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 Share on X
“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 Share on X
“I think that trust between a CEO and a COO is really important — and it goes both ways.” - Carolyn Lodge Share on X
“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 Share on X
“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 Share on X

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 CEO’s plate, right?

Sure. That they’re, they’re able to lean on the ceoo so that they don’t have to worry about it. Right. And so I think some of that’s gonna be dependent on how involved the c e o wants to be in certain aspects of the operation. So, you know, I’ve had some agency owners who aren’t ready to hand over financials at all, and That’s right. That’s fine. Right. That’s something that they’re, they have a good skillset with and they, they feel really comfortable there. You know, there’s others who, that’s not their best skillset. And so they’re more than willing to have somebody support them. You know, same thing with new business or strategy. It’s gonna be complimentary between the two on which skill sets, you know, each person has. Right. But I think that trust between A C E O and COO is really important, right.

Both ways. Because the c e o needs to trust that a COO is making good decisions on behalf of the agency that ultimately benefit the owner, right. And the agency as a whole. And the COO needs to trust that the c e O is trusting them to do their best, that they have a certain level of autonomy, but that they’re also gonna give, get good feedback from the c e o to

And support. Right.

And support. Right. Yeah. And, and that’s another, you know, that the relationship between the two parties is really important because you have to be working together, you know, once that, I

Mean, if, if you’re having to be the bad guy, as you said, and the c e o to stay popular with the crew throws you under the bus, that can’t work long term. Right?

Right. And it has to be a united front, right? Right. It’s, it’s leadership that’s on the same page. And by no means are they always gonna agree. I mean Right. My partner and I are very different in our perspectives, but like I said before, they compliment each other and we usually find a really, really good, happy medium because of it. Right. But, you know, he’s gonna bring things to the table that I’m not thinking about because I’m just in my operations mode and I’m not seeing the bigger picture and then vice versa. So it is, it is beneficial to have both sides of that and to make sure that that conversation is ongoing.

Yeah. I think the relationship between the C E O and the COO becomes really critical in terms of how often you’re meeting, how often you’re talking. You can’t just get together when you know things have hit the fan. You have to have an ongoing dialogue about things big and small Right. To sort of develop the muscle of learning how to trust each other, how to talk about hard things. ’cause a lot of CEOs are conflict averse. Yep. They are the visionary. They are the ones that wanna be popular amongst the team. They are, you know, the jokester, the, you know, charismatic leader and so they don’t really wanna be the bad guy. Yep. And, and they’re probably the ones who aren’t really excited about some of the bad guy ideas that the COO has.

Absolutely. Right. Well, yeah. They don’t, they don’t typically like the process and the Right, you know, the curbs that are being put, especially because as a leader, you know, the expectation would be that we’re leading by example and that we’re following all those Right. Systems and processes.

That has not been my experience. Right. That a lot of CEOs embrace that idea. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a really great idea for everyone else to do. But me.

But not me. Yeah. Yeah.

Right. Yeah. Which again, time sheet time sheets are a great example of that.


I’m talking to all of you people out there that do not do your time sheets, but make your people do them. You know who I’m talking to. So besides size, ’cause we said probably 25 is about the size. When you should start thinking about it, what are other clues that an agency owner might have, and it’s time to think about adding this role. What, what, what might be going on in the agency that you would go, you know what, maybe, maybe it is time to think about adding someone into this operational role.

Yeah. So I think the first thing that I see most often is owners who just wanna take a step back who have been in the day to day and want somebody else to be Implementing for them. Yeah. Now, I will say that that’s of often coupled with growth, right? Sure. So we’ve gotten to a certain point and I it’s been very successful, but now we’re, it’s either, you know, just a larger staff or it’s more complex for whatever reason. And that becomes at a certain level, too much to manage, especially if you’re just by nature a visionary. Yeah. That can be really overwhelming. And I think it’s, I mean, I think we all know this as you scale, you have to have systems in place in order to support that, otherwise things will get missed.

Right. That’s why we have, that’s why systems and processes exist in the first place, but Right. But that’s not fun for that visionary type. So, you know, Drew, I’ve heard you say, what got you here is not gonna get you to that next level. Right. And it’s kind of that, it’s the culmination of we’re about to take on something that I, I personally, as the visionary owner, whatever, don’t feel equipped to do. And, or I just, I’m tired and I I don’t want to, I don’t want


Right. Yeah. And, and, and I think that’s wonderful, honestly. Like if, if an owner can get to a point where they want to step back and they want to hand the reins over, I think that’s a wonderful opportunity. And, you know, it does transfer some of that, you know, the ownership within the team, but also just the opportunity for growth because it is gonna be managed differently when you have somebody else in the mix than just when it’s a founder. Yep.

Well, and as you and I have talked, there are certain sizes of agencies where the systems and processes that got you to that point can no longer bear the weight of the larger organization and 25 to 30 is one of those breaking points. Yeah. So I think that the systems and processes in a smaller agency are rudimentary enough that anybody can sort of create them, follow them, and they’re kind of tribal and the way we archive knowledge and all of that. But when you get to 25 or 30 people, the complexity of the systems, you need to real, you know, now it’s too big for any one person to know everything that’s going on inside the agency or to know everything that’s going on with every client. And so you do have to have a much more formal system and process.

And again, to your point, most CEOs, the formality of that is unattractive and their brain just doesn’t work that way. Right. Like, to create that is just not a natural skillset. And so I think for the smart CEO slash owner slash president, part of growing your business is recognizing where your strengths are and applying your efforts and time to the strengths and recognizing where your weaknesses are. And rather than you doing it sort of at a, b or C level, investing in somebody who can be a rock star at that. So you can really focus on being a rock star at what you’re really great at.

Yeah, absolutely. Recognizing your own, you know, limitations to a certain extent. Right? Right. But the whole idea

And also your superpowers and not Yeah. And not diluting your superpower by doing stuff that’s hard for you or doesn’t come naturally when somebody else could be really great at it.

Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah. And there’s, there’s definitely a, you know, I think a hesitation too, because the idea of having somebody else come in and quote unquote run your business for you Right? Right. Can be a, a scary idea, but there’s so much freedom in it, right. If you allow, you know, the, that somebody else to come in and implement for you. And like you said, if you don’t enjoy it, you think about a task that you’re not particularly good at. It takes a lot of energy and it’s not fun. Right? Right. So putting somebody, there are people out there, God bless ’em, who really love figuring out systems, right? Not everyone does. So, right. I think there’s, there’s really some beauty in that, in, in finding the right people to, to fill what the agency needs.

Well, and at 25 or so, it’s also the end of the generalist inside the organization where everybody’s wearing a lot of hats. And it’s like, now you’ve, everybody’s kind of has a lane, right? This is what I’m good at and this is what I do. And so I, I think the COO role is often the last lane that’s really defined. You’ve got your director of account service, you have your creative director, you have all these other roles that are very specific and have a very narrow focus. And the COO one, I think is one of the last ones that most owners add because it’s sits over so much of the business. Right. And so that’s a lot of power and influence to give someone other than yourself.


And it, if you have to your baby, right? Yeah, absolutely. And if you have an established leadership team that has felt like they’ve been fulfilling that role successfully, it’s not only the, the owner that’s feeling that angst, right, right. And bringing somebody else. And it’s also that that person has to jive with the leadership team, and there has to be a lot of trust there too. Yeah. ’cause like you said, they are, you know, overarching across all of the different service lines and departments and functions, right? Yeah. They’re not just siloed into their one department. So, you know, there’s a absolute necessity for the leadership team and the COO to trust each other into lean into that. Yeah.

So I wanna talk a little bit more about that, about sort of the how do you infuse a COO into an existing leadership team. Let’s take a break and then we’ll come back and, and talk about that. Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to make sure that you are thinking about how to connect with your clients by figuring out what they love and maybe a few things that they’re not so crazy about with your agency. So at a m i, one of the things we offer are client satisfaction surveys. We do both quantitative and qualitative. So an online survey, but also interviews with some of your key clients. And then we come back to you with trends, recommendations, what they love, what they don’t love.

Lots of insights around how you can create an even tighter relationship with your clients. So if you have interest in that, you can go under the how we help tab on the a m I website and very bottom choice on the how we help tab is the client satisfaction surveys. You can read more about it, but whether you have us do it or you do it yourself or you hire somebody else, it is really critical that you be talking to your clients about what they love and what they wish was different or better. So do not miss the opportunity to tighten your relationship with your client whether we help you or not. All right. All right. Let’s get back to the show. Alright. We are back and we’re talking about the role of COO in an agency.

And so right before the break we were saying that, you know, it’s not only hard sometimes for the agency owner to bring a COO in, and sometimes it happens like it happened to you. They don’t bring them in, they bring them up through the ranks and they keep taking on new responsibilities. But in a lot of cases, the agency is looking for this role in hiring them in. And to your point, there’s an, there’s an existing leadership team that loves the fact that a, there’s no one between them and the owner, right? Yeah. They, they have a lot of influence and they get to, you know, whether they’re a traction team or they’re just a leadership team, they get brought in on all of the big decisions. And so they really, they feel a lot of power and ownership and control inside the organization.

And then the owner says, Hey, by the way, we’re gonna bring someone in who I’m gonna tuck in, right. Between you and me. Right. And I can’t imagine that that is easy for a lot of organizations.

Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s one of the biggest challenge, right? Culture fit And, and I’m talking culture fit in the leadership team as much as culture fit within the agency, right? Because if, if a COO comes in and is not well received, that’s gonna be a painful process for everybody involved. And I, I think it’s natural to, you know, the whole idea of, you know, in the corporate world being layered, that’s what it feels like, right? To a leadership team, they just got layered. Now there’s somebody other than the owner telling them what to do. And that’s not a good feeling. And I think that it also creates some, some questions on, you know, okay, well now that this person is here, what is my role? I used to do that. So now if I’m not doing that, where’s my value? Right? So I think it requires, you know, if an agency’s gonna bring in somebody on an operational role, it requires to really think through the leadership team that you currently have, have, and look at what the skill sets are.

And I think reinvest a little bit in their, in developing their roles and honing in on their role. ’cause there’s going to be things that every person did that then now falls to the COO. Right? Some of those things they’re gonna appreciate because they really didn’t enjoy doing it. Right. And some of them are gonna feel like, Ooh, I used to do that and now I don’t. So yeah. My

Wings just got clipped a little bit. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

So that’s an uncomfortable feeling, you know? And as, as a COO coming into a new organization, I think it’s really important that they lean into the leadership team and have a full understanding and, you know, come alongside them versus coming over the top of them. Like right. That the influence and the, just the way that they present for with the leadership team is gonna be really important. ’cause that has to be a partnership. And if it’s not, then it gets a little bit, you know, there’s a little bit more conflict than Right. Is helpful. Right. And for, I, I think it’s natural that there’s a a period of time where you’re kind of figuring out work styles and, you know, it’s an evolution of the team because yeah, that is a huge change to a leadership team, but, you know, leaning into it versus it being adversarial is really important.


I also think that it, it can highlight, you know, potential areas. And again, this is the curiosity, but if you have a, a leader on your leadership team who is not in favor of bringing a COO on, getting a really good understanding of why, you know, is it because they felt threatened? Is it because of, you know, there’s probably a lot of different reasons, but making sure that the leadership team has a full understanding of the reason why the, the owner wants to bring in a COO and what they expect from that person, and how that, they expect that that will change the roles of the existing leadership team. I think that’s really important because we all know that when there’s an absence of communication, we as humans, we create a na a narrative around that.

And a lot of times that’s a negative narrative, right? So some of that self-talk can be, well I wasn’t doing a good enough job and so she had to bring in somebody else, and now what does that mean for me? Right? Right. And it could, could be that the leadership team is functioning beautifully, but the growth has been so rapid that there just needs to be another person to help out with everything. ’cause they, they can’t shoulder it all. Right. So I think that,

Well, and to your point, the COO, the c e o can no longer do both jobs,


Yeah. So how does having a COO change the world of the C E O?

It’s a good question. Thank you. So I think it yeah, you’re full of them. I think it,

You don’t always enjoy that as I recall. No,

I appreciate the curiosity. Come on.

Okay. I’m

Driven by that. It’s the question when you phrase it as, help me understand,


My favorite.

Oh, yes. Yeah. I might say that once or twice. Yeah.

I’ve heard it a lot. So I, I think it depends partly on where, you know, the, the lifecycle of the owner in terms of how involved do they wanna be in the business, you know? So we have some owners who are literally ready to take a step out and they do not, yeah. They wanna be owners, they don’t wanna run it anymore. So that’s one, you know, one situation. Another would be somebody who still wants to be in the day to day and wants to be in the office every day and is still fully engaged, but just doesn’t wanna manage both roles anymore. Yeah. So two different things, right? I mean, ultimately if, if you are ready to, to take a step out of the business as an owner, and you wanna bring in a COO that’s fantastic. And it as c COO should afford you that opportunity right after there’s a transfer of, you know, the knowledge and there’s a, a process of working together and really that partnership then to be able to kind of fade out, I think is a natural step.

But in terms of, you know, a, an owner that wants to stay engaged in the business, just having that person to implement, honestly, like, so you’re having partner meetings or not partner meetings, but in my case it’s partner meetings. Yeah. Right? We’re talking big picture and there’s a vision out there. And then you’ve got somebody that can go to work Implementing and, and doing, you know, the due diligence and researching opportunities and then coming back with, okay, here are some ideas on how to implement, or I’ve, you know, worked through this scenario and here’s some things we need to talk through. Right? So just having somebody to, to do a little bit of that legwork on your behalf then allows the owner to be more involved in, you know, business development or strategy or whatever it is that their skillset is really strong in, again, leaning into those gifts and giving them time to, to really own that space.

And I, I would think too, if, if I’m really ready to step out and like you say, I, I wanna own it still, but I don’t really wanna be there every day. I don’t wanna, I don’t wanna run it, I don’t wanna have a day-to-day role, then probably I’m hiring a c COO with the intention of someday elevating them to president. Right? Yes.

That’s exactly what I was just gonna say. Yeah, absolutely. And I think that’s a really a natural path, right? Yeah. So coming, the COO’s coming in, especially if they’re coming in from outside the agency, they’re coming in, they’re learning all the systems and all the people and, you know, getting to a point where they can fully take over the operation and then moving them into a president position. Yeah. And I think that’s a really common common path.

Yeah. Yeah. I think everyone thinks that the only way to get out of the day to day is to sell it. And that’s certainly a viable option and we help a lot of agencies do that, but that’s not the only option. Right?

Right. And it, it really is up to, you know, what, what the owner wants. Right? Right. There are some owners that really are engaged and want to be in that day to day, and there are others that are just done. Right. And not because it’s not fun or whatever, they’re just ready for something different. Yeah. And either way is, okay.

So I, I have a couple more questions, but before we do that, I wanna just stop and say for the listeners, there’s a couple opportunities to continue this conversation. So first one is gonna be on September 8th, we’re gonna do a webinar. Carolyn’s gonna do a webinar with us and talk about sort of how do you vet a COO candidate. Again, some of the things we’ve been talking about today, but we’ll be available live as she walks us through some of that stuff to answer your questions and do that. So that’s gonna be at noon mountain time on September 8th, and that’ll be in the newsletter and other things. So if you’re a subscriber to that, you’ll see that. And then also later this fall, I think we’re slated for a November start, much like we have the virtual peer groups for agency owners.

We are gonna start a virtual peer group for COOs. So helping them surround themselves by other people who do the work that they do so they can learn from each other and get better. And Carolyn’s gonna be the facilitator of that group. So they’ll meet once a month for about 90 minutes. And so if you want more information on that, they’ll be a link in the show notes that will tell you more about how you can get information about that or sign up your COO, or if you are a COO or director of operations, or VP of operations, how you can apply to see if your role fits the mold of, of being a member of that group. So, so both of those opportunities.

So back to my last couple questions be as we wrap up, if somebody’s interviewing for a COO, so if I, if I’m looking for that, are there certain, are, do you have a couple go-to questions that, for you are like, these are really telling questions that help you determine whether or not somebody is well-suited for the COO role or well-suited for a, the role at a particular agency?

Hmm. Ooh, the good questions. They keep coming. So I, I will say that I, so I don’t recruit se Yep. I know. And supporting. Right. So typically the, you know, the first interviews are happening with, you know, some sort of recruiting firm Yeah. That’s betting candidates. So by the time that I speak with a candidate, they’ve usually spoken to a recruiting firm and then the owner, and then they’re coming to me as kind of like a, a gut check. Yeah. Right. And I, I do have a list of questions that I run through that are, you know, kind of the standard. But I will tell you that my assessment is more a gut check. Like it’s more, it’s, I mean, I wouldn’t say that there’s one question that is really telling to me, but it’s kind of the whole package.

You know, how how they engage, what their level of, you know, comfort is talking through conflict. You know, I always ask for, you know, examples. I do actually do a, an analysis of, it’s called the synergist quiz. Les McCune wrote about, and I know you’ve, we’ve talked to you about this. Yep. Yep. But it’s tied to predictable success. So that’s a quiz that I just run everybody through that is establishing their leadership type, their leadership style. And basically it’s, it’s sim similar to some of the stuff that Art Belay does. You know, identifying that, right. The operator versus the, or the integrator versus the visionary. But sure.

That’s usually pretty telling. Yeah. Except for the one thing that I will say is that part of predictable SEC successes, identifying a synergist and a syner, I mean, the ultimate goal is that we’re all synergists, right? That we’re flexible and nimble and we can work with other styles and Right. And that, but oftentimes a candidate for a COO, we, we don’t want them to actually be a high synergist because of exactly what you identified earlier in the conversation that you have to be able to address the conflict. Right. And if you’re, if you’re more focused on the synergy that that won’t happen. Right. That’s why we see a lot of owners and visionaries that gravitate more towards that synergy. ’cause that’s where they’re comfortable. Right? Right. So the idea of being comfortable being the bad guy is important.

I think a level of comfort with financials is important. And I would say that even if an owner’s not ready to, to turn over the financial management to a COO, I still think that’s really important.

Well, because sooner or later, everything the COO does touches finance. Right. Or influences finance. Yeah. So even if you’re not looking at the numbers, you have to understand how the choices you make change the numbers.

Right. Right. Yeah. And if the ultimate goal is streamlining productivity, I mean, we’re looking at resource management, we’re looking at tech stack, we’re looking, you know, how, what our pricing model is, what our service model is. It all does level up to a financial conversation at the end of the day. Right. And ultimately, if we’re, if, if our job as a COO is to help run a solid business, there’s a financial component to that. Right. So I think that’s really important too.

Yeah, agreed. This has been great. I think we got folks thinking a little bit about not only do I need to have one, but what, what does that look like and how could it change my world? And I think those are the kind of, when you find yourself mussing on those things, that’s probably like a pretty good clue that it might be time to start thinking about adding this role. And again, maybe, maybe it’s at a lower level while you’re smaller and that’s, you’re gonna groom that person. If you have a, a vision of growing the agency and you’re 10 or 15 people, you know, a, a project manager or a director of account service might be the perfect person to start grooming or looking at to see if they might grow into a COO role. COO role like you did.


Absolutely. And there’s definitely different paths, right? So bring grooming someone, as you just said, said Yeah. Or bringing, bringing an individual in at a director of operations level with the ultimate goal of, of moving them into, you know, senior director COO. Yeah. Whatever that progression is. I think there’s actually a lot of benefits to that because there, bringing somebody in as part of the leadership team versus over the leadership team allows that, you know, them to be potentially more accepted and just to build those relationships before they’re in a leadership position. So I think that, you know, if you’re gonna go the full COO route, I think that’s gonna often require experience being a COO previously.

Because without that, I think that there’s a, a tendency for the leadership team to question like, okay, they haven’t actually been a COO either, so why are Right.

Why are they coming in over me? Right. Right.

Exactly. Yeah. So I think there’s a lot of value in, in actually bringing in at a director level and then grooming them into that COO position if that’s ultimately where you wanna be. Yeah. But you know, the skillset sets, you know, you, we talked about project managers and directors of client services, those are often the same skill sets that will be good in operations. Yeah. But operations is not, like, I don’t think that most people are super jazzed about running operations. Right. It’s not the sexy, glamorous part of being in an agency. So that’s an interesting thing, you know, as, as you think about grooming somebody in your agency, if they’re in the business because they are really passionate about the business, they might not be passionate about operations, but they might Right. Have the conversation.

Right. So it’s, I think, you know, for me personally, it’s about that’s where my skillset is. And so

I Right. It’s where you can have influence and be add benefit to the business, right? Yeah.

And everybody likes that, right? Everybody wants to feel like they’re bringing something that, to the table that’s adding value.

Yeah. Well, and my guess is too, if somebody’s inside the organization and they are a COO in the making the chaos that is often agencies drives them insane. So part of it would also be, I would like to bring some order and sense to this chaos that we all live in every day and bring some systems and process or, or mature our systems and processes to the next level,

Right? Yeah. And the, I think those people kind of self-select. You can see those people in agencies who Right. Want to create the order within that, all of that chaos. So there’s definitely opportunity to groom there.

Yeah. Agreed. This has been a great conversation. So thank you for coming on the show. Thanks for chatting with us. Thanks for doing the webinars soon. Absolutely. And helping us, helping us create the group. It’s gonna be great. I, I think, I think it’s a role that’s often under supported because it’s not, as you say, it’s not the sexy thing and most COOs are very competent and probably, but they’re also in most agencies kind of on an island by themselves. Ab Yes, absolutely. And so I, I think the peer group is gonna be a really great way for them to have peers that they can cha they can challenge each other, they can ideate together, they can help each other solve problems. They can also just not feel quite so alone.

Yes. Yeah. Yeah. And you know, I think you just sent an email out actually about how we, we grow together, right? We learn better when we learn together, right. And I think just the, the opportunity to have some of that robust discussion from an operator perspective will be really meaningful. So thank you for, for having me today and I’m really looking forward to the group.

Yeah, me too. Alright guys, so hopefully this has got your brain bubbling a little bit about whether or not this is a, a good fit for you. If this is something you aspire to, if your agency isn’t quite ready for it, beginning to think about how do you con as you continue to grow, how do you sort of carve the path for this? And again, is there somebody in your organization now that might be groom able and who might be interested in taking a role like this? Or is that something you’re gonna have to go find? So again, in the show notes, there’ll be more information about the webinar. It’ll be in the newsletter. We’ll be talking a lot about the peer group over the course of the next couple months. And so you can get plenty more information there as well. So lots of action items for you, hopefully from this episode.

So hopefully you can, you can apply some of these again, even if you’re not big enough yet, sort of just beginning to think about sort of what the future looks like and how and when you might welcome that role into your organization, right? Or if you’re a leader, is that you and is that something you wanna, you know, join the peer group and learn how to be better at it so that you can position yourself to help the agency grow in a very unique and meaningful way. So lots to think about. So, alright, before I let you go, as always wanna give a huge shout out and thank you to our friends at White. Label IQ, as you know, they are the presenting sponsor of the podcast. So born out of an a m i agency, people I’ve known for 20 years, they, they actually were struggling to figure out how they could do all the web work, the web dev work that they needed for their agency and ended up building what today is a completely separate business, White, Label IQ.

But for a while it was inside the agency and it was just a way for them to scale design dev and PPC. And as they perfected that for their own agency, they were like, wow, this could be great for other agencies. And now they are the white Label partner for all kinds of agencies all over the world actually. So really good folks, they, they understand how to price their services so you can still make some money. And we are very grateful that they are the presenting sponsors. So many thanks to them. If you talk to ’em, make sure you let them know that you heard about ’em on the podcast and you appreciate their support of us. You can go to White Label IQ dot com slash aami and if you’ve never worked with them before, you can get a couple free hours on your first project so you can kind of kick their tires.

And from I, I’ll tell you, my agency worked with them several times over the past couple years and they were spectacular. And that’s what I hear from agencies all over the, all over the globe. So good, good people. So check them out. Alright, this wraps up the episode as always. I am really glad you’re here. I mean, I would talk to Carolyn anyway, but it’s nice to have other people listening in on it too. I love being able to come back every week with new ideas and new folks to get you thinking differently about your business. So I’m grateful for you and I’ll be back next week and I hope you will too. Alright, I’ll see you then. Thanks for listening.

That’s all for this episode of AAMIs Build. a Better Agency Podcast. Be sure to visit agency management institute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-size agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.