When I first started my company, I thought it would be all rainbows and unicorns. I had a lot of fantasies about how much better my lifestyle would be when I didn’t work for “the man,” which is probably why I spent most of my time depressed and anxious when reality finally set in. The financial roller coaster, the feast-or-famine nature of project work, and the loneliness of being a solo-entrepreneur was not what I had in mind.
I added a few team members to help level out the roller coaster and keep me company, and we floated along for several years with modest success.
In 2008, the economy tanked, and I was very close to losing everything. That's when I read Bo Burlingham's book Small Giants: Companies that Choose to Be Great Instead of Big.These companies reflected what I wanted to create but had been unable to articulate a vision for. I got involved with the Small Giants Community and visited other companies to learn from their methods.
I quickly learned that successful companies are extremely focused on process and structure-- two things I had avoided like the plague since leaving my job at a large organization. I realized that not only did I have a responsibility to get our act together, but I had to be intentional about it. It wasn’t just going to happen.
Fast forward to today: Whole Brain Group celebrated its 13th anniversary recently, and while the company looks nothing like it did when we started, it’s a lot closer to what I pictured back then (minus the unicorns). Plus, it’s a heck of a lot more fun.
This was the result of being intentional about our growth, our future, and how we would get there.
10 Ways to Intentionally Build a Great Agency
1) Install a Business Operating System
There are a bunch of systems out there designed to help companies stay focused and aligned as they grow. We elected to use the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS)because it came highly recommended by a number of Small Giants companies, and we liked the simplicity of the tools and documented best practices. It’s been a huge efficiency booster to have everyone the company using the same language, running similar meetings, and operating according to the same rules of engagement.
2) Establish a Shared Vision of Success
Get crystal clear on who you are, what you want out of business, and why. Then document that vision, and get your entire team on the same page about where the company is going. We use a tool to document and centralize our vision and manage all of our agency's priorities, goals, and issues. We update this document quarterly, share it with everyone in the company, use it as part of our hiring process. We refer to it almost daily to help us say "no" to things that will only distract us from our vision.
3) Articulate and Activate Your Core Values
Stop evaluating, hiring, and firing people on gut feelings. Instead, get clear on the core values that your team members must share if you’re going to achieve your vision and operate as non-dysfunctionally as possible. Activate these values in your culture by integrating them into how you attract new talent, evaluate and reward your employees, interact with your clients, and make decisions.
4) Define Your Shared Passion
What gets you and your team out of bed in the morning? Why do you do what you do? Are you excited about your clients? Define your ideal client profile, and articulate what gets you fired up so you can avoid straying from the path. If you’re not having much fun, determine what would make your team more happy and fulfilled. Then, define a plan to build that type of company.
5) Clarify Accountability, Roles, and Responsibilities
You’ll never be successful if every staff meeting sounds like an Abbott & Costello “Who’s on First” routine. First, think about the organization you need to build to achieve your vision. Next, create an accountability chart that clearly identifies roles and key responsibilities each person must own so you can operate more efficiently and eliminate “split personality syndrome” in your team. Depending on how big your agency is, you should also consider forming a leadership team to spread the responsibility of running the day-to-day operations -- a chore that many visionary entrepreneurs find painful and frankly, are terrible at.
6) Get the Right People in the Right Seats
If you’re good at employee retention, you may have people on your team who aren’t necessarily the right people to help you get to the next level. Take a hard look each employee, and make sure they fit with your core values and the positions they hold. If not, start developing a phased approach to escorting people off the bus or moving them to a different seat within the organization. This is one of the hardest things to do, but it is also one of the most powerful catalysts for change in your organization.
7) Meet Regularly to Solve Issues
Do you spend most of your time putting out fires, discussing issues endlessly without coming up with a solution, or meeting about things that are not critical to achieving your priorities? Following a regular meeting schedule can actually help you get more done if you manage the agenda properly, have the right people in the room, hold them accountable, and use a process for actually solving issues. We love using the Level 10 Meeting agenda because it’s helped us eliminate distractions, make decisions more quickly, and get things done!
8) Compartmentalize Your Issues
If you’re a visionary leader like many entrepreneurs, you probably get distracted easily and see opportunity everywhere you look. This skillset is critical for innovation and growth, but it can also be extremely annoying and dangerous if you don’t control yourself or if your team doesn’t have a way to say “no” to you. We meet every quarter to establish three to seven priorities, and we practice extreme compartmentalizing to avoid distractions.
9) Practice Financial Transparency and Manage to a Scorecard
One of the biggest obstacles to an effective leadership team is a lack of good data or financial knowledge. If they don’t have the same information the agency owner has, it’s tough for them to make smart decisions, and the owner ends up in the middle of everything. Consider adopting Open Book Finance principles to help your team gain financial and business expertise, and allow staff to have a stake in the game. At Whole Brain Group, we share a financial scorecard every Monday that includes current accounts receivable, cash on hand, projected revenue, expenses for the month, and projected net income. The leadership team also looks at a company scorecard with other key metrics to help identify and solve internal issues before they become problems.
10) Find a Community and Nurture Your Spirit
This stuff is hard work. Don’t go it alone! Reach out to other agency owners and join a peer group such as Vistage or Entrepreneur’s Organization to connect with other people who “get it.” I’ve forced myself to get away during some extremely stressful times in my business, and I have never regretted taking the time to gain valuable perspective and insight from colleagues who have been there and done that.