Episode 411

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As your agency grows, your leadership team must grow alongside it. You’ll notice as your team gets bigger, the day-to-day operations become more complicated, and you might want to start taking a step back from certain tasks altogether.

That’s where a COO comes in to save the day. A successful, growing agency must have someone to handle day-to-day operations and implement systems and processes properly. And if you have the right person to take some tasks off your plate, that opens you up to focus on the parts of the business you’re most passionate about, like being a visionary.

This week, I’m talking with Carolyn Lodge about the signs and symptoms of when it’s time to grow your leadership team and hire a COO. We discuss how to identify the right person for the job, their roles and expectations, how to integrate them with the rest of your team to build trust, and what traits are most commonly needed in the COO position.

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.

leadership team

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The clues that show it might be time to hire a COO
  • What size agency is too small to have a COO role
  • The skills and traits of a good COO
  • Implementing the founder’s or owner’s vision
  • Building trust within your leadership team as you bring on new team members
  • Ensuring your COO is a good culture fit for the job
  • How a COO changes the day-to-day of a CEO
  • Go-to questions to vet a potential COO

“If the team has wonderful ideas, but trouble implementing them, it might be time for somebody to run operations.” - Carolyn Lodge Click To Tweet
“I think we sometimes can forget that as a leadership team, implementing the process and the operations is as important as the vision.” - Carolyn Lodge Click To Tweet
“I think that trust between a CEO and a COO is really important — and it goes both ways.” - Carolyn Lodge Click To Tweet
“The idea of having somebody else come in and run your business for you can be a scary idea, but there's so much freedom in it.” - Carolyn Lodge Click To Tweet
“We talked about project managers and directors of client services. Those are often the same skill sets that will be good in operations.” - Carolyn Lodge Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Carolyn:


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 U R L? 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 into the conversation. I think you’re gonna find it really helpful. All right, let’s get to the show.

Running an agency can be a lonely proposition, but it doesn’t have to be. We can learn how to be better faster if we learn together. Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build, a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market with 25 plus years of experience. As both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute. Guess what? I am back with another episode of Build a Better Agency. One of these days, I’m gonna open the podcast with something different, but for now, I’m back, and I’ve got a great episode for you. You are gonna love this. And so I wanna just tell you a little bit about our guest and some of the work that she’s gonna be doing with a m I. So Carolyn Lodge is the COO and a partner at one 16th, one 16, and West, which is an A M I agency out of Boise, Idaho. They also have an office in Washington State, and Carolyn’s been COO there for quite a while. I’ll let her tell you better sort of trajectory of how she got there.

But we know that a lot of you are thinking about adding a COO or wondering if you should add a COO. So with Carolyn’s help, we’re gonna be adding a couple new things at a m i. So on September 8th, we’re gonna do a webinar with Carolyn, where we are gonna talk about how do you know if you need a COO? How do you find the right one? How do you get your agency ready for a COO? We’re gonna talk about all those things, and she’ll be there live, walking us through all of that, but also answering your questions specifically about your agency and whether or not it makes sense for you to have a COO and some of the roles that they may play inside your organization. And then starting in November, we’re actually gonna have a virtual peer group for COOs.

So, as you know, we have a virtual peer group for agency owners. We have a virtual peer group, what we’re call, or a live peer group called Key Execs, where different folks come together. But we know that COOs, that operational role, is really critical to a lot of agencies, but also very unique. And in most agencies, whoever fills that role is kind of on an island by themselves. They don’t really have a lot of peers to talk to about best practices to problem solve together. And so we decided that it would make sense to bring COOs from different agencies together and let them meet once a month and learn from each other, grow from that learning, help each other, support each other, show up as both a student and a teacher.

So share what they know, and then also learn from each other. So that’s gonna be the plan. And Carolyn is going to facilitate those, that group. So once a once a month, those folks will gather for about 90 minutes on a Zoom call and just connect, share, learn problem, solve, support each other, do all the things that a I peer groups do. So, super excited about both of those things, but I’m really excited to have Carolyn on the show to talk to us about the role, how, you know, if you need one, what they look like, what they don’t look like, skill sets you need to have, and some of the challenges of bringing someone in that role into your organization. So, without any further ado, let’s welcome Carolyn to the show and start picking her brain.

Okay, Carolyn, welcome to the podcast. Glad you’re with us. Thank

You. Thanks for having me, Drew.

So for the folks that aren’t familiar with you, give them a little bit of background on how you came up through the agency that you’re with today as a, as a partner, and how you found yourself in the role that you’re in and the work you’re doing today. Helping people identify the right COO for their organization, onboard them, train them, all of that sort of thing.

Absolutely. So I’ve been, I’m with one 16 and West. We are a full service, fully integrated, your very favorite firm in Boise, Idaho. What do, what do they call us? Actually, what you said, a of generalists? No, we call ourselves fully integrated. Yes, that’s right. I

Call you a

Generalist call generalist, yes. Right. Okay. But with love. With Love, yes. Yeah, adoringly. So I have been here for, oh, nearly 20 years. Started in media buying, honestly, didn’t know what an agency was before I started. So I came up through media buying and then client services. And, you know, kind of through the ranks there, director of client services pretty quickly identified that Edward Moore, who is our founding partner, he’s a, an ultimate visionary. And so my skillset of being able to implement his vision was pretty apparent very early on. So with his support, I had kind of worked up through, you know, the director of client services, VP of operations, and then eventually joined him as a partner and became COO.

So I manage two offices in Boise and Spokane right now. And then, as you mentioned, support other agencies with identifying COO and really assessing whether they need a COO or a senior director of ops, or a v VP of ops or whatever they wanna call it. And, and then support recruiting and then coaching and, and mentoring once those individuals come on. So really leaning into that skillset. You know, I, there’s a lot of talk about accidental agency owners, and I would say that I’m sort of an accidental operator, just happens to be what I’m good at. And so I fell into it, but have certainly honed, well,

You fell into it 20 years ago. Well, you have, you’ve honed some skills since then.

I have. I have honed some skills. Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. And, and, you know, you guys have been an a m I agency for a long time, and so I know you’re helping other agencies, but a lot of a m i agencies sort of identify first and foremost, do I need a COO? So let’s, let’s first define what that role looks like. So whether, like you said, whether it’s a director of ops or a VP of ops or COO, what does that person’s job look like? And if, if somebody’s listening and they’re an owner, what clues are there that they might need one?

Right. Yeah, it’s a great question. I think that the, I mean, there’s a couple different paths, right? But in, in the most simplistic terms, if the team has wonderful ideas, but trouble Implementing them, right? It might be time for somebody to run operations. And the really, the role can vary depending on the agency. And I think that’s the same for a lot of things, right? Like sure, different, different agencies function differently. You know, even, even the skill sets of the president or c e o might inform what’s needed for an operational support. But really the goal of operations is to streamline productivity, manage the day-to-day operations, you know, that’s everything.

Process systems, people. Yeah. Implementing that vision. Again, I think that it’s very common in the agency world that the founders of a visionary, right? I mean, if you think about, you know, just entrepreneurship in general. So that’s, that’s common. And I think there becomes a point that, that there is a need for someone else to come in and help implement the, that vision. So that’s gonna be a part of it all the way through, right? As supporting the founder or owner providing strategic direction that can be on the client level, depending on the size of the agency or the needs, it could be on, you know, just more of the business level, supporting new business. you know, that’s, that’s something that I see quite a bit actually, that a COO does still stay in the business.

you will. And then executive leadership, you, you know, coaching and mentoring the staff, you know, supporting performance management, you know, recruitment, hr, I mean, it, the list kind of goes on and on. And it, and it really does depend on the size of the agency and the other skill sets at play. We actually have a director of operations that I work really closely with, and she manages all of our HR and BEN benefits and performance management, those sorts of things. So it’s kind of split off, split off, and I f focus more on the, the client operational side of, you know, reviewing scopes of work and, you know, looking at forecasting and the bigger picture budget, that sort of thing.

Yeah. So I think the, the role can really vary depending on the needs, but ultimately it’s the, the person that can come in and take an idea and turn it into action.

I think in a lot of smaller agency, project manager feels part of that role, like working on the efficiency of the work and making sure things get delivered on time and on budget. So a COO is not a, not an inexpensive hire, it’s not a low level hire, it’s a high level leadership level hire. So what size of agency is sort of what’s too small to have a COO what, you know, where you just can’t handle basically a, the overhead expense of a non-billable person. And I know, like, I know you’re a little billable ’cause you do some client stuff, but for the most part, most COOs are mostly non-billable.

Right? Right. And again, it goes back to the structure of the agency, right? But I would say anything below 25, there probably isn’t the complexity to need it. Yeah. And I, I you mentioned that project managers do fulfill a, a part of this role for sure. Yeah. I think in the same way a director of client services does a lot of it too. Like if thinking about who’s reviewing your scopes of work before they go to a client who’s, you know, who’s weighing in on the strategies that you’re, that you’re gonna present to a client. So there are, there’s definitely crossover there. And I, I, I, I hate to go back and say it just depends, but it’s Right. It’s a bit more complicated than that because it can depend on the complexity of the agency, like what they are delivering, right?

So if you think about growth, you know, if, if you’re scaling or if you’re adding more service lines and more complexity

Of those, or, or you’re doing like what you did buying another agency, right? Right. Yeah, absolutely. I’m sure, I’m sure that was a lot of the details around that were on your shoulders.

Absolutely. Yeah. Again, implementation, right? So right. With, we’ve done two acquisitions, and in both cases it’s, you know, my partner, the visionary who’s, you know, looking at the opportunity and then I’m coming in and really Implementing everything from everything

Yeah. From the offer to the on Yeah. To the integration and all of that. Yeah. Yeah. I think too, it depends on who else is already on the leadership team, right? So if you have a strong C F O, the COO probably would be less involved in some of the financial things. If you have a really strong director of account service, the COO might not. So you’re right. It, it is a very unique kind of of custom fit based on what the agency needs and this current structure and skillsets of the, of the rest of the leadership team.

Absolutely. Absolutely. I think it’s really common too, for leadership teams, especially those that have been together for a while, to think that their, their main job is, you know, the idea of synergy and visionary, right? Like, as a leadership team, we are focused on the vision and, and where we’re headed and quote unquote, keeping people happy, which by the way, we can never do, and your job as a COO is never going to involve that. So, right. You’re a people pleaser, probably not the right role for you, but I think we sometimes can forget that as, as a leadership team, the process and the operations, like actually Implementing those is as important as the vision, right? For sure. So for it’s easy, easy for the team to fall into that, the whole idea of we have all these great ideas, but then they don’t go anywhere.

I mean, how many, how many organizations have come out of meetings so, you know, excited about the things they’ve discussed, and then nothing happens, right? Right. ’cause there’s not a person that’s taking it and running with it,

Right. Or holding other people accountable for their portion of moving it through. Right?

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I, I think, I mean, there’s so many agencies that, that subscribe to the traction philosophy, which that’s what that’s all about, right? The integrator. But I do think that the skillset on the team will inform what is needed, right? Yeah. And, and to your point, you might have a strong enough, you know, leadership team that’s covering all the bases that you don’t need a COO yet, right. Some of that can be the case, but I, I think it also depends on the, the role and the skillset of the COO C e o or president, you know, founder, whoever happens to be kind of Yeah. Running charge ship. Yeah. Right. That can make a big difference too, on what’s needed.


Let’s talk a little bit about, you know, as you are helping agencies assess candidates, again, we know it’s not a cookie cutter thing, everybody is different. The every agency culture is different, but are there some skill sets or personality traits that for you are like, look, these are, these are must haves. I don’t care how big your agency is. I don’t care what you do, I don’t care what your culture is. There are certain things that if somebody’s gonna be a good COO, they have to have these certain skills and they have to have these personality traits.

Yeah, for sure. And I will say that before I do, before I support recruitment, I always do a, a pretty extensive discovery period Sure. With agency. So I’m speaking to everyone on the leadership team, spending a fair amount of time with the owner and really getting a sense of, of who they are and what they need. Yeah. And I’ve had definite situations where it’s clear that a candidate has all the skill sets, but just not the right fit. Right? Sure. So it’s a balance of, of those two things. But I think, you know, detail oriented, you think about the person in a group project in school that takes the lead, that’s the kind of person that you want. So detail oriented, the, you know, the ability to take the initiative without being asked and Right.

And sometimes in a way that is, you know, not contrary to the vision that an owner has set forth, but at least considering different perspectives. Right? I mean, I think that’s the part of the strength of, of having an operator is that it is a different perspective than a visionary. And so it compliments and, and that having that diversity of perspectives is helpful. Other things, so curious investigative, so somebody that’s gonna dig in and ask a bunch of questions and not just let the status quo go, right? Solution oriented. I mean, I think that, you know, in as it relates to implementation, it’s about finding the solution, right? Right. And we, we’ve all had the conversations of a well-defined problem is part of the solution.

So that’s part of that investigation, right? Being curious and really identifying, we know that there’s a challenge, but what’s at the core of that? Right?

What’s the problem underneath the problem? Underneath the problem, right?

Yep. Yep. So I think though that curiosity is really important, and I will say that like in the agency world, I think agencies who cultivate a culture of curiosity tend to be better, right? That’s, I think that’s something we wanna see in all of our employees, but committed to action. I think that as a SS e o O, you can’t let anything sit because you’re the one that’s driving everything. You know, I say the same thing to our client services team, that everything starts and ends with you. You, you’re the one that’s starting the brief. You’re the one that’s right. Moving it through, you’re the one that’s doing the billing, right? There’s, there are trigger points, and as a COO, you’re the one that is that trigger. So if you don’t like that kind of pressure, or if that’s just not your, you know, if you’re not gonna be the one that’s gonna speak up again, that’s gonna be a challenge for the rest of the team.

Yeah. I think the other thing too, it’s, it’s interesting because agency operations, you know, if you think about like, you know, manufacturing, you’re managing the, the systems and the, you know, the equipment, right? Right. Resource management, right. But our resources in the agency are the brains of humans, right? Yeah. That can get a little complicated, right? Right.

That’s not quite as easy as saying we’re out of nuts and bolts today. Right? Yeah.

Managing the human element, I think is something that is easy to overlook. And especially in the agency. I go back to this, you know, the agency business is in a lot of agencies, there’s a lot of creative individuals and

Big personalities, a lot of energy Absolutely. Ego.

Yes. Yes. Right? So you have to be able to balance that, right? And to really look at the what’s best for the agency and what works for the team so that resource management can be a little, a little more complex when your resources are human beings with feelings and desires and opinions, right? So the, the idea of, I think I said earlier that if you’re a people pleaser, operations might not be the best role because you’ve gotta be the bad guy a lot, right?

Right. Yeah. You can’t be conflict averse, I would think.

No, absolutely not.

And you are and you are not.

Thank you. Thank you. I don’t love it though, but it’s comfort. I know I’m

Comfortable with it. You do it because it’s your job, right? Yeah,

Absolutely. Yeah. I’m comfortable with it. And I’m also the kind of person that if there’s a problem I wanna add on the table, right? I, right. I’m not gonna pretend it’s not there, you know, if there’s an elephant in the room, I’m gonna be the first one to call it out.

Right? So, but, but again, that’s your job, right? It’s like, look, there’s a problem. My, my job is to identify the problem and then we can start working on solutions.

Absolutely. Absolutely.

So detail oriented, action oriented, willing to take charge even when you haven’t been asked somebody who keeps the ball moving, somebody who is sort of incessantly curious so that they can keep sort of finding the core root of what’s going on. And what I’m hearing you say is finding a balance between managing system and process and people, so always keeping the people in mind, but also not allowing the people’s whims or worries to keep you from doing what the right thing is for the agency.

Right. Right. And that can be hard, you know, especially, I mean, especially over the last several years, you know, coming outta covid and, you know, that turned things upside down in a pretty big significant way. Right. But again, looking at what’s best for the agency and, and what’s strategic and not just reacting to the human element is really important.

Okay. Yep.

And having said that, you know, our, our, our staff is more productive when they’re in an environment that they’re happy in and that they’re, you know, it’s meaningful work. So it is a balance, and it’s not always cut and dry. Right. Sometimes it’s, you know, it’s more on the people side and sometimes it’s more on the process side. Right. But either way, you can go too far. Right? So it, it, yeah. Keeping that in check is really important.

What about managing up managing the C e o or the president or the founder, whoever that is? I, I have to think that’s a part of the job as well, right?

Yes, for sure. And I think that relationship is really important. So when I mentioned the, the discovery session that I, when I’m speaking with owners, I’m trying to get into understand where they’re at, where they’re at in their career, what they want their day-to-day to look like, right. And really identifying the type of person that can best support them in whatever their next chapter is. So, yes. You know, I don’t think that that CEOs probably like the idea of being managed, but ultimately providing them with the information to make solid business decisions, right. And keeping them up to date on what’s happening. And, you know, involving, I mean, I think there, there’s a certain level of a COO that is taking some of that off of the