Episode 422

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Usually, a sabbatical is for people who need time to rest and recharge. But did you know that sabbaticals are important for your agency operations, too?

This week, we’re taking a different approach to the ongoing conversation we’ve been having about systems and processes, agency operations, and ways to optimize your business growth. From Alyson Caffrey’s perspective, it’s not just employees and agency owners who need time to rest and recharge — your business does, too.

Blocking out time to work on biz dev and improving systems and processes is the break your agency needs in order to grow. Like training for a marathon, an agency needs time to rest and create muscle memory around new agency operations.

With these dedicated mini sabbaticals, not only will your agency be more optimized, but it will increase your agency value when it’s time to start working on succession planning. You literally can’t afford not to try this method out.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

agency operations

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The two traditional forms of sabbaticals people take
  • What is an agency sabbatical?
  • How we can weave sabbaticals into our daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly routines
  • Setting boundaries that help you weave rest into your work routine
  • What it means to allow rest for the agency
  • How to retrain your team to protect their time and use it purposefully
  • Getting agency operations to function flawlessly without bottlenecks
  • Identifying which systems and processes to document and how to break them down into more manageable pieces
  • Starting where you’re at without pressuring yourself to be perfect

“I firmly believe that rest, as it relates to your business, is developing really clear systems and processes so that next time you go through a brand new thing, it's friction-filled for everyone involved.” - Alyson Caffrey Click To Tweet
“A sabbatical is the cadence of rest we can weave into our business so that we can rebuild ourselves as founders and our systems to support the business as a separate entity of us.” - Alyson Caffrey Click To Tweet
“I firmly believe that using this rest time to business develop and create additional operational functions inside of the business will actually help you create a system for repair.” - Alyson Caffrey Click To Tweet
“If you can show your team that you prioritize rest for everyone at the agency, not just you, that's going to send massive goodwill throughout the entire culture of the business.”- Alyson Caffrey Click To Tweet
“Even just being aware of what the traditional client fires are that show up will do so much for reducing the types of client fires that you have.” - Alyson Caffrey Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Alyson:


Hey, before we get to the show, I just wanna remind you that we have created a private Facebook group just for you, our podcast listeners. There are almost 1500 agencies, agency owners inside that Facebook group every day talking about what’s going on inside their shop, asking for resources, gut checking decisions, talking about everything from pricing to hiring, to biz dev. All kinds of things are happening there. We’re starting conversations. You guys are starting conversations. What I love about it is the community’s coming together and sharing resources, encouraging each other, and just sort of having a safe place to talk about what it’s like to own an agency. So all you have to do is head over to Facebook, search for a Build, a Better, Agency Podcast group, or Build, a Better, Agency Podcast.

And you’ll find the group. You have to answer three questions. If you don’t answer the questions, we can’t let you in. But they’re simple. It’s, do you own an agency or do you work at an agency? And if so, what’s the URL? What are you trying to get out of the group? And will you behave, basically? So come join us. If you haven’t been there for a while, come on back. If you haven’t joined, join in to the conversation. I think you’re gonna find it really helpful. All right, let’s get to the show.

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of the money you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by a White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies are getting things done, bringing his 25 years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Super glad to have you back. If you are a repeat listener, welcome. If this is your first podcast, our goal with the podcast is pretty simple. We know that agency owners are often accidental business owners, and it’s super helpful for them to hear from people who can help them think about how to run their agency more profitably, more sustainably, in a more stable manner, and ideally in a way that you can sell it down the road if you want to. And so every week we bring guests to the show to help you just think about the business a little differently. And, and This week, we have a great guest who’s gonna challenge us to figure out how to be more productive by resting more.

So I’ll tell you more about her in a second. I do wanna remind you before I tell you about our guest that a couple years ago we put together everyone. It was back when everyone was that conversation around diversity, equity, and inclusion was really hot. And, and hopefully you’re still thinking about it. You still have a plan in place and you’re still working on it. But during that time when it was really the the hot topic for a period of time, we put together a racial equity report card that you could sort of self-evaluate how your agency is doing around equity and diversity and inclusion. And so for some agencies, they take that every quarter, others once a year, and many actually publish it on their website to sort of celebrate the successes they’re making on this journey.

So if that is of any interest to you or it’d be helpful, or you just wanna see it, head over to agency management institute.com/racial equity. So agency management institute.com/racial equity. And you can download that report card and use it to your heart’s content for free. So hopefully that is helpful. Alright, lemme tell you a little bit about our guest. So Alyson Caffrey owns an operations agency. So she helps agencies and other small businesses improve their operations. And Alyson just wrote a book called The Sabbatical Method, how to Leverage Rest and Grow Your Business. And so I find that to be an intriguing topic.

You know, so many of us are feeling the weight of the last few years. You know, as we talk to agency owners, we can feel and hear their exhaustion. We see it in the staff, you’re seeing it if, even if you’re not seeing it in yourself, you’re probably seeing it in folks on your team. And so I think the idea of how do we rest better and rest more fully and give ourselves some breathing rooms so that we can accomplish big things is a noteworthy and timely topic. And so I was super excited to hear about Alyson, to read her book and to really think that some of her ideas and methodologies are going to be challenging for us, but I think in a really good way.

So I’m excited for you to meet her and learn from her and for all of us to take some takeaways from this episode that perhaps will allow us to restructure how we work in a more restful, smart way. Okay. All right, let’s get around the show. Let’s go. Alyson, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us,

Drew. Thanks so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.

So tell us a little bit about the book, your background, what prompted you to write the book? What do you know that we need to know? That’s, that’s where we wanna get to today.

Yeah, sure. I have to

Get all that outta your head in an hour.

We’re just in a quick clip here. Yeah. So really what we’re here to talk about and how I can serve is tying ROI to rest. And one of the big reasons that I wrote to the sabbatical method, and I really felt like this needed to come out is because a lot of folks who achieve anything in a high performing capacity, they have moments of extreme, you know, discipline and moments of, you know, a lot of energy, right? Whether they’re training for a marathon or summiting Everest or all those things. And woven into that plan is also strategic rest, so that our muscles can rebuild and be able to be stronger for the next phase of the ascent. And business owners don’t allow themselves that time, and it’s super important for the longevity and the sellability of a business, right?

So whether you’re building to own this business and succession plan, you know, within your family or within your community, or whether or not you’re gonna proposition this, you know, for sale down the line, you know, your agency is gonna be super valuable to any outsider if you can get this particular function right. And so I am an operation strategist. I firmly believe that rest as it relates to your business, is developing really clear systems and processes so that next time you go through a big website redesign, or next time you launch a a brand new thing, it’s a little bit easier and a little bit less friction filled for your team, for your clients, for anybody involved. I’ve been doing this for eight years in the industry. I serve agencies predominantly. And what we really do is we try to nail down, you know, what are the core processes that make this thing, this agency, this team, and all of the key components of how it works, really work seamlessly together so that it’s not so cumbersome to a run.

And B, if you want to scale it, if you want to serve more people, you feel like you have a good solid baseline to be able to do that.

Yeah. You know, it’s interesting. We do a lot of m and a work and valuations, and one of the core elements that either increases an agency’s value or decreases it is how integral is the agency owner to the business. And so, you know, what agency owners forget is that the reason you’re selling the business is so you don’t have to go there every day anymore. And so if you’re really integral and the business can’t thrive without you, then it diminishes the value of the, of the business pretty significantly. To your point.

Yeah. I mean, you can say goodbye to a work life balance or anything close to it, right? Right. I mean, it feels good, especially in the beginning to feel needed. I always say this, you know, my business is my baby thing. Right? Right. You know, it feels really good to be needed all the time and to be, you know, at the, at the behest of what the agency needs. And you feel like you have all the answers, but there comes a time where if your business is thriving, it shouldn’t need you. Right? Your, your toddler shouldn’t be asking you for specific things. You shouldn’t have to tie your kids’ shoes when they’re in high school, right? It’s, it’s very much, you know, a growing stage. And I think sometimes as business owners, we forget that, right? We forget that putting our head down and grinding isn’t actually what the business needs from us right now.

Right. It actually needs us to ascend to a different level of leadership that might require us pulling back and allowing our team to demonstrate their skills.

Yeah. Yeah. So important. So let’s talk a little bit about, ’cause when you say sabbatical, people are probably like, I don’t have time to take three months off and go to India and hike, you know, so what do you mean by sabbatical?

Great question. Often when I get this question, folks come to the table with kind of two preconceived ways that they think about this. The first is the one you’ve just described, right? Right. Access to lots of resources, six month Parisian sabbatical. You’re just kind of kicking your feedback and laying on a beach type of deal. And the second, which actually is talked about pretty frequently, but not acknowledged enough, I think is the voluntold sabbatical, right? I’ve hit the brick wall and I’m experiencing this, this burnout, right? Yeah. I can’t actually work and create inside of the business because this thing has just sucked the life outta me. Yeah. And a lot of times what we’ll see is, you know, physical health will start to decline, mental health will start to decline, and overall, you know, you’ll really need to just pull back from what you’re doing, right?

The business can’t grow. And I think it’s John Maxwell, right? Talks about the leader lid and he says, you know, the business will only grow to the level of personal and professional development of its leader. And I think at this time we almost feel like we can’t develop ourselves, right? Because we’re so drained of resources, of time, of energy, our personal relationships might be completely obliterated. And so sabbatical to me is that time in between how can we access the benefits of a traditional sabbatical, right? Weaving rest into how the business operates because we’re just human beings. We’re not machines, right? We do need rest, right? Burning, burning the midnight oil and fulfilling on client projects until 2:00 AM is gonna bring us closer to the second sabbatical I’ve described, and way farther away from the first, right?

But if you take too much time off from the business at its critical point, now if you’re an agency running a team of under 10, right? That’s 10% of your staff, right? Right. That you’re losing and probably more depending on what your capacity is as the owner. So it’s a really, really challenging time to try to balance. So sabbatical to me is the cadence of rest, right? Think of Sabbath, you know, you take the Sunday off. That is something that we can weave into our business daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly, so that we can rebuild ourselves as founders and our systems to support the business as a separate entity of us. Because ultimately what we wanna do is we wanna tease the founder out of those day-to-day operations as much as humanly possible to have our business just thrive independently of us.

So talk to us about the ideal daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly. And then let’s back up to, I suspect most people listening are like, yeah, that’ll never happen. So let’s, let’s back up from that and show us the steps we take to actually make it possible.

Yeah. So daily ideal, I have this principle that I break down in the book called the 90 90 principle, and this is biz dev, right? This is something that you’re working on to push the business forward. Yeah. 90 minutes a day for 90 days straight, right? You, you should have one focus. And that’s how, as tactical as it gets in terms of implementing the sabbatical method, I actually used this to break away from my agency to write this book and market this book. It is fantastic. And being able to do this and block this time in will unleash the power of being able to develop your business into its next phase of growth as the founder. So absolutely, that is ideal for daily, weekly, for me, is taking a look at the key metrics.

So if you don’t have metrics and some blocked available time each and every week, it can be during your 90 minute session to just review how is agency, you know, profitability, how is our fulfillment, how is our sales pipeline, how is our marketing, right? Just making sure that we have a good solid indicator of how things are working and what key decisions need to be made. Again, another chapter inside of the book around positioning yourself to make the fastest and most informed decisions possible. That way we can spend way less time in the weeds of our business quarterly. This looks like doing some quarterly planning. My team and I take two full days completely away from the business. We tell all of our clients. Oftentimes we’ll piggyback a company retreat on that, depending on budget and depending on size of our team at that current time.

And that is something that is absolutely invaluable. It allows us to kind of get up out of the business and just consider what is next, right? What’s the path we’ve been on for the last quarter? Have we been implementing the 90 90 principle? Because all my team actually does this too, now that we’ve kind of advanced inside of the sabbatical method. And this is our second quarter in a row starting here in Q four.

And And how big is your team?

Yeah, we have three internal employee team members, and then we also have about 12 contractors that we work with on almost a full-time basis. Some of which who have been with me for four or five years. Okay. So we

Do have three. And the reason I’m asking that is because people are like, oh, well she’s got a team of 50, she can do that. So again, you are an agency under 10.

That’s exactly right. Yeah. Yeah. We’re an agency under 10. And you know what it, it changes and, and here’s the thing that I think that is super important too about the sabbatical method at at large, right? Is that if we give ourselves this time for breaks, right? I mentioned before, if you’re a high performer and you’re training for a marathon, those rest periods are actually meant to rebuild your muscles and your cardiovascular system so that when you go back out to run the next training period or make the next phase of the ascent, you actually are stronger. I firmly believe that using this rest time to business develop and create additional operational function inside of the business, it will actually help you create a system for repair, which is what at a baseline operations needs to be for an agency team under 10, right?

If we’re finding new ways to do things, we should be breaking things in our business all the time. We shouldn’t create this shiny, beautiful operating system that nobody ever touches that is really cumbersome to update. We should just create a system for repairing stuff. Oh cool, we found a better, faster, and more efficient way to onboard our new customers. Let’s create that process. Right? Right. Let’s whiteboard that out. And I think that’s the thing that a lot of folks are scared of is they say, well, if we write down the process, then that means we can never change anything. That is absolutely false. And if you build in this cadence of rest, you’re gonna give yourself opportunities every day, every week, every month, every quarter to be able to revisit these procedures and make sure that you’re actually, you know, accurately, you know, how do I put this?

You’re actually accurately, you know, describing what is going on and what is true for the agency to be successful today.

Okay? So sabbatical for you is every day 90 minutes of protected time to do the big thinking things I have to do 90 minutes once a week or sabbatical once a week is, and it can be within one of my 90 minute days, reviewing the KPIs that matter to the business and then dealing with whatever those KPIs tell me. Sabbatical for the quarter is two days whole team. So all attraction, we have our own version of traction called Agency Edge, but two days of heads down, bigger picture, both looking back and, but also planning for the next quarter.

Right? So do I have that? So sabbatical is not Drew sitting on a beach with a fruity cocktail.

It can be Drew if you really, really want that sabbatical. Yeah, I’m, and so that’s the great thing.

I’m not, I’m not good at sitting on a beach, but, but I get the point. Yeah.

Transparently, neither am I. Yeah. Honestly, one of the big reasons why I wrote the sabbatical method and how I came up with this idea is when I took maternity leave with my very first son, and I remember sitting in the hospital and my husband had just snapped this photo of me and my first baby, and he was sleeping in my arms. I was super happy and transparently very relieved that the birthing process was over. I’m sure in the next frame, I had put my son down in the bassinet and picked up my phone to start answering emails from clients and Slack messages from my team. And as the systems person, this felt super confronting to me because I was like, oh, great systems person can’t even create systems to be able to take a maternity leave for herself.

And I think what I realized through the postpartum process and really weaving myself out of the day-to-day operations, is considering that this is a muscle, right? We can’t just go out for three months, right? And expect that everybody’s going to be able to take care of everything, even if we have systems and processes in place, right? We need to build that muscle, we need to instill that trust and give our team the ability and opportunity to be able to wrap their heads, their brains around this, this new function that they’re performing. So we begin with this cadence of rest, but it can certainly build up to a three month period where you take some time off and you go focus on another project or you know, a a two week period where, dare I say, you don’t pick up your phone while you’re on family vacation, right?

Right. This can safeguard a lot of the really important things that make you a whole human being, not just a business owner.

Right. Right. Okay. So how, how do I start this? So I’m guessing most people listening are like 90 minutes, I’m looking at my calendar and lady, you’re on crack 90 minutes a day, not possible. So how, how do people start this?

Yeah, great question. First and foremost is with boundaries. And I think boundaries can look as simple as shutting the computer at 6:00 PM and not working in the evenings. I think if we can build a muscle where we create the boundaries around when we expect our business to operate versus when it actually operates, Hmm, that’s the first step. I see so many founders as they grow their team and they grow their agency at large, right? The clients that they serve, you know, the, the eyeballs that they’re attracting over to their work and their portfolio, they train their business too early on that it needs 80 hours a week from one person to be able to operate, right?

Right. And that’s first and

And they train their clients that they’re always available.

Exactly right. The lines of communication are always on. There are no boundaries, texts return at, you know, 8:00 PM and all those things. So first and foremost, just establishing, it’s almost as simple as like setting those working hours in Google, like we probably do for all of our clients, right? Right. When we build their website and all that stuff, we’re like, okay, here are working hours. And just establishing that on the front end. Because let’s be totally frank, every person I’ve ever communicated with, client, partner, you know, anybody otherwise, and I said, Hey, listen, I actually don’t work on Fridays because I really feel like that time is important for me to be present with my family before we jump into the weekend full of chores and tasks and all the stuff. So I actually will be slow to respond on Friday.

But if you need someone to touch base with, here’s somebody at my organization who you can do that with. I have never been met ever with a, how dare you take off on Friday, I’m paying you my good hard-earned money, right? They respect the boundary and transparently even more. So they probably are looking at their schedule being like, I wish I could create that for me. Right? Right. So they al they almost even intriguingly ask me how I can do that, right? So creating that boundary, clearly communicating it with your clients and then inviting your team into the fold on this as well. Because if you can show your team that you prioritize rest for everybody at the agency, not just you, that’s gonna send massive goodwill through the entire culture of the business.

I tell my team that we need to create boundaries for them every single quarter. We reevaluate these every single quarter. So what does it look like? Are we working late consistently? Are we in a position where we feel like we have to clean out our inboxes on the weekends? Like that was totally our situation when I first, you know, was postpartum with my first son. And it was challenging for folks to be able to trim that down and consider how we could get our work done a little bit bit more efficiently. But I’ll tell you what, once I invited them to consider that we could take half days on Fridays, if we got all of our work done, ideas, ideas, ideas, ideas just kept coming out of the woodwork of how we could be more efficient in the way that we fulfilled and we ended up with some incredible nuances to how we were delivering on clients that ended up being cheaper.

Our team members were so much happier. So even just inviting them into the fold to consider, hey, what would it look like here if we did a four day work week? What would it look like here if we actually closed our laptops at 6:00 PM and didn’t work in the evenings? What would need to be true right about our workday? And what could we do to make sure that that’s more efficient and more effective? So I, I think inviting the team in to consider that and to consider the 90 90 principle, right? They’ll maintain their focus, they can work on developing systems inside of their specific department, whether it’s your account manager, anybody who’s building web property for your SEO manager, right? Right. They can consider what it might look like to become more efficient during the day-to-day and actually leverage those breaks.

So as I’m listening to you talk and we’re talking, you are using the word sabbatical and because most people when they think about sabbatical, they do think about that I’m gonna go to France and sit and have a cup of coffee and a Caffrey and watch the world go by. And really what you’re talking about is protected big thinking work time. So how do you help, how connect the dot for us between those 90 minute blocks, the reviewing the KPIs once a week, the quarterly two day offsites, or however those are structured? How is that rest? Because it’s work, I’m still working, right?

So how is it rest?

So it’s rest for your business, right? So if your business needs times of incredible pushes, right? Whether you’re launching a new thing or you know, creating a marketing initiative or you know, opening the doors to one of your programs, you know, bringing a, a big web design project over the finish line. Those things are sprints inside of the business, right? If you’re traditionally training for a marathon, but rest for your business is taking that time to business develop, right? Crystallize quarterly plans, crystallize core habits to get us to those places, create core systems and processes that make the work inside of the business a little bit simpler. And in the meantime, the founder can be adhering to that rest cadence, right?

Whatever it is they feel like they can access right now personally as well as the team to be able to meet those blocked times for rest, quote unquote in the business a little bit easier, right? Because what happens is we’ll block those times right into the business to work on the business, and then what happens, every agency owner tells me this, almost every single call I book, every single workshop I do, they’ll say, oh, but all of a sudden fires come up, right? Right. Client fires and I hear that all the time. Time, right? Client fires, client fires. And my opinion is, is that we can’t say that client fires are never going to happen, right? But if we build the muscle around responding to client fires at a specific time during the day and business development during a specific time of the day, and we make that our cadence and our habit, our business is gonna actually show us the results of those inputs, right?

It’s going to show us that it’s easier to run client fires may actually become fewer, right? Sometimes fighting a fire isn’t about just spraying the specific fire. Like sure that is true, but also let’s take some preventative measures to make sure fires don’t crop up again, right? That’s business development, right? And so I think rest for our business, right? Are those kind of times that you mentioned 90 90, our weekly review of our metrics, our quarterly plans, making sure that’s all crystallized and a rest cadence for the founder and their team looks like at first shutting the computer at 6:00 PM taking the few we the, the full weekends off, being able to step out for a week on a holiday, whether that’s a team member or a founder or whomever, and feel like we still have a really solid, you know, system to be able to follow on what that person was specifically doing and the ball’s staying in the air and we can invite that person back with excitement instead of here’s all the stuff right that you missed while you were away, right?

So I think it helps, helps develop the business overall and it also helps keep people in the game longer, right? We, we have less employee turnover. Sure. We don’t have founders that grow to frankly just resent their business because they’re just tethered to it 24 7, right?

Okay, I want to take a break and then I want to talk about what you were just saying, which is great. I block off the 90 minutes and then sure as God made little green apples, the fires start coming. And so I end up just working through the 90 minutes like I do the rest of my day by putting out fires because I, I do think agency culture is whatever fire is hottest that I, I have often said no one’s day at an agency is what they think it’s gonna be as they are heading into work, literally or physically we think we have, oh, we look at our calendar and we’re like, oh, I have two meetings, but I have that big block of time and I’m gonna get that work done and blah la la and then we get to the office and we just run from fire to fire to fire to fire.

So I wanna take a quick break, but then I wanna come back and have you help us sort of deconstruct how do I go from that reality, which for most agency owners and employees is the reality today to actually doing what I’m supposed to do in the 90 minutes. So we’ll take a break and then we’ll come back and we’ll chat about that. Hey, just wanna take a quick minute and tell you about a resource that we have on the website that I don’t talk about as often as I should. So it’s an exercise called My Future Self. And the reason why you would do this exercise is if you are in planning mode, and this is really for you as either an agency owner or an agency leader, but you really wanna think about what your future looks like, not the agency’s future, your future.

I find so many agency owners struggle with how they are spending their days and is it fulfilling and is this what they wanna do? You know, in five years that we created an exercise and I, I will tell you a a very brief story, but I first did a version of this exercise probably 15 years ago and it basically walks you through some thinking and you have to do some journaling around what your future self looks like. And you have to sort of give yourself into it. You have to really suspend like the reality and talk about what it is today. But I’m telling you when I did it, how it was different from my current moment in my life was pretty dramatic.

And I was working with a coach at the time and I said, this is great and this is the life I want, but it doesn’t look like my life now. And we talked about just sort of being open to the possibility of transitioning in some of those directions. And