wes Celebrates 10 Years at Barrel

Our Director of Technology Wes Turner celebrated his 10-year Barrelversary, our name for Barrel work anniversaries.

Wes was a self-taught web developer who came to us via a Craigslist job post back in 2011. At the time, he had wrapped up his career as a traveling actor in a play troupe performing for schools and orgs across the country. He had also dabbled as a real estate agent in addition to working all kinds of odd jobs around New York City. On the side, he learned to make websites with WordPress and had a knack for learning new technologies.

Wes has been a steady presence at Barrel throughout the years. He’s been a great mentor to many, a helpful resource for countless team members, and a leader with a growth mindset, continually evolving to meet the needs of his expanding responsibilities. We’ve faced a great deal of turmoil and ups and downs together and also celebrated many wins along the way. I felt incredibly proud to have worked together with someone I respect and trust for over 10 years, and from the momentum I’m feeling these days, we’re just getting started.

Our Team Experience Coordinator Allison Hilario put together a really touching video celebrating Wes’s 10 years at Barrel complete with photos of Wes over the years plus video testimonials from team members. I was able to secure a Cameo video from Gina Torres (Wes is a fan) that helped end the video on a fun note.

In many ways, celebrations like these make clear what’s truly important–working closely with people you care about towards shared goals while building a meaningful connection with each other. I’ve seen Wes go from bachelor to married man (he met his wife at a Barrel party) to father to now a homeowner, all while at Barrel. He’s also made the transition from a web developer to a manager to a partner helping oversee multiple functions. It’s been so rewarding to have witnessed these milestones, and I’m grateful that our respective journeys have run so close together.

Quarterly Town Hall

We held our quarterly town hall with the team to review our Q1 business performance, answer some anonymously-submitted questions, and to review results of our Q12 Survey. If I had to give the meeting a grade, it would probably be a 4 or 5 out of 10. The energy was meh and participation was lacking. There’s probably opportunity to make this a more engaging session.

The big bummer was our Q1 business performance. While we did well in booking new business, putting us at a record-setting pace for the year, we suffered in profitability. The main reason came from delays to various projects that bled over from Q4 2020 to Q1, dominating our resources and requiring us to spend extra on contractors to get things done. While we can point to a number of factors that led to these delays, the takeaway for us is that we need to sign terms upfront that protect us financially from projects that run too long. More on this in the section “The Downstream Impact of Business Development” below.

q12 survey slide

A slide from our Quarterly Town Hall deck highlighting one of the Q12 questions and our quarter-over-quarter result.

Our Q12 Survey, based on Gallup’s 12-question framework for measuring employee engagement, also showed some concerning declines across the board. We selected a handful of questions where our quarter-over-quarter scores suffered the greatest and shared with the team, asking for any inputs or insights. It wasn’t the best forum to solicit feedback so participation was limited, but a few people chimed in to share their thoughts on why certain scores went down. We’ll rely on our managers to dig more deeply within their departments and hopefully there will be better conversations in more intimate settings. Part of the narrative, from what we could gather, is related to our poor financial performance–delays in projects led to stressful situations which led to feeling rushed, burned out, and overwhelmed.

Initiatives Across the Board

Our partners and team leads are working with coaching firm Novus Global for 6 months to achieve outcomes that contribute to a larger organizational goal. We’ve set revenue and profit targets that are outside our Intuitive Fence™ (a Novus Global term for something that seems beyond our normal expectations for ourselves), and the idea is that by working on ambitious outcomes, we can actually achieve targets that we thought were once impossible.

Some of the initiatives that our team leads & partners are working on include:

  • Establishing a robust apprenticeship program for designers
  • Setting up a management training program to establish standards for managers and to create a system to mentor and develop new managers
  • Building up our newly established Technical Solutions practice and fleshing out the details of the Solutions Architect role
  • Scaling up our content marketing and marketing automation efforts to generate higher quality leads
  • Building up our agency partner referral network
  • Defining clear roles between Client Services and Production across accounts and projects in order to enhance the client experience
  • Beefing up our financial systems to support better goal-setting & reporting across departments
  • Centralizing resourcing and talent acquisition functions to better support all departments
  • Establishing processes and deliverables for our recently renamed CRM team
  • Rolling out a new way for our developers to work across various project from a centralized backlog of tickets

Realistically, it’s likely that some of these initiatives will fall short of expectations or hit roadblocks along the way, but the underlying reason for trying is to get in a rhythm of ideating and committing to certain outcomes and then being accountable to making some kind of progress each week. Even if something fails, we’ll have learned valuable lessons or gathered new insights that can inform the next set of initiatives. If we can build this muscle, with our coaches helping team leads stay accountable, I think the business will see incredibly swift improvements.

This will sound a lot like the Entrepreneurial Operating System’s framework of Rocks, Issues, and To Do’s that we used in a homespun fashion previously or Objectives & Key Results (OKRs) favored by tech firms, and I think that’s an apt comparison. These all make sense as frameworks but the hard part is actually implementing and seeing them happen with consistency and accountability.

Top of Mind

Leadership

One of the things that’s become more and more apparent to me over the years is how energetically the mind works to avoid making hard decisions and to justify taking a more pleasant path in the face of difficult situations. I can recall countless times where, instead of making the decisive move, I talked myself into “seeing how things develop” or “letting things play out”, often with the intent to delay the decision. Deferring to circumstances, in most instances, felt better and less scarier than trying to create my own future.

The hard thing about trying to create my own future, I’ve found, is having a strong enough conviction in my vision of the future. When setbacks or criticisms come my way, it’s often easy to get discouraged or to start second-guessing myself. But if I can treat these occurrences as mere information and opportunities to refine my thinking, it’s possible that I can continue to hold fast to my vision and believe that the hard decisions made today are necessary, even if there’s immediate fallout and some unpleasantness to deal with.

To give more substance to what I’m talking about, the hard decisions for me typically have to do with personnel, organization design, and client relationships–who stays or goes, how does the company get restructured, who do we say “no” to, etc. When these decisions are in the service of a desired future state, it’s irresponsible to delay or avoid making them. And yet, the fear of causing others discomfort, pain, or anxiety often seems to outweigh the long-term upside of charting towards a more deliberate future.

For me, this is leadership in a nutshell. Making the hard decisions today that sets the organization on a course for a better future. Through this lens, I can’t say I’ve been a good leader to date. However, it’s not too late to start behaving like one.

The Downstream Impact of Business Development

I wrote this in January 2020:

“I’ve come to believe that the way we approach new business is the way we implement business strategy for the agency. It’s where so much of the agency’s direction can be set by the type of client we engage with, the types of projects we end up working on, and the type of experiences we end up setting up for the team. The output of these engagements then signal to the world what type of agency we are, setting off a feedback loop that either turns into a virtuous cycle or a vicious one.”

Reflecting fifteen months later, I don’t think I fully understood just how deep the impact of new business is on the agency.

In reviewing our business difficulties of Q1, where profit margins were incredibly low, we decided to analyze the projects we worked on throughout the quarter. We asked ourselves a question as a thought experiment: “If we were presented with the same scope of work and budget today knowing what we know, would we say yes to these projects?” We went down the row and marked either Yes or No.

Out of 19 projects that we picked to analyze, 5 of them were Yes and 14 of them were No. This was an eye-opening exercise because it told us that most of our struggles in Q1 were from poor fit projects that, for various reasons, should not have been taken on or taken on under vastly different terms. The patterns that emerged were clear for the ones marked No: the budgets were too small and the promised timelines were too ambitious. The result? Extended timelines without increased budgets–a recipe for disaster in our business.

Hindsight makes it easy for me to point out how badly we messed up in greenlighting all of these No engagements, but the truth is, things felt great when we won the project and we were optimistic about doing them profitability. What we have now that we didn’t have then is a more robust set of analyzed data from historical project reports that show us the “sweet spot” of hours and months that allow for profitability. Dip below this, and no amount of efficiency can help us. There are just too many factors–delays on the client side, scope creep, and unforeseen technical challenges–that can quickly erode profit margins. The only way around this is to match our team’s involvement (their allocation to the project) with the project budget and the moment these two things go out of alignment, find a way to realign or have the difficult conversation (as soon as possible) with the client about potentially extending timeline as well as expanding the budget. And if all else fails, be okay to walk away instead of gritting our teeth to finish.

It’s taken so many years for certain lessons to dawn on me, and I think this particular lesson is one of the most compelling ones: set the terms for our success and have the discipline to stick with it. This, in essence, is what positioning is all about.

Shared with Partners

“When we are disappointed with the performance of an employee, it’s always a result of an unmet expectation. All upsets are simply unmet expectations. The problem is that many of our expectations are also uncommunicated. We assume that the person has good judgment and thinks the way we do (can read our mind); therefore, explicit training, rules, and guardrails are deemed unnecessary. Bad assumption.” (Keith J. Cunningham, The Road Less Stupid)

This quote reminded me of an important lesson on “expectations vs. agreements” and how the mismatch in expectations are at the root of so many problems between people. This YouTube video by business coach Steve Chandler is worth watching. I instantly recognized that so many of my resentments and disappointments were a product of expectations that had not been made aware or agreed to by the other person.

“Being a visionary leader is not about giving speeches and inspiring the troops. How I spend my day is pretty much the same as how any executive spends his day. Being a visionary leader is about solving day-to-day problems with my vision in mind.” (Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline)

I’ve been working on crafting Barrel’s vision, mission, and 5-year goals for a deck we plan to share with the team at the end of May. The exercise has made it incredibly clear to me that we’ve been operating too long without much of a vision at all. Seeing one come together has helped me see the value in investing the time and energy to craft one that can galvanize and unite a team in a focused way.

“We have argued that there is no greater waste of resources in ordinary organizations than the energy spent to hide our weaknesses and manage others’ favorable impressions of us.” (Robert Kegan, Lisa Laskow Lahey, An Everyone Culture)

Once you become attuned to this type of behavior, both within yourself and in others, it becomes blatantly clear how much energy is expended by all of us to “look good” and to avoid “getting in trouble” at work. The best way to escape this is to cultivate a culture where facing our weaknesses, being vulnerable, and embracing a growth mindset are supported in a trusting and kind manner. It’s a tall order, but this is part of the vision we have in mind for Barrel.

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