For every agency the team you’ve assembled has a huge impact on your bottom line. You absolutely want to hire skilled, smart team members. You also want to have every player enhance the culture of your shop. But at the end of the day, you need them to work within your agency’s system and contribute to making the entire agency stronger and better.

In my conversation with my podcast guest Marcus Blankenship we explore how to create the a dream team through better hiring, smarter accountability and the importance of regular feedback.

Effective team building and keeping that team intact is what makes an agency money. Marcus and I show you how with:

  • Why you must identify your high and low performers
  • Why you shouldn’t be a passive-aggressive leader
  • Why you can’t hire anyone you can’t fire
  • Structured management: why you can’t set people free without management and why you need to set up strong management systems when your agency is small
  • How to effectively build a team
  • How to get your team to work well together
  • Why consistent one-on-one meetings are so crucial
  • What happens in your employee’s head when you cancel a one-on-one meeting
  • How to create a safe environment where the people below you are willing to give you the feedback you need
  • Why you shouldn’t let feedback sit more than a week
  • Marcus’ one-on-one framework guide

Marcus Blankenship is a management consultant, trainer and executive coach for software managers and leaders. He helps companies hire the right people, create the right culture, and set up the right process which achieves their goals. Managing a team isn’t something learned in college. In fact, his clients often tell him “I never prepared for this role, I always focused on doing the work.” If you’re ready to improve your leadership, process and team then you need to know Marcus.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. Some of the Problems Marcus Identifies in Small Businesses
  2. How Marcus Evaluates His Team
  3. How Business Owners Can Better Prepare Themselves for the Difficult Conversations
  4. The Importance of One-on-One Meetings
  5. How to Make Time for One-on-Ones with Your Employees
  6. How to Make Your Employees Feel Safe About Giving Feedback
  7. Immediate Action Steps for More Effective Team Building and Getting Your Team to Work Well Together

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Build A Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25-plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Really excited today to talk about systems and teams and getting a team to work well together.

At the end of the day, you are as great as your team, or you struggle mightily if your team is struggling, and that’s what we have to sell, is: How we work together as a team, and what we can deliver as a team.

And so having systems and process and respect and understanding amongst your whole team and having everybody pulling the wagon in the same direction, as many of you have heard me talk about, is critical to the success of your agency; so let me tell you a little bit about our guest. He comes from an interesting background.  

He has worked a lot with technical people, owned an agency for seven years. So he has all kinds of different experiences in effective team building that he brings to the work he does with teams across many industries, but including agencies.

Let me tell you a little bit more about him. Marcus Blankenship is his name, I probably should tell you that right off the bat.

One of the things that he talks about is, everybody wishes everyone could just work together and get along, and that a lot of industries and a lot of organizations, including agencies, get kind of caught up in a lot of buck-passing and “Not my job, man,” kind of thing; and a lot of excuses around missed deadlines, quality issues, going over budget.

I know that this is not happening to any of you listening, but some other agencies deal with these issues, and so we’re going to talk about them.

So what Marcus talks about is how to get your team to work well together, in alignment and how to make sure that everybody is doing great work, has transparency in the process and in the deliverables, and obviously, at the end of the day, is knocking out of the park for clients.

So, Marcus welcome to the podcast.

Marcus B: Hey, thanks, Drew. I’m really happy to be here.


Some of the Problems Marcus Identifies in Small Businesses

Drew McLellan: So let’s talk a little bit about agencies like most small businesses. You know they run based on how well their team runs.

So typically when you engage with somebody, what are some of the things that you identify as problems or challenges that need to get a little bit of course correction?

Marcus B: Yeah, one of the first exercises I ask folks as I’m onboarding into my coaching and mentoring services is, we do a ranking of the team members, and then we just talk about performance and attitude.

And what I’m really looking for is for the agency owner to identify their high performers and their low performers, and then I ask them to go on and think about who would they clone if they could? That’s sort of another way, like who is so good that you wish you had three more of them? But the real impact comes when we talk about who shouldn’t be on the team, and they’re still there.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. Right.

Marcus B: And so I actually-

Drew McLellan: And in every agency, I’m going to bet there’s at least one of those.

Marcus B: I was going to say that, yeah.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: Exactly.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: I have never found anybody who said, “Everyone is great,” or if they did say, “Everyone is great,” and I said, “Really?” They said, “Well, except Jim. Jim … ” Right?

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: “I haven’t really talked to Jim,” so that’s my next question is, “Okay, does Jim know he’s not great?” Well, no. Jim never knows he’s not great, so this is a problem.

Drew McLellan: No, in fact, Jim-

Marcus B: Or-

Drew McLellan: In fact, Jim thinks he’s great.

Marcus B: Well, yeah. Then this is my favorite thing, I’ve heard this so many times, is, I might say, “Does Jim realize that you and I might be talking about letting him go?” Because that’s what we’re … Like Jim’s in danger. And the person, the agency owner, will say, “Well, I don’t know how he couldn’t figure it out.”

Drew McLellan: Other than, “I haven’t told him.”

Marcus B: Other than I’ve, yes.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: “Because I’ve shunned him. I’ve shamed … “

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: ” … him. I don’t smile at him. Right? Whatever the signals are, he ought to get the message.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah. Unfortunately, many agency owners practice a little passive-aggressive leadership.

Marcus B: Yeah, that’s maybe even an understatement there.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah.

Marcus B: Well, and I think, to be honest, a lot of it comes from agency owners … At least I was, when I had my agency, I didn’t start thinking, “You know what I should do is, own an agency and manage 20 people, because that sounds like fun.”

I thought, “Why don’t I bring the expertise, the technical expertise, so then we add a design expertise. Why don’t we do that for other people? We’ll make a boatload of money, and I’ll be my own boss, and it’ll be great, and if I have to add somebody, I’m only going to add the really great people to the team.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah, I describe this as “accidental ownership,” so I think a lot of agency owners wake up one day and go, “Oh, crap. I own an agency.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: Exactly. I call it “accidental management,” like I always knew I was the owner. This is what I’ve seen, but crud, what’s it mean to be a manager? And I guess an owner is the same as a leader, so that, I must have covered.

Drew McLellan: Right. Well, and I think a lot of times, since agency owners often grow up through the ranks, I think the other thing that they struggle with is, they’re used to the agency, the peer group inside the agency, also being their buddies; and it’s hard to manage your buddies.

Marcus B: Yeah, I have a saying, and no one likes it, and that’s, “You can’t hire someone that you can’t fire.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: And this is the-

Drew McLellan: Which would include siblings, parents.

Marcus B: I was going to say.

Drew McLellan: Best friends.

Marcus B: I didn’t hire my kids, and they were either late teens or early twenties, and I got a lot of pressure as the owner. “Just bring them in, and can’t they help out?”

And I said, “You know what? If I have to discipline them or fire them, I don’t want there to be awkwardness at Thanksgiving.” Right?

Drew McLellan: Right, right.

Marcus B: And I’m going to openly avoid giving them any criticism, because I want to play the role of their Dad.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: I don’t want to be their boss.


How Marcus Evaluates His Team

Drew McLellan: Right. Right. So when you do the evaluation, do you have just the owner do the evaluation, or do you have like a leadership team evaluate the whole team?

Marcus B: It depends on the size of the company.

Drew McLellan: Okay.

Marcus B: Oftentimes, I’m working with agencies that are under 25 people, and so they’re just starting to really put together what they call their art director, or their technical director.

And depending on the relationship with those people, sometimes we’ll move down a level, because at about 25 or 30, the agency owner is maybe a little bit removed from exactly how well everybody’s doing.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: Although I’m always shocked at how flat organizations get, and I think that there is a trend. I don’t like the trend of Holacracy and these other things where the idea is like, if you just hire great people and set them free, everything wonderful will happen.

I’m a fan of structured management, but I think a lot of agency owners kind of want to be hip and cool and say, “Well, let’s not have bosses. Let’s keep it really flat,” and what that means is, nobody’s really managing anything.

Drew McLellan: Right, right. So when you say “structured management,” what does that look like? What do you think the best practice is around managing a company of 25 or so people, or smaller?

Marcus B: I think the first thing is, you’ve got to set up your communication channels, and you’ve got to practice those things religiously. One-on-one meetings, team meetings, evaluation meetings, onboarding practices, termination and discipline practices.

These all sound like HR, but in a lot of ways, these have nothing to do with the production practices, and so they really get overlooked by the agency owner.

Drew McLellan: Well, and oftentimes they’re not pleasant conversations, so if you don’t have the system or the process, maybe you can just avoid it altogether.

Marcus B: Right, and …

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: On the face of it, they don’t make you money. Right?

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: We are all about, at least I was, was the billable hours.

That time clock is running, and I’ve got to earn so much every day to pay these great people, so I really don’t have time to do these fancy one-on-ones.

I mean, we can play ping pong, and we’ll go out for beers and stuff, but to have a structured conversation where bidirectional feedback is given, where trust is built, and where I actually say to you, “Drew, I was really disappointed that you’ve come in late in the last week,” like, “What can we do, what can I do to help that?”

That can be a hard conversation if you don’t know how to approach it.


How Business Owners Can Better Prepare Themselves for the Difficult Conversations

Drew McLellan: So do you find that most of the people that you work with, most of the business owners, are they equipped to have those conversations, or have they only been on the receiving end of those at some point in their career?

Marcus B: Well, I see two kinds. I see people who have always worked for themselves, and, like you call it “the accidental owner.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: I get a lot of folks who say, “I never even worked at a big company,” or, “I never had a great boss, so I don’t really know how it’s supposed to be done.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: “So I feel a little lost,” but then you get people, and this is kind of my case, where I came from an enterprise, 30,000 people, big, global company. I did have a really good boss. I had a good management, systems that I, both were affected by, as an individual contributor, and participated in, as I went up the management ranks.

But when I left that, I had kind of a bitter taste in my mouth about a lot of those big company practices, and I wanted to be agile and nimble and I wanted to be different and creative, so I thought, “Well, we don’t need to bring all that over.” It only took about a year for me to figure out that was … Those kinds of intentional communication channels were exactly what I needed to start building the team that that was the team my company needed.

Drew McLellan: Well, otherwise, you have a bunch of people who are, in essence, independent contractors, and everyone is doing their own thing in their own way, and I think part of the other challenge is, when an agency starts out super small, when you’re all within shouting distance of each other, that can work for a while.

And so I think you get lulled, as a new agency owner, with three or four employees, you get lulled into thinking that, “Isn’t it awesome that we don’t have to do all that stuff, and isn’t it great, the way this is working?” But the minute you get to about, I think about 10 people, all of a sudden, that doesn’t work anymore.

Marcus B: Right, and I think that we’re also, tend to look to the operational delivery practices.

When things start to go awry, I’ve found owners usually say, “Well, if we’re a technical firm, let’s move to agile,” or, “Let’s get better at our agile,” or, “Let’s do agile design,” or “lean,” or … Nobody’s doing “waterfall” anymore, because that’s just a dirty word, but we automatically move to think the problem is the system, the delivery system.

Sometimes it is, don’t get me wrong, but plugging people that are disengaged and unmotivated or have a sour attitude into those systems isn’t going to result in what you need.


The Importance of One-on-One Meetings

Drew McLellan: Yeah. So tell me this: When I talk to agency owners, and I start talking about the importance of one-on-one meetings and reviews and all of that, I can tell by the lack of eye contact that it’s not happening, and so when I say to them, “How many of you,” like I’ll be teaching a workshop or something, “How many of you are doing annual reviews?” I get a lot of sort-ofs or, “Yeah, well, every other year,” kind of a thing.

How do you go from zero to whatever? How do you help managers or owners begin to work some of these things into the culture and the system and process and timetable and calendar of their organization?

Marcus B: I think it can be really hard, but I start with emphasizing the importance of it. If we look at the Gallup polls, last year I believe they came out with the State of the American Manager, where they talked about 50% of people who answered the survey had actually left a job to get away from their manager.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: Oh, man, all of a sudden, managers matter. If we look at concepts like leader-member exchange theory that really says that the primary predictor of job performance and job satisfaction is an employee’s relationship with their manager, and that those sociologists have gone on to say that the manager-employee relationship is a lens through which that employee sees the entire organization and all of their work.

Now, we’re starting to say, “Wow, this relationship really matters.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: So from there, I try and sort of scare them into like … And then I usually ask, “Tell me about a bad boss you had. Has anybody ever had one?” And we oftentimes talk about horror stories, and believe me, some of these poor people have been treated so badly.

Drew McLellan: Of course.

Marcus B: I just feel terrible for them, and while I don’t think they’re that bad, those bosses, I remind them, probably didn’t think they were that bad, either.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: So kind of starting with how important it is, I move to saying like, “All you need is a few standard processes. You need your one-on-ones, you need probably your team meeting, probably monthly at least.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: “Maybe weekly, if you’re going to do a huddle. If you’re doing any sort of agile work, you’re probably going to want some kind of stand-up,” and a lot of them already have that, because they’ve heard stand-up is a great practice, and it sounds like fun; but then the importance of the evaluation and how to do that.

Because many of those people hate the idea of doing an employee evaluation, because evaluations have been inflicted on them so much in the past. And so I teach them how to do evaluations that are zero surprise, where you promise the employee, “You’re never going to hear anything in here, in this evaluation, that we haven’t talked about before, so there’s no blindsiding.

And we are actually going to talk about important things that matter to both of us,” and then, kind of coming full circle, using their one-on-ones to make sure that’s a time to give all of that feedback so there is no surprise at the evaluation, and also, of course, because even though managers and owners are inherently perfect people, sometimes we really need feedback to correct our own work, so if we build in feedback loops through one-on-ones, we start to build trust. We start to help other people see that it is safe for them to come and talk to us.

Drew McLellan: So what I’m hearing you say is that a couple things. One, I preach, in fact, I did a podcast probably a month ago, where I talked about the 3 Must-Have Workplace Meetings Every Organization Needs to Be Having, and I’ve talked about the one-on-ones and the importance of them; and I actually, I have a whole podcast around that. (Podcast here: Why You Need Weekly One-On-One Meetings with Every Employee)

Because I actually think that’s, and I’m curious about what you think, I think that’s the foundation for great management is, yes, you need to do an annual review, and yes, you need to do the team meetings.

But, at the core foundation of effective team building are those consistent one-on-one meetings where the employee knows they’re going to have your attention, and they are going to have focus time with you where they can bring their concerns, their ideas, their celebrations, whatever it is, and that they know that they’re going to get mentorship and feedback from you.

What do you think?

Marcus B: I totally agree, and if we go back to that, with that leader-member exchange theory, all those surveys, and all that research shows us is, it’s about the individual, unique relationship that you have with your employee.

So doing team meetings builds it a little bit. Doing staff meetings, doing group activities in stand-up, sure, those are little contributors, but you’re exactly right. The core practice has got to be the private, one-on-one meeting, and that’s where you start to actually build real trust; and I think that’s what you trade on when you have to have a hard conversation, or someone has to have a hard conversation with you.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: Which is even, oftentimes these managers can remember the few brave employees that sort of braved the power dynamic and said, “I think you might want to reconsider the way you’re talking about this.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: Giving them candid feedback.

Drew McLellan: Right. Yeah, we, at my team, my people have been with me for a super long time, so a lot of people have heard me talk about the fact that the average tenure on my team is like 14 or 15 years, and we agreed a long time ago that we needed a trigger sentence.

So we needed a way to, in essence, when they needed to tell me that I’d messed up, which, as you might imagine, is a regular conversation, that we needed a trigger word so that they knew it was a safe time and a safe place, and that they were not catching me off-guard.

And so literally, if one of my employees walks in and says, “Hey, we need to have a difficult conversation,” I know immediately to put everything down and to either say, “You know what? This isn’t a great time. Can we do it later today,” or that I need to really be open to that conversation.

And even little tricks like that allow people to have a candor that perhaps they are not used to having in the workplace.

Marcus B: I love it. I think that’s great. Netflix has this culture of giving and receiving feedback; and the idea is, anyone at any level is expected, if they see something, where they’re working with someone in a different team, on their team, their boss, someone five levels up.

They encourage people to sort of stop a conversation or to make sure they know that they can say, “Can I give you some feedback on what I’m seeing?” And that’s kind of what I’ve heard is their opening sentence, and it’s funny, because I’ve talked to some people there who live in that culture, and what they tell me is, I said, “Well, isn’t it really hard for people at a lower, who work for somebody much higher than them, or to give feedback upwards?”

Drew McLellan: Yeah, the chain.

Marcus B: And you probably … Exactly, right? Ed Schein’s book The Humble Inquiry does an amazing job of helping leaders and managers like us be able to create safe places by being humble in our inquiries and opening up ourselves for those kinds of conversations.

But at Netflix, what I’ve been told is that people down farther on the chain oftentimes get very comfortable giving people above them one, two, three, four levels above them really … I would call it, “super candid feedback,” but of course, the higher you go, the more careful you have to be. Their phrase, I heard, was, “We don’t punch downwards.”

Drew McLellan: Interesting.

Marcus B: The idea is, you just … It’s not that you withhold feedback from people who are three levels below you, but you realize that the power dynamic dictates that any feedback you give them, especially anything that smells critical, has to be properly couched, because it’s going to be a little terrifying for them.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: Does that make sense?

Drew McLellan: Right. Absolutely. Absolutely.

Marcus B: So they really coach their upper management, like you’re going to get a lot of feedback, but really be careful in how you give feedback. It’s not that you shouldn’t. It’s that you should realize like, your positional authority gives you a 10X multiplier on how that’s going to be taken.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. It’s like shouting without shouting.

Marcus B: Exactly.


How to Make Time for One-on-Ones with Your Employees

Drew McLellan: Yeah. So when I talk about one-on-ones, and the agency owners start to sort of … The expression on their face is, “Oh, my God, I don’t have a spare minute in my day,” and the first question they’ll have is, and it’s in just this tone, “How often do I have to do this?”

Right? So how do you respond to that? Because I suspect you hear it, too.

Marcus B: I do. I hear it from, almost every boss appears to be busy. I don’t think I’ve met one owner or manager who says, “I’m just lounging around, waiting for my next meeting.”

Drew McLellan: “Feet up on my desk, eating the bonbons.”

Marcus B: Exactly, right?

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: So what I tell them is among the attributes of one-on-one meetings, like I do think they have to be done privately. That’s not usually a problem, although I’ve had managers who have a very open space and they’ve got to be a bit more intentional about that. I tell them that regularity is important, and consistency, though, is the key.

So if they are unsure, and I always tell them to start by running an experiment. Promise your team, tell them, “I want to do one-on-ones for one month, or two months, and then we’re going to evaluate their usefulness,” and so as you’re going to do an experiment, set a time schedule that you can be very committed to.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: So if weekly … While I might be telling you weekly is best, you may not have the space in your life to do weekly, so frankly, every two weeks and keeping that promise to do it every two weeks is much better than promising weekly, breaking 50% of your promises or reshuffling every week.

As one of my clients says, “I chase my one-on-ones across the calendar every week,” and so you shouldn’t do that, right?

Drew McLellan: Right, right.

Marcus B: Instead, if you’re not sure if you’re feeling really busy, set them for every two weeks. Heck, I’d be happy if you set them for every three weeks. Maybe make them a little longer, try it for three months, call it an experiment, and then have a discussion with the employee and think to yourself, “What’s changing because of this? What’s working, what’s not? Do I want to consider … I’m sorry, Do I want to continue, or is this something I need to make an adjustment to before we move forward?”

But I really believe that every time you throw a calendar appointment on somebody’s calendar and you say, “Okay, we’re going to have our one-on-one meetings at this time,” and then you move it, I got to count that as a broken promise, and that’s going to hurt trust in the long run.

Drew McLellan: Well, it just makes it feel like it’s not a priority for you, right?

Marcus B: It’s not really important.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: I had this guy email me on my list, and he said, “Every time my boss cancels our one-on-one, it makes me wonder if he’s mad at me. It makes me wonder if maybe something bad is happening in the company. Maybe he can’t even control his world. Like, is this company that chaotic?

Or maybe he secretly has some hard feedback that he doesn’t know how to give me, so he’d rather just move it or postpone it. No matter what hap