Themes from Our Partner Retreat

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This past weekend, the four Barrel partners held an offsite retreat in Old Chatham, NY to plan the company’s priorities and initiatives for 2018.

The two full days of planning were incredibly productive and we came away with a roadmap that we’re very excited to execute on in the coming weeks and months. It also helped that the AirBnB we were staying at was stunning. A barn-style home, the layout of the home, the high ceilings, the flood of sunlight, and the tasteful furnishings all contributed to a comfortable and luxurious environment (here’s the listing if you’re curious–should be great for groups and families with kids).

Throughout our sessions, a few recurring themes emerged and by the end of the retreat, we were able to articulate and agree that these were important ideas to continually revisit in both our day-to-day and in planning anything for the future. Below are the themes with some thoughts on how they’re relevant to our business.

Understanding on Fundamental Concepts and Ideas

As we discussed various areas for improvement at the company as well as potential opportunities that we should pursue, we began to come back again and again to the idea of understanding fundamental concepts and ideas. Take for example the discipline of project management. We know there are certain aspects of project management that we can improve upon, like being more prompt with client communication or being more diligent about keeping project schedules up-to-date. But when we began to discuss potential solutions, like instituting checklists or providing strict training guidelines to new project managers, we all felt that there was something reactive and prescriptive about such approaches.

We began to ask ourselves: do all project managers fully understand why constant and timely communication with clients are important? Are they aware of the impact that project schedules have on the project budget and the utilization of different team members? While some of these things may have felt to us like common sense, we also recognized that, with the unending stream of tasks people are dealt, it’s easy to forget the why behind the assignments. By reinforcing basic, fundamental concepts and aligning with the team on an on-going basis, could we better encourage team members to think more critically and to bring a problem-solver oriented approach versus a task-oriented one?

We tested this idea on a number of other areas and disciplines and found that there was a glaring absence of discussion and training on the fundamental concepts underlying the day-to-day tasks. How does e-commerce work and why is it important for businesses? What purpose does good design serve and what must we know about the user in order to create an effective experience? What is the purpose of collecting data and putting together marketing reports?

A related realization was that, as the company’s partners who interface with clients about new work and think more often about the high-level implications of projects, we internalize and intuit a great deal of the why’s and take for granted the understanding behind certain approaches we take to client work and running of the company. But this level of understanding is often not fully shared or communicated with the rest of the team, leaving a gap that frustrates both the partners and the employees. So when we identified “training” as a big area for improvement company-wide, we began to understand that a big part of it would have to be a greater effort to align on the fundamental concepts of everything we do and an understanding that goes beyond the prescriptive and into frameworks, logic, and reasoning that empower people to make smart decisions on their own with greater confidence.

Playing for the Long Term

One exercise that we do during our annual planning session is to talk about our 10-year and 3-year goals. As we contemplated what Barrel could look like in 10 years, the merits of long-term thinking came into sharper focus. We agreed that we were in no rush to supercharge growth at the company, but to grow at a pace that would be sustainable for the company and allow us to build something we could be proud of.

A long-term focus meant that we didn’t have to attain incredibly lofty and stressful goals for 2018. We set numbers that felt like a sizable increase from 2017 but one that we felt confident we could realistically reach. This would in turn allow us to focus on the task of strengthening and smartly scaling various aspects of our operations piece by piece.

There was something incredibly liberating about aligning on our long-term approach. We consciously decided to stick solely to our own scorecard and timetable rather than minding that growth rate and perceived success of other agencies out there. This reduces an unnecessary pressure and frees us to devote our mental energies to tackling things that really matter, such as the challenge of how we can continue to bring value to clients in a fast-changing business environment. I also think that a long-term view imbues a degree of confidence, allowing us to make decisions that are proactive and on our own terms.

Another exercise that we engaged in was one where we had to list out the three uniques of Barrel that help us stand out from the competition. One quality that we knew we already embraced and should do more to emphasize externally was the fact that we care deeply about building long-term relationships with clients and how short-term gains and quick-win projects are less valuable in our eyes if they don’t serve to strengthen the value we bring to our long-term partnerships.

Ask and Be Unafraid of the Answers

During one session, we talked at length about the takeaways from Radical Candor by Kim Scott, a management book on communicating more effectively with employees. As we dug into the various topics of the book, one theme that we struck upon was the importance of asking what the employee thought about things. While we were more than comfortable asking employees to talk about their performance and their contributions, it was apparent that we were less comfortable asking them for feedback, about their personal aspirations, and what they thought they should be compensated. Why was this?

We realized that we were simply afraid. What if they said something negative about projects they’re working on? What if they were critical of the way we were leading the company? What if they wanted to be paid more than we could afford. Fear, fear, fear. But is all that fear necessary? What’s the worst that could happen?

We dug into this more and realized that there was absolutely no upside in being fearful. If an employee was unhappy about something and we provided a channel for venting or voicing concerns through our questions, this is a good thing. It can lead to productive discussions and real changes. If an employee doesn’t like the way we’re doing something or has real feedback about our performance as managers, that’s information we can use to get better. Sure it might sting, but it’s nothing we can’t get over. And what about the stress that comes from an employee asking for more money? If the employee is truly valuable and worth stretching to keep, it’s an opportunity to retain that person. If the business truly can’t support a raise at the moment, then at the least, we can have an honest conversation with the employee and discuss a plan to get him/her to their desired salary levels in time.

None of these conversations are easy, but choosing not to ask or simply evading such conversations is both cowardly and a surefire way to alienate and discourage employees. The takeaway for us: don’t be afraid to ask, be honest and forward in what we say, and embrace the challenge of whatever comes as a result.

Parting Thoughts

What made the retreat so enjoyable was that everyone was so dialed-in and eager to contribute to the discussions. I’m very fortunate to work alongside a leadership team that cares deeply about our team members, is passionate about the work that we do, and brings a no-nonsense approach to showing up day-in and day-out to do their part for the business. I’ve learned a lot just by observing my partners, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue on this journey of building and growing our company.

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