Let me guess: you didn’t get into agency life because you wanted to manage a team.
If you’re like most agency leaders I know, you were probably more focused on the creative, strategic, or technical aspects of our industry.
But it’s important to realize you’re here now — and while you don’t have to be a great team manager to start an agency, you’d better become one...or everyone’s going to quit.
7 ways to level-up your leadership
"I consistently see poor leadership as the thing that holds great agencies back."
I consistently see poor leadership as the thing that holds great agencies back.
The hard truth is that leading a team (or teams!) at an agency is tough, but it doesn’t have to be so hard. So if you’re new to leading a team — or have been wondering if there’s an easier way — then this article is for you.
Here are seven ways to level-up, so your employees don’t see you as Bill Lumbergh, the terrible boss from the movie 'Office Space'.
1. Get results through others
Your effectiveness as a leader ultimately comes down to delegation. As soon as you transitioned from being an individual contributor to leading a team, what you do each day became less important than how much your team does.
Yet many managers struggle with delegation.
If you are one of them, it might be helpful to think about it this way: As an agency leader, your time is more valuable than that of your employees — you’re doing what I call “$1,000/hour activities,” things that only you can do. When you do a task you could have delegated, you’re wasting opportunities.
Instead, focus on high-value work for your agency, and leave the rest to your team. (More on putting together a great team later.)
- Going to lunch with a prospective referral partner? Only you can do that.
- Writing a post for your agency’s blog? Delegate all or part of it.
- Determining your agency’s long-term business strategy? Only you can do that.
- Doing a pre-screen call with a new sales prospect? Delegate it.
If you do everything yourself, you won’t be doing your job as the leader. Instead, set a vision, hold your team accountable, and coach people along the way.
You might also like: Tips and Tricks for Managing Remote Employees.
2. Avoid overload AND get results
As an agency leader, you’ll do plenty of roll-up-your sleeves work yourself, but your team’s success is your success. Once you accept that your job is to get results through other people, it’s important to avoid overload and keep your own schedule free for big opportunities.
(Miss seeing tangible results every day? Take up a physical hobby or start a side hustle.)
That means scheduling-in “heads down” time. Program your email, voicemail, and instant messaging to manage client and team expectations. For example, turn on your “out of office” emails to say you’ll get back to them tomorrow, or point people to a different team member for client work.
Train your employees to respect your “heads down” time, including how to reach you otherwise. Instead of going to you for every approval, give them the authority to approve certain things, and show them how you want items escalated.
For example, you might train them to start with email, then escalate to IM, then come to you directly after your heads-down time is over.
"Don’t expect employees to read your mind. Make sure your team understands your values, goals, and resources (VGR), so they can use these to make better decisions."
However, this comes with a caveat. Don’t expect employees to read your mind. Make sure your team understands your values, goals, and resources (VGR), so they can use these to make better decisions.
Finally, don’t leave things to chance or assume your team will be able to memorize everything.
Write it down. Or, rather, delegate writing it down (your time is worth $1,000/hour, remember?). In fact, make someone else on the team responsible for taking meeting minutes altogether.
This will help ensure your team members leave meetings with actionable items...and so you have fewer low-value actionables yourself.
Your goal during those meetings will be to get as many of those actionable items off your own plate (and assigned to the right person) as possible.
3. Build your A-team
Of course, accepting the need to get results through others is easier when you have a team you can count on. Contrary to what many managers think, reliability doesn’t necessarily depend on how much they know or their skill level. Instead, it has to do with whether they’re “new rope” or “wet twine.”
The concept is that new rope is strong, while wet twine is unreliable.
Employees who qualify as “new rope” help drive your agency forward; they take initiative to make your life easier, get things done, think beyond their job description, are resourceful, and are committed to continuous improvement.
Those who are “wet twine” make life harder for you (and likely others around them). They stir up drama, demand more oversight from you than their role requires, deliver mediocre work, fail to meet expectations, always put themselves first, ignore agency and client priorities, and never seem to be there when you need them.
"When recruiting, make sure to hire new rope, not wet twine."
When recruiting, make sure to hire new rope, not wet twine. What if you have employees who qualify as wet twine? Seriously consider if they’re worth keeping around.
As a manager, it’s also important to commit to coaching your team to improve (this activity IS worth $1,000/hour). If someone does something well (or poorly), explain what worked and what didn’t. Your obligation as a leader is to help your team improve and grow.
And finally, make sure you reward results, not facetime. Smart managers trust employees to manage their own time. Give people goals and parameters, then hold them accountable for delivering.
4. Use both warmth AND competence
Warmth and Competence comes from the book The Human Brand by Chris Malone and Susan Fiske.
At many agencies, the focus is on getting work done well and on time — that’s competence. While competence is important, it’s not memorable. As an agency, it’s equally important to think about warmth.
"And we’ve all heard how employees leave managers, not companies."
If competence is your capability to get things done well, warmth is showing clients (and employees) that you appreciate them more than the money they pay you (or the work they do as employees). In my experience, clients are faster to fire your agency for a bad client experience (low warmth) than for doing bad work (low competence).And we’ve all heard how employees leave managers, not companies.
Warmth is showing you care about people and that you see them as individuals instead of cogs in a machine. A pattern of High Warmth means your client or employee will give you the benefit of the doubt the first time something goes wrong.
It’s not enough to just be good at what you do; people have to enjoy working with you, too. Think about your favorite manager in the past; they probably cared about helping you do your best work, while also valuing you as a person instead of just a worker.
Want to succeed as a manager today? Strive for high competence and high warmth.
5. Designate swimlanes
I mentioned earlier that it’s important your team understands your values, goals, and resources (VGR) and that they know how to make decisions without you.
Part of enabling autonomy effectively is to build “swimlanes” at your agency. In a pool, swimlanes keep swimmers from bumping into each other. At an agency, swimlanes keep people accountable, and empower your team to get their jobs done. They also help eliminate drama by clarifying who handles what.
Essentially, they are a shared definition of who’s in charge of each area.
When you’re all on the same page about who owns what, people can stay out of each other’s way and avoid second-guessing decisions unless something isn’t working.
- Who “owns” which clients?
- Who makes decision about design v.s. technical considerations?
- Who decides whether to “comp” free work?
- Who decides which project gets scheduled first?
Swimlanes can also cover gray areas — for instance, you might define that a project manager can make decisions about comp’ing work up to $1,000 but s/he needs manager approval above $1,000.
Once you set the swimlanes, it’s easier to make yourself “needed but not necessary.”
6. Focus on win-win incentive alignment
Once team members clearly understand their responsibilities, it’s still important to remember that even the best people tend to act with their own self-interest in mind.
"That means you must create win-wins so both you and your employees get what you want."
That means you must create win-wins so both you and your employees get what you want. If you have something you need someone to do, and they want to do that thing because it advances their own goals — there’s incentive alignment.
For example, perhaps someone on your team wants to get promoted. You explain that they need to learn a certain skill set before you could consider them for those roles. You and they can look for opportunities to practice those skills.
Another example of a win-win at an agency is equity vesting for new owners, which encourages people to stay with the agency, rather than leave for a new job. The key employee gets the ownership stake they want, and you’re happy they’re more likely to stick around.
Be careful, however, not to provide the wrong incentives. For instance, the wrong incentives for a salesperson might encourage them to sell work your agency can’t deliver. That just creates new headaches; we’ve all seen what happens then. Instead, challenge your salespeople to sell “perfect fit” projects and create criteria to define which prospects are qualified.
7. Don’t forget self-care
Finally, don’t forget to put on your own oxygen mask first. On my first call with new clients, they often admit they feel burned out. That exhaustion isn’t conducive to being an effective agency leader.
Feeling totally overwhelmed? Look at your calendar for this coming Friday. Consider cancelling everything and taking a “mental health day” for self-care. Enlist your team to help, and set up automated emails telling clients who can help them instead, while you’re out.
Feel like there’s no way you could afford a day off? You probably need the PTO even more.
Truly can’t spare an entire day? There are plenty of ways to recharge in 15 minutes or less. As a leader, make time for mental health now to avoid costly mistakes later.
You might also like: What is Impostor Syndrome? 6 Ways for Designers and Developers to Beat it.
Take action as a manager
As I mentioned earlier, managing people at an agency is never easy — but it doesn’t have to be so hard. Ready to take action? I challenge you to pick one of the seven tips I’ve shared here and start using it in the next week. You’ll make life better for you…and your team. It’s worth it!
What’s the first tip you're going to start using next week to level-up your management? Tell us in the comments section below!