Episode 223

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Biz dev, mentorship, and relationship management are critical responsibilities of every agency owner. But the hours in a workday are limited, and if we fail to delegate with confidence, the work that is uniquely ours will not get done. It’s just too easy to get sucked into client work or internal issues that we shouldn’t be focused on. Every agency owner needs a #1 who walks, talks, and leads like an owner because they enable us to actually do our job.

In this episode, AMI’s own Craig Barnes chats with Drew about his observations as to what it takes to recognize, find and keep a great lieutenant from his lens as the facilitator of AMI’s Key Executive networks. Craig also walks us through how to groom an existing employee who you believe has the potential to fill that role.

Throughout his experience running his own agency for 25+ years and his role at AMI, Craig has gleaned some invaluable insights about leadership team level team members in the agency world. If you are interested in learning how to identify that critical player for your team and prepare them for success, this episode is for you.

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: https://www.whitelabeliq.com/ami/

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • The common traits of agency key executives
  • All of the different functions that key executives can serve
  • How to identify key executives on your team and groom them for success
  • How you can grow as an agency owner so that your key executive can flourish
  • Why this is the ideal time to find and nurture a new leader

The Golden Nugget:

“Key executives have a passion for the business—not just for advertising, marketing or PR—but for how YOUR agency functions.” @CraigSBarnes Click To Tweet “With almost fifty percent of our time spent on business development, we need someone who will keep the wheel turning on a daily basis” @CraigSBarnes Click To Tweet “Because key executives are in the trenches more often than the owner, they can identify initiatives that will help the agency hit its goals.” @CraigSBarnes Click To Tweet “Agencies with key executives in place tend to have more wind in their sails than agencies that rely solely on the agency owner.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “It will only benefit you as an owner to have someone by your side who can help you carry out the mission.” @CraigSBarnes Click To Tweet

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Announcer:

It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus you still need to run a profitable business. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, will show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. Let us help you build an agency that is sustainable; scalable; and if you want down the road, sellable. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant please welcome your host Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here. Welcome back to Build a Better Agency. Thank you for joining us again. If this is your first episode ever welcome, you are among tens of thousands of agency owners and leaders who listen to the podcast every week, and who hopefully glean something new that they can take back to their shop that gets them thinking a little differently about the business of their business. That’s our goal, is to help you build an agency that is more profitable; more sustainable; more scalable; and, if you want to down the road, an agency that is worth something that you can sell, if that’s something that you want as part of your endgame strategy.

So today’s guest is one of my favorite people on the planet. His name is Craig Barnes. Many of you have met him. He does a lot of work inside AMI. He facilitates all of our Key Exec groups, he facilitates our virtual agency owner groups, he’s with us at a lot of our workshops and other events. He is an agency owner just like I am, he’s owned his own shop for over 20 years and continues to run that today. And is just this wealth of knowledge.

So Craig and I were having a conversation about some of the insights that he’s gleaned from running the Key Executive Groups for a couple years. For many agency owners they are hungry for that right-hand lieutenant, that if you’re a traction person that integrator, right? That person who stays in the shop and really runs it day to day or helps the agency owner run it day to day and takes really a lead role in the agency’s growth and operations. So the people who participate in our Key Exec peer groups are exactly that for their agencies. So I know a lot of you are looking for that kind of a person or are hungry to find that kind of a person, or maybe you think you have that person inside your shop right now but you’re not sure how to groom them or how to identify them.

So Craig and I thought it would be great if we just talked a little bit about our observations around what these kinds of leaders look like; some common traits among them; and then what you can do as, an agency owner or leader, to nurture these people inside your shop and to make sure that they stick around because they’re incredibly valuable.

One of the things that I think is really important, as we think about this role, is what it allows the agency owner to do. So if you own an agency and you have a leadership team, or a couple key people, who really are your right-hand people and who really do help you run the agency day in and day out. They think like an owner, they act like an owner, they have the agency’s best interest at heart, and a lot of other things that I want to get into with Craig.

But when you’re able to really, with confidence, offload a lot of your day to day task activity as an owner what it allows you to do is actually to do your job, right? And if you don’t do your job, which by the way is biz dev; and it’s mentorship of your team; and it’s loving on your clients and creating relationships at the highest level with your clients, sort of an owner to owner or president to president kind of thing; and obviously some of the financials and the running of the business of the business. If you don’t do those things nobody does those things. But so many of you are caught up in the day to day client activity and work because you don’t have someone else to hand that stuff off too or you’re too busy, you’re too in the weeds on the financials and things like that because you don’t have somebody you trust who can look at the numbers and tell you what’s going on. So you’re stuck in this daily activity, which prevents you from actually doing your job.

And having one of these lieutenants, or two of these lieutenants, is a great way for you to be able to step out of the day to day fray and focus on the business of running your agency to be stronger, and better. And so that’s what this episode is all about, is helping you identify who those folks are, and how to groom and grow them so they can be even more valuable to the agency and you. So I don’t want to dilly dally around at all, I want to jump into this with Craig because we have a lot to talk about.

So, as always, it is my pleasure to welcome back my partner in crime Craig Barnes to the podcast. Craig welcome back.

Craig Barnes:

Hi Drew, good to see you.

Drew McLellan:

You too. Hey, so we talked a little bit, before we hit the record button, that for many agency owners on their holiday wishlist was a right-hand person that many agency owners, and I certainly see this in the owner peer groups, they’re hungry for that lieutenant who can run the shop when they’re gone; that can help them manage expectations of the team; that can care about the financials and the other metrics as they do. I think we have a lot of those folks in the Key Executive Group, so I was thinking maybe the way that we would start today’s conversation is you work with all the Key Exec groups …

And for those of you who are listening who aren’t familiar AMI, for 20 some years, has had these owner peer groups where agency owners from non-competitive markets come together, they hangout for two and a half days, share best practices, steal ideas from each other, show each other their financials, all of those sorts of things. And that’s been around for a long time and has been incredibly valuable for many people, both including Craig and I as we started our agencies 20 some years ago.

And several years ago many of the agency owners asked me if I would be willing to start basically a duplicate of those agency owner groups but for their key executives. So some of these folks have a minority interest in the agency, most of them do not have any ownership; some are on an ownership track, many are not. But these are the key players in an agency who are the right-hand person to the agency. So sometimes they’re a director of operations, sometimes they’re a director of account service, we have some creative directors, we have some finance folks, but whoever is the right-hand person. And Craig actually facilitates all of those groups. We have several of those groups, and they meet twice a year for two days in Chicago in October and April.

So Craig in the peer group, kind of in a microscope, gets to look at this aggregate group of professionals. So I thought it might be helpful to you to hear what’s common about them, so that as you’re looking amongst people you already have or you’re looking for this person, maybe you’re interviewing for somebody who might grow into that right-hand person position, it might be helpful to know what Craig sees as some commonalities among those folks. So, Craig, when you think about all of the key execs that you serve throughout the year what are some of the common elements that make them so valuable inside the agency?

Craig Barnes:

I would say the first thing, and it’s consistent across everyone who’s in the Key Exec Group, is they have a demonstrated passion for the business. And not just the business of marketing agency PR but they have a passion for how the business works. They are hungry to want to learn more and continue to be of support to their owner, from everything from making sure that best processes are followed, how are the financials looking, are we working to scope, how do we keep those things under control? They’re very passionate about the inner workings of making the agency go. I would say that’s a common thread among all of them.

Drew McLellan:

Well one thing I notice about them when I interact with them at workshops, or things like that, is they talk, and look, and sound like an agency owner.

Craig Barnes:

Very much.

Drew McLellan:

But more pragmatic perhaps and more operationally focused than-

Craig Barnes:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

… most agency owners. So most agency owners are more entrepreneurial, looking out at the big picture. Where I think most of the key execs they behave a lot like an owner but like an owner who wants to drive the car.

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely. Absolutely. What I would also say is that they, from an operational standpoint, are the ones who are bringing up the ideas within the agency of, “Here’s other things I think we could be doing to improve how we are operating.” And that’s everything from creating client dashboards to score how the client’s performing for the agency, both from a cultural fit, from a financial fit, from a vertical fit, to making sure that the team then walks out with what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. They’re the drivers of that, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Craig Barnes:

They’re the ones who are making sure that everyone who reports to them, and anybody else on a lateral line who they’re working with, that they’re really focused on how can we, as an agency, get done what we need to get done under the circumstance we all know, which is a day to day agency environment? It’s not a relaxed 9:00 to 5:00 kind of operation. They’re very focused on what they can do to make sure that they’re achieving the best work possible, within whatever the definition of that work is, scope, all of those things. So see that’s another consistent attribute among all of them.

And you mentioned the variety of roles that people have, that are in these groups. In fact, there are probably … I think we have three or four who are actually the presidents of their agencies, who’s owners have moved on to a different chair within the agency, they’re still involved. But they’re the ones who are really also straddling that fence between supporting the owner’s vision, creating some of that on their own, but highly focused on making sure that the bottom line goal is met. And as an influence to the other people in the groups it’s always interesting to see how other people react to those who are sitting in that chair, that are not necessarily the owner. So that’s always an interesting thing to observe.

Drew McLellan:

Well one of the other things that I know about them is they are regular participants in our workshops and other things. They’re hungry to learn. And then, certainly, it’s one of the reasons why they’re in the Key Exec groups because they learn a lot from each other. But whether it’s the Key Exec Group, or workshop, or books, or whatever, not only do they want to improve performance but they are students of how to do that and they are always looking for innovative ways to approach the challenges that today’s agencies are facing.

Craig Barnes:

Right, exactly. And one of the things that we talk about, and that they bring up as well, is that how important it is for everyone in the agency to have a true business-first focus and to move away from what used to be the case of, “Okay, well we do websites,” or, “We do digital.” And it’s really about focusing on how to solve the client’s business problem. And their role in mentoring the other people on the team to think that way, and to be prepared, and to know everything they possibly can about what’s impacting the agency’s clients’ businesses. And I would say that they are true advocates for that, and have taken a leadership role within the agency to make sure that that becomes the standard practice within the agency and not something that one or two people can do. I think they’re really a good contributor to developing the agency’s bench strength as well.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Well I think another thing that makes a person who plays that role, whether they’re in one of our Key Exec groups or not, but one of the things that I know across the board from the AMI agencies is they also tend to be someone who has earned the respect and trust of the staff. So agency owners if you’re thinking, “Who in my shop is this person?” Odds are you have someone in your shop that all the other employees run to when they have a problem, or a challenge, or they need to talk to you about something and they’re not sure how to approach it. This person becomes everyone’s advocate inside the agency. I think that’s another common trait I noted.

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely. And they have a unique role in that they’re … If you use the metaphor of a fence, they’re straddling both sides of the fence, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Craig Barnes:

So in one sense they’re there to make sure they’re supporting their owner’s vision, and driving that. On the other side, as the confidante, and the mentor, and the person who the team comes to, they have to be able to translate sometimes what the owner’s vision is, what the owner’s thinking, down to the rest of the team. And then, likewise, use that information to bubble it back up to the owner, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Craig Barnes:

Because, we’ve talked about this before, that as owners, you and I both sat in a chair, that we do have blind spots occasionally.

Drew McLellan:

Yes.

Craig Barnes:

And to have somebody who you have the confidence in to bring those things to your attention, so that the train doesn’t run off the tracks needlessly. That they can highlight to you, “Hey, here’s some things going on I think we really need to talk about.” Much like an account manager in an agency has, I think, a very difficult job, in that they’re an advocate for the agency, they’re an advocate for the client at the same time, same way with key execs, right? They’re an advocate for the owner, they’re an advocate for the employees as well. That takes a special personality to be able to do that. And from an owner’s position to find a person who you can have that trust in, who can carry that out for you on a day to day basis, is a huge asset, right?

Drew McLellan:

Oh my God, it’s gold. Yeah-

Craig Barnes:

[crosstalk 00:15:34] Absolutely. Absolutely. Because as you and I both coach other owners one of the things that we’re constantly talking to them about is how they’re dividing up their time. And if they’re following the rule then 50% of their time should really be spent on business development. They need somebody they can count on to make sure that the wheel keeps turning within the agency on a day to day basis.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think having the right person in that role is the one thing that does allow an agency owner to step out of the day to day-

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

… and actually step into the job that only they can do.

Craig Barnes:

Right, right. Absolutely. Because nobody, no one, can sell the agency like the owner can sell the agency.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

Craig Barnes:

I mean, I know from my own experience. I have a drawer full of canceled checks of new business people I hired and that’s pretty much what I have to show for it. But so nobody drives the business like the owner. But you’re absolutely right, you have to have somebody onboard who can free you up to be able to do that [inaudible 00:16:38], so that you know that you don’t have to worry and be involved in every single detail because otherwise it just hurts the agency’s growth.

Drew McLellan:

I think a common mistake that agency owners make is they think that this lieutenant needs to be a mini-me, it needs to be somebody that’s just like them. And I think about some of the lieutenants I’ve had in my agency over the course of the years and probably one of the most effective ones of all couldn’t have been more not like me if I tried, right?

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

I mean, personality-wise we were very different, work style-wise we were very different. And that compliment really worked for us and it allowed us to have a broader base of strengths because he had strengths I didn’t have and I had strengths that he didn’t have, and we sort of canceled out each other’s weaknesses. So I think you also have to be careful if you’re out they’re listening and you’re thinking, “Oh I want to find this person. I’m going to do a personality test or something else and make sure that they’re just like me.” That is not necessary. I don’t know that it’s a bad thing but it’s certainly not a necessary thing. And there are some advantages to having somebody who maybe isn’t as big picture thinking, isn’t so quick to chase shiny objects, isn’t so easily distracted, and who can really stay focused on staying at home and making sure the knitting gets done.

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely. I mean, it’s like any relationship, right? We need to find somebody who compliments us, who doesn’t necessarily duplicate us, right? So to your point about we’re erasing each other’s weaknesses, the things that they’re strong in and the things that they’re weak in, how do you find that person who can help you strengthen the bench strength within the agency and create a more competent approach to, “How are we going to get things done?” And having somebody who you can count on to be there to do that for you, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. I think there’s the ying and yang of this too. So in a little bit I want to talk about how do you help grow these people and find them? But I also think there’s a part of their makeup that is not taught, that they’re just wired that way. And I’m thinking in particular of a couple of them, that you and I both know, that are way too young to be in that role but they’re just so wired to be it that they have assumed that mantle of command, and they have earned the trust of both their owner and the team underneath them. And it’s just innately who they are. So part of it is looking for somebody who naturally exudes all the things that we’re talking about. Because I think some of that leadership, and some of that desire to grow a business, and all of the things that have to be baked into this role, some of those things are just innate or they’re just not th