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 happens, I feel bad when he cancels or changes the date, because it makes me feel like I don’t know what’s going on.”


How to Make Your Employees Feel Safe About Giving Feedback

Drew McLellan: Huh, fascinating. I want to circle back and talk about how we can, as owners and managers, help our people give us feedback; and we talked a little bit about the power issue, but it’s scary to tell somebody something unpleasant when they can fire you, so …

Marcus B: It is.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, so how does a manager or a leader, how do they make that safer for the employees?

Marcus B: There’s a few different ways and, again, I am going to, if you’re interested in this topic, Ed Schein’s book Humble Inquiry, I think, is the best writing on it, but what he talks about is the idea of, if we imagine … Let’s see if I can properly, kind of, outline this. If you imagine an operating room and you’ve got people like surgeons, and nurses, and anesthesiologists, and all the way down to, you might think about the power hierarchy is very clear … Down to, like, a surgery tech.

And the chief surgeon has a tremendous amount of prestige and skill, and really, then, and because of that, in that environment, they are the boss, and then there’s all these different levels. And yet, you could imagine the surgery tech might notice blood dripping out of the patient from a place that it wasn’t expected.

You might imagine the nurse noticing the patient’s breathing wasn’t quite as expected, and for us non-medical people, we sure hope that all those people would raise their hand, right, and say, “Doctor, there’s a problem,” in the same way as we hope our people would raise their hand and say, “Owner, there’s a problem”.

But study after study shows that that’s not the case; that there are some cultures and some times when, this sounds terrible, but task failure is actually preferred over the possibility of humiliating the person at a higher power status. Isn’t that amazing?

Drew McLellan: Yeah, wow.

Marcus B: And so you could imagine like, as a person who might go in for surgery, I sure would want everybody in that operating theater.

Drew McLellan: “If you see blood, speak up.”

Marcus B: Right, exactly.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: And yet so many patients have died, and then later, as they’ve interviewed the anesthesiologist, and in this case, maybe they were from an Asian culture, and there is a very strong concern about humiliating people, calling out the expert. Maybe there’s a cultural changes, differences. American, British, maybe there’s … There’s lots of things.

So you have to first realize that you, as the owner, sit in this special place, and by special, all I mean is you are at the top of the power dynamic, and if you imagine that anybody’s going to easily waltz in tomorrow and say, “Hey, I think you’re really screwing up that project, and I’m really upset with you that we didn’t have our annual evaluations,” and read you the Riot Act about something, you’re probably wrong.

Drew McLellan: Absolutely.

Marcus B: My guess is, those people are simply going to quit, or they’re going to start brushing up their résumé. They may not quit immediately, but they don’t, probably, unless you have done something to make them feel safe, and so let’s move to that, right? If you want a safe environment where you get feedback in the one-on-one meetings, start by asking for feedback.

Now, Drew, my guess is if I came to work for you and you said, in our first one-on-one, you might say, “Marcus, do you have any feedback for me?” What do you think I might say?

Drew McLellan: Well, I think you’re going to say I’m awesome, probably, right?

Marcus B: You are awesome.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah.

Marcus B: That’s right.

Drew McLellan: Right, yeah. I think you’re going to say, “No, everything’s great.”

Marcus B: That’s exactly right.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, right.

Marcus B: And then, if you’re like most managers, you’re going to feel like, “Well, that’s because I’m awesome.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: And then you’re going to say this, this deathly, deadly phrase, “Well, my door’s always open, so if you’ve got anything, just march through it and let me know. I’m always here for you,” and then you’ll never ask again; and you’ve just committed two or three deadly sins.

One, the first one is, you need to ask for feedback every single time you meet, okay? That needs to be part of your one-on-one, because …

Drew McLellan: And should the request be more specific? Like …

Marcus B: I was-

Drew McLellan: “Hey, Marcus. Do you have feedback for me?” Is that too broad?

Marcus B: Well, I think it’s scary. So I actually do like to use, I like to ask for situational feedback. In fact, if we consider that you and I are, you’re the owner and I’m the employee, instead of you saying, “How am I doing?” Which is really vague and I’m always going to say, “You’re doing awesome.” If you say to me things like, “How could I have handled that situation better,” or, “Do you think we could’ve gotten better outcomes with that client management?” If you ask me for feedback on a situation that you were involved in managing, we’re kind of triangulating.

It’s not me against you, it’s you and I on the same table looking at a third thing: The situation. It’s much easier for me to say, “Well, in that situation, I guess we could’ve tried X, or Y, or Z,” or, “I saw a failure to communicate with the client, and so that really resulted in this other thing happening.” That is feedback for you, for your work, right?

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: It’s just much less scary than me saying, “You really screwed up that project, Drew.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah, that’s a much better way of getting them to ease into giving feedback, but it’s sort of like, you know how, you mentioned that you have kids, you know how you always have great conversations in the car because you’re not making eye contact, right?

Marcus B: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: It’s the same sort of thing, right? It’s sort of a non-eye-contact way of getting feedback.

Marcus B: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: Yeah, that’s exactly right, and sometimes people get really excited when you ask them for their ideas on how you can improve your work, but they never would’ve told you if you’d just said, “How can I improve my work?” Right?

Drew McLellan: Yeah, right.

Marcus B: Or even if you are asking, if you’re only asking once a year in that 360 evaluation, yeah, that’s a pretty scary time, too, so I think you’ve got to ask consistently. I think you show them that you really want it when you don’t stop asking the third time that they say, “Oh, everything’s fine,” and instead, you dig a little deeper, “Well, what do you think about this policy we’re doing?”

Or, “How do you think the process we put in place could be improved?” When you’re talking about those third things, it’s much easier for them to sort of reflect, and it doesn’t feel like they’re just being, giving you anything that could be construed as offensive feedback.

Drew McLellan: Yeah. One of the other things that I try to do for more effective team building is when I get feedback, and, as you might imagine, I get quite a bit, I will try and sort of publicly say, “Hey, you know what? So-and-so mentioned to me, in our one-on-one, that I do this, and you know what? I need you guys to catch me doing that and make sure that I don’t keep doing that, or that when I do this, this happens, so I’m going to really try really hard not to do that anymore. Would really appreciate you helping me catch myself, and know that I’m working on it.”

Marcus B: Yeah, in that moment, you … I mean, there’s a private moment when you get that feedback that’s just you and me and how you receive it is really going to tell me if I’ve made a mistake.

Drew McLellan: Right, right.

Marcus B: So in that moment, sitting back, opening up, going, “Man, thank you for telling me that,” maybe you’re actually hearing feedback that upsets you, in which case you should say, “I really need to give that some thought, and before I just address it immediately, I want to really give it the due thought that it deserves. Can we meet tomorrow for a follow-up?”

Drew McLellan: Yeah, right.

Marcus B: And then, the other thing I love that you did this, because I’ve done this as well, is model to the broader team that you are getting feedback from some team members and they are not fired, you appreciate it, right? They’re still at the company, and this is how you intend to use it.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: And I think this hits on the last point. It’s important to tell people why you need feedback. Tell them what you’re going to do with it.

Drew McLellan: Yeah.

Marcus B: Right? If you just assume, like if you have this idea that you need feedback to make sure that you’re doing the best job that you can, that you are, and you acknowledge that you, as the owner, don’t see everything perfectly, tell them you need feedback to improve.  

That you don’t see everything perfectly, and that you depend on a team that trusts you and that you can trust so that, because nobody’s perfect, everybody’s going to just continue to get better through these feedback cycles.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, yeah. Well, and then it also makes it feel less scary and intimidating when you’re giving them feedback. Because it just becomes part of the culture, right?

Marcus B: Right, yeah, and I do think that leaders have to go first. It is easier, I think, to, I’ve noticed that people are more likely to give me feedback when I start giving them small bits of feedback immediately upon their coming to the company.

In fact, I have a policy that, when I had my agency people, that we would bring in new people, I would meet with them personally, 15 minutes, for 15 minutes at the end of each shift. It was like a tiny little one-on-one meeting; and I would do this for two weeks.

The idea was, in that two weeks are the time when the most questions come up, the most things that seem confusing, kind of the, “Why are we doing this?” And we’re also trying to figure out what kind of relationship we’re going to have.

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: Every boss, in the interview, tells you, “I’m approachable. My door’s always open. I’m a people person. I really desire to have complete transparency,” and then you get in there and you find out that’s not at all true, but those were all just sales pitches, right?

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: So if you set up, for a couple weeks, a quick one-on-one at the end of each shift with a new person, you have an opportunity to ask them questions and start giving them feedback. You can start to give them adjusting or affirming feedback. “Hey, I really liked it when you did this,” or, “Here, we usually do it that way,” and it’s completely non-threatening because in the beginning, everyone knows they’re a novice at a particular company, right?

Like, when we walk in the door, we’re assuming that somebody’s going to show us the ropes, and so that’s the time to get these little gentle corrections.

If you withhold any corrective feedback for a month and then you sit down with somebody and you say, “Well, I’ve got a list of sins that you’ve committed over the last year that I want to go through them with you,” right, not only would probably no one do that because you’d figure, “Well, that happened so long ago, I don’t know how to bring it up,” but the person would be completely overwhelmed and upset.

Drew McLellan: Well, and that’s another great point, is that one of the great things about one-on-ones is the feedback can be more immediate, and so it has more relevancy, because both of you remember what the heck happened.

Marcus B: Right. Ken Blanchard’s book One Minute Manager is a classic for a reason, talks about how to give feedback, correction, affirmation in the moment; but if you don’t have that ability to do it, and it’s not always the right time, having a weekly one-on-one ensures that the feedback never gets older than a week.


Immediate Action Steps for More Effective Team Building and Getting Your Team to Work Well Together

Drew McLellan: Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So this has been fascinating, and you and I, I feel like we just have scratched the surface, but I … If owners are listening to us and they are like, “Okay. All right, all right, all right, I get it. I’ve got to do this.”

So beyond the experiment, if they’re doing the experiment, should they do it with everybody? Should they do it with just, maybe, department heads? How can they ease into this?

Marcus B: I think that doing it with the people that they directly manage, so if you’ve got department heads, if you’ve got five people across your company that work for you, start by doing it with them. We, as the owners, need to model behavior and go first, so I don’t like the idea of you telling your department heads, “Okay, everybody. You guys go set up one-on-ones, right?”

Drew McLellan: Right, right.

Marcus B: “And get going and make sure, Marcus said, and Drew said, ‘Don’t ever skip them, because that’s the worst,’ so I expect you to do that. I am super busy, though, and so, I’ll get to mine with yours … We’ll do ours when we can.”

Drew McLellan: Yeah, right, exactly. Right.

Marcus B: That would be the wrong thing. So yeah, do them with the people. Remember, leader-member exchange, again, you can look it up on Wikipedia, lots of science here. It’s the direct supervisor relationship that matters, so the people you’re supervising are the people that that matters to the most; so I would say set them up with your department heads, try it for a few weeks, have candid conversations about what kind of topics and content work best in your one-on-one meeting.

I have a one-on-one framework guide I’m happy to give you as a PDF that can go along with the podcast, Drew, if that’s helpful.

Drew McLellan: That’d be great. We’ll put it with the show notes.

Marcus B: Yeah, and use it as a starting point. It’s there. Not to say this is the ultimate one-on-one framework, but frankly, this set of topics is a good start; and if all you did was spend 10 minutes on each one, at a high level, basically, you’re going to make sure they walk away with the right priorities.

You’re going to give feedback, get feedback, talk about shared action items and meeting notes, and frankly … You’re going to have some just chit-chat about their families, and them, and their career, and things like that, so it really gets … You’re going to want to customize these depending on the level the person you’re having them with is at.

For example, if you’re having them with your art director who’s managing a team of seven designers, you’re going to want to have a different conversation than if the art director has their one-on-ones with the designers.

It’s at a higher level, and it’s probably actually a little bit more honest. Not sure exactly, but the whole thing here is, you’re going to want to create unique relationships through these one-on-one practices.

Drew McLellan: Yeah, and when you think about it, for most owners, their direct reports are people who are driving the business, and so, to your point, if the science and the studies tell us that this is a way to build a team, to keep a team intact, to keep an employee satisfied and staying for a long time, that gets back to the very first thing we talked about, is, “Well, this isn’t making me money.”

Well, actually, a stable team, I can speak from experience, is exactly what makes an agency money; and so this is important for agency owners to do.

Marcus B: It is. I remember one time, I had a client pushing back on our prices, and he was like, “I could just go hire a team of contractors and pay them all far less than you want from an hourly rate perspective,” and I said, “Well, that’s why you’re going to pay me, because I’ve built a team that knows how to work together.”

Drew McLellan: Right.

Marcus B: “I’ve built a team that knows how to work within a process that everyone joyfully delivers on time and in budget, and that’s the magic of hiring me. And if you don’t like it, go get your contractors, and good luck.”

Drew McLellan: Right, right. That’s okay, right?

Marcus B: Yeah.

Drew McLellan: Absolutely. Absolutely. This has been awesome. Thank you so much for your time. Thanks for sharing your expertise. If folks want to track you down, learn more about you, I know you do some specific things with agency folks, how do they learn all about that?