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Many agency leaders are still involved with every client and every decision, even though it slows down growth. But getting beyond the firefighting might be easier than you think.
All parents recognise the reflex to jump in between your child and a problem, especially when they’re in harm’s way.
This instinct is just as prevalent when peril is absent, whether that’s tying their laces, ‘helping’ with homework or whisking lumps out of their pancake mix.
Of course, this comes from a good place, but it doesn’t necessarily help children develop skills, resilience and independence.
And for agency leaders – when the business so often feels like your baby – that same benign impulse to intervene regularly hampers growth.
Diving in to get good outcomes done quickly is only natural. But when you’re by far the best qualified to act, it’s all too easy to become a bottleneck.
Maybe all sales come through you? Perhaps you’re the only one having new ideas, which no-one’s prepared to shoot down? When clients ask tricky questions, do all eyes turn to you?
On the plus side, this means you’re very good at what you do. You have skills and knowledge that others lack. And you probably have more charisma, credibility and miles on the clock, all of which are hard to pass on.
Unfortunately, the flip-side is that you become a barrier to profit, a happy team and your own professional fulfilment.
And it’s all so bloody infuriating. Why can’t people show a bit more initiative? Why don’t they ask forgiveness over seeking permission – or better still, radiate intent?
But fires still need fighting. So you do what you always do – pick up the slack for the greater good.
And the cycle continues.
Being a human logjam is effectively a growing pain. Back in the day, you put your hand up for everything – probably because there weren’t many other hands around. And everyone else was wearing 14 hats too.
Now it’s time to change. You need to work differently, develop your leadership team and wean them off their reliance on you.
But important though this is, it’s never quite as urgent as closing that deal, retaining that client or signing-off on that major hire.
That’s why stepping back feels risky or even reckless. No wonder so many agency chiefs are nervous of their own indispensability.
Clearly liberating yourself from the day-to-day is a complex issue – otherwise you wouldn’t still be wrestling with it.
It speaks to skills, structure and process, not to mention what clients really want from you. There are also difficult truths to explore around your own remit, aspirations and limitations – not least where diligence meets control freakery.
For some, evolving their role feels impossible. So they keep doing what they’ve always done; reassuring themselves that ‘it’s always worked before’ when actually they’re just hiding their heads in the sand. At best, their growth will plateau.
Others recognise that there’ll never be a perfect time to bite the bullet – especially in a market that challenges them to rethink the role of agencies.
So the best time to start is yesterday. Of course, that can be scary. But as any half decent fortune cookie will tell you, there’s no harder step than the first.
Once you strip things back, elevating yourself really just boils down to money.
When urgency trumps importance, it’s usually because of cold, hard cash. So having more money affords you the time, space and freedom to change.
That might sound a bit chicken-and-egg, but change has to start somewhere – and improving your margins is often easier than you think.
For one, time is money. So are you sure you need to be at that meeting? Would it really take more time to delegate that task? Are you just ticking off the easy things to make your to-do list shorter?
And when you apply the same rigour to your strategic priorities, things start to get really transformational. Where will growth really come from? Which is the very best audience for you? Where can you be meaningfully different?
From standout, new-business and client development, to operational efficiency and workplace culture, focus helps all aspects of healthy growth.
Fire-fighting hampering fire prevention creates a vicious cycle, so replace it with a virtuous circle. Doing fewer things well frees-up time to do those things better. That secures better clients who are happy to pay more for better work, which then attracts more of the same.
That’s the power of focus – when you’re ready to adopt it.
In their early hand-to-mouth days, most agencies have to scrap to make money where they can. The distracted, fire-fighting leaders are usually those who’ve struggled to get beyond this natural start-up mindset.
But being trapped by your role isn’t healthy for you, your business or your loved ones.
Instead, stretching your team to step-up means stretching yourself to step away. Your real role is to look beyond the immediate horizon and plot a course for sustainable growth.
This focused, intentional evolution of you and your agency creates space for the talent around you to expand and flourish.
And regardless of whether you plan to exit, build a legacy or just create a brilliant place to work, if you’re still stuck in the detail, then you’re probably a well-meaning bottleneck.
If so, your priority is to avoid gridlock.
Robin Bonn is the founder of agency management consultancy Co:definery, as well as a columnist for Marketing Week. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org.