Episode 374: Good habits for great agency leadership with Jeff Salzenstein

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Jeff Salzenstein says we can feel balanced and less like we’re about to snap. Learn good habits for agency leaders with Jeff Salzenstein.

Weary is a great word to describe a lot of agency leaders right now. It comes up again and again that we’re just tired, overworked, and running on fumes. It’s not our fault, but there are things we can do to get back to feeling a little more balanced and less like we’re about to snap.

I brought Jeff Salzenstein on this week to teach us some good habits that we can work on little by little to improve our personal lives and help us be better agency leaders. As a former tennis pro, he knows what it’s like to be under pressure and have people counting on you to perform at your peak at all times.

We’ll talk about how he made the difficult decision to move from playing tennis to doing leadership coaching. He’ll cover everything he knows about getting your mental, emotional, and physical health to its optimal level so that you can show up as your best self for the people counting on you the most.

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.


What you will learn from Jeff Salzenstein in this episode:

  • How to stay strong and committed in the face of challenges
  • Navigating the weariness that comes with agency leadership
  • Shifting a negative mindset into a positive one
  • Focused breathing as an effective technique to recenter yourself
  • The importance of good sleep for good leadership
  • How incremental changes create significant shifts in our lives
  • The importance of having well-rounded emotional health

“Being an entrepreneur and running your own agency is the ultimate spiritual journey.” @jeffsalzenstein Share on X “If you shift your perspective and focus more on the growth opportunities and lessons rather than the actual result, you can become grateful for everything that comes your way. Even the bad stuff.” @jeffsalzenstein Share on X “If you think you stink at something, there's a much greater chance that you're not going to achieve the thing you're setting out to do.” @jeffsalzenstein Share on X “You're either planting weeds, or you're planting seeds with your thoughts.” @jeffsalzenstein Share on X “If you can start to find appreciation in the things that don't go your way, that truly is the art of, I believe, success and fulfillment.” @jeffsalzenstein Share on X

Ways to contact Jeff:


Jeff Salzenstein: Full Interview Transcript

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? 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. We’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want down the road sellable. With 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 from Agency Management Institute back with you yet again week after week. We just keep showing up, I love that, for another episode of Build a Better Agency. Hope the year is winding down well for you and all is good as you look at 2023, that you have a plan in place, that you’ve got the team that you’re happy with, and that you’ve got contracts in place and pipeline is full. That’s what I’m hoping for you. That’s my holiday wish for you is that all of that is coming into play as we approach the end of 2022. But today we’re going to talk about something else. Actually, something more important than all of those things. But first I want to remind you that we are now running both the Advanced AE Bootcamp and the AE Bootcamp twice a year. The spring dates for those workshops, those live workshops are March 23rd and 24th is the Advanced AE Bootcamp in beautiful Mile High City, Denver, and then April 27th and 28th also here in Denver for your more junior people.

And if you’re trying to decide which workshop to send your folks to, if they have, I would say zero to four years of experience, they’re not supervising anybody yet. Maybe they’re a junior AE, or a project manager, and an associate account exec, whatever your title may be, it’s an entry level position. Then I would send them to the regular AE Bootcamp on April 27th and 28th. And if somebody’s got five years or more of experience, they are supervising some folks, they’re leading a team, they are on the more strategic end of account strategy and account management. Rather than moving parts and pieces through the agency, then the Advanced AE Bootcamp March 23rd and 24th is probably right for you. You can find both of those on the AMI website and you can register there. All right. Let me tell you a little bit about our guest and what we’re going to talk about today.

So Jeff Salzenstein, try saying that five times fast, is a former professional tennis player. He was actually ranked 100 in the world, so played at Wimbledon, played at the US Open. And through a series of events, decided to end his tennis career, which I’m sure he’ll tell us about, and has now turned to executive and leadership coaching. But he coaches from a very different place. It’s not really about accomplishing your ROI goals, or what you want to get done in the business, it’s really a much more introspective, looking inside yourself and learning how to be a leader in a stressful world. How when so much is going on around us that is out of our control, how do we stay calm? How do we stay grounded and centered? How do we stay healthy mentally, emotionally, physically? And that’s really the focus of his coaching.

And as I said earlier in the intro, that feels a whole lot more important than hitting your AGI goal, or your staff issues, or any of those things. Being strong and healthy and feeling energized, which I know for a lot of you is a challenge right now that seems like the holy grail of what we should be seeking as leaders, and then what we can teach our people as leaders. So I’m super excited to have Jeff on the show and for him to share his wisdom. I’m going to ask him for a lot of practical, tangible tips and tricks, and we’re going to get as much out of him as we can in this next hour. So that all of us can go into the new year feeling refreshed and energized, and on our way to being even healthier than we are today. All right? Let’s get them on the show. Jeff, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Jeff Salzenstein:

It’s an absolute pleasure to be here, Drew. Thank you so much.

Drew McLellan:

So tell the listeners a little bit about your background and how you came to have this passion around performance, but at a much deeper level than just checking off the next box or winning the next award.

Jeff Salzenstein:

Sure. It’s been a fascinating journey for me. I’ll take you back to when I was 15 and a half years old. I was five foot four, 102 pounds, could barely see over the steering wheel when I had my driver’s permit. And I went to go play a national tennis tournament in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I got triple crown. And that’s not the triple crown when we refer to horse racing where you win all three of the most prestigious races in the world. Triple crown in tennis means you lost first round in singles, you lost first round in doubles, and you lost in the first round of the back draw, the consolation. So you’re the loser of that tournament. And it was a big contrast from just three years earlier I was a national champion. So I had my first dose of real adversity in the tennis world of being a national champion at 12, and then just falling off a cliff in my teenage years.

And that created a lot of doubt in uncertainty within me, and fortunately, I was able to write the ship. I finally went through puberty about three years after everyone else went on and played at Stanford University, was really just a very kind of a grinder. A guy that scrappy, found ways to win. I was playing at the bottom of the singles lineup, which still playing at Stanford, which is arguably the best tennis program in the country. It was a great feat, but there was no chance I was going to play pro tennis at this point. And through some divine intervention, I guess I developed a world class surf, and I grew three inches, and I put on some weight and really became a force in college tennis. And that took me on a journey to play professional tennis almost by accident. The little kid from Colorado going to a public school in Colorado.

I was never groomed to be a pro tennis player, but it accidentally happened. And so this whole performance journey started young, but it really picked up steam as I became a professional. And when I went through a lot of adversity with injuries and my career almost ended, I was able to bounce back and have better results in my late 20s and 30s. But what I like to share with people is no one really remembers the matches you won, the tournaments you played, if you were at All American or not, what you were ranked. You’re really defined by these pivotal moments in your life, these transitions, whether it’s a change in career, whether it’s the painful end of a relationship, or something in your life, or a health condition, something happens where you come to that sliding doors moment. And my sliding doors moment was, I was at this crossroad in my professional career and I was a bit lost.

I didn’t know how to let go. My identity has been so wrapped up in being the tennis star. And I have a younger brother that really struggled deeply with addiction, and I found him laying on the floor. He was 17 years old at the time, I was 33. He was laying on the floor, passed out, drool coming out of his mouth. I mean, real, deep, serious addiction. And it was in that moment that I quit pro tennis. It was over. I basically said, “I got to help my brother.” And through very quick action, within six days, I had found a recovery center for him. I moved back to Denver and I announced the world that I was a coach. And so that was a very stressful time in my life. And when I look back on it, that pivotal moment changed the course of my life for the better.

And the reason why I did is because I realized that my gift, my superpower, if you will, Drew, is to be a coach. And I started coaching tennis instead of competing in tennis. And I’ve gone on an incredible journey the last 15 years as a coach, as an entrepreneur building an online platform, and then now speaking and coaching on optimal performance. And how to help people manage stress, how to help them get through the tough times and adversity. And as you know now, today, we are faced with challenges that we’ve never really experienced before in this fast-paced world. And so I just feel so blessed that when I can look back on some of the really difficult moments in my life, those were the catalyst and the springboard for more growth and more learning.

Drew McLellan:

How’s your brother?

Jeff Salzenstein:

Thank you for asking. My brother has been in and out of the struggle and the addiction, and it’s been a long, windy journey. And I think he’s doing better now, our relationship is, as we speak, is challenged because he has made some choices that haven’t been the best for him. But he’s doing his best to improve and we’re very connected. So obviously I’m hopeful that he can get things going in the right direction, and that’s what I’m praying for.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and it’s a great example of sometimes despite our greatest efforts and the sacrifices and things that we make in our work, in our families, we don’t get to control it all. And I think that’s part of the source of all the stress is, I think most business leaders, most leaders in life have a little affection for control, and want very much to control the journey, right? Guilty is charged for sure. And those of you that are just listening, Jeff raised his hand, so he’s confessing as well. So I think that’s one of the sources, and certainly through the pandemic and leading a business out of the pandemic, and now the talk of the recession, so much of our life is out of our control. So often external forces or other people make choices that impact us. So with all of that happening on the outside, how do we stay strong, stay healthy, be a committed leader? How do we do all of that in the face of that kind of challenge?

Jeff Salzenstein:

Right. Yeah. It’s the ultimate challenge, right? Our world, our society is set up for us to feel good if we win the tennis match, to feel good if we get the trophy, to feel good if we become CEO or we run our own company, to feel good if we scale our business and we hit a million dollars or $10 million. The reality is all of that is fleeting. And when I coach or when I help folks and support them on their journey, the metaphor between tennis and life is it runs deep. And there’s a famous book called The Inner Game of Tennis by Timothy Gallwey. And folks in other sports and businesses have actually used that book to guide them. And I think it’s ironic that I have this deep relationship with tennis, and what I’m really interested and what I want to help people focus more on is the inner game. To really take a look inside and go deeper because there’s a reason why we’re distracted by all these things.

It distracts us from the deeper truths and the deeper healing, if you will. And so when I talk about hop optimal performance, it’s not just about the external results, it’s actually about learning to know yourself, understanding what makes you tick and going on your own journey. And I think that being an entrepreneur, running your own agency, it’s the ultimate spiritual journey. Whatever your faith is, whatever you believe in, being an entrepreneur, you and/or an agency owner, you bump up against all of this and all the moving parts of running a business, and being the best father, husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, son, daughter. And then it comes down to really understanding how to take care of yourself. And so we’re living in a world where mental health and emotional health challenges are at an all time high. If you’re watching the news, if you’re consuming content that doesn’t feed your soul, if you are eating foods or drinking drinks that don’t make you feel better in the long term instead of the short term fix, we’re all guilty of it.

But you made a great point about control. In tennis, you can only control the controllables, that’s your attitude, your effort, how you take care of yourself. And if you’re not doing these things, you also have to practice not going into judgment and beating yourself up that you’re not perfect, that you didn’t scale the business that way you wanted to. Or that you had to fire someone, or that you can’t sleep, or you have a specific health condition, or you have a lot of anxiety. Because the worst thing is to actually to go into judgment of all of those things. And those are the things that I like to shine the light on and really go deep with folks that are thoughtful and asking questions about, what is this journey all about? And ultimately, my belief, and this is what I’m practicing more and more every day myself.

I’m living it myself. I don’t have it all licked. But I do have a deep understanding that everything that happens in our lives, whether it’s good or bad, however we want to label it. It’s always for our own learning and growth. And I think if someone could embrace that, the worst thing that can happen in your life, it’s for your growth and there’s a lesson to teach you there. And if you can shift your approach and your perspective to life, and focus more on the growth opportunities and more on the lessons rather than the actual result, you actually get into that state where you can be more appreciative and grateful for everything that comes your way, even the bad stuff.

Drew McLellan:

Well, even good stuff causes stress, right?

Jeff Salzenstein:


Drew McLellan:


Jeff Salzenstein:

A hundred percent, the good stuff too. And especially when you’re always seeking that dopamine hit of the good stuff, again, it melts away. So it’s really about building that foundation, really understanding yourself, and starting to ask those questions and finding the right people that can help give you some answers, because we can’t do it alone. We’re in this together, we’re all human and we’re all having challenges, whether it’s physical, emotional or mental. And really having real time techniques, and tools, and strategies, and ways to feel better naturally and to remove the interference. Really to remove the distractions that allows us to perform at a higher level. And again, I’ve gone on my own journey to understand all of this, and I’m very blessed. My tennis journey and my entrepreneur journey and my coaching journey, all of it has been designed so that I can serve at the highest level and really help folks during some challenging times.

Drew McLellan:

So I’ve worked with agency owners for a long time, and I will say that I’ve never seen them more weary. It’s not even physical tired, it’s weariness. It’s a weight on them and feeling like it’s, the way they often describe it is that it feels like they are climbing a mountain that’s taller than what they’ve climbed before. So if people are feeling that way as they’re listening, and they came to you and said, “This is how I’m feeling.” Where do they start? Where do they start picking away at that, and started helping themselves feel the energy and the enthusiasm that they are missing right now?

Jeff Salzenstein:

That’s a beautiful question. And when I work with people or I get to know them, the common theme that I always hear, and I witness this firsthand myself as a tennis player and then as a coach, and I just point in my head, is that the thing that is disrupting or causing all of this chaos internally is the mental chatter in our heads, and I like to call them mind bees. The bees are buzzing around in the head, all of the thoughts, all of the things that are in our heads that are stirring, right? And so tennis players, it’s exasperated, when you see a tennis player struggling on the court, they’re rarely in their body, they’re in their head. And we know from science that to get into the zone, you have to be able to get into your body. That’s why when you lose or win a tennis point and you’re getting prepared, you have 30 seconds to prepare for the next point.

You go back to the back fence and you grab your towel, and you take a deep breath, and you shake out your hand, you relax your hands and your shoulders, and you take a deep breath. Now, how many people do you know that are weary and overwhelmed that are actually taking 30 seconds or a minute throughout the day, let’s say, and actually going to get their towel and taking a deep breath? Actually getting into their body when they’re walking down the street, are they actually staring at their phone, or is the phone removed and they’re walking and they actually notice their feet walking on the ground, or can feel their heart beating, or feel the sensation of their hands? So we’re totally actually disconnected from our bodies, and tennis players struggle with this, and now we’re struggling with this. I mean, this is the biggest thing that’s actually I think pulling people away from being connected to themselves.

So a real strategy is to be able to actually get your mind and your body connected is simple breathing, and there’s a technique that’s called heart-focused breathing. And you actually connect to your heart and you start focusing on putting your attention in that area. And that may sound woo-woo, but the science says that you send a lot more signals from your heart to your brain than from your brain to your heart. And the problem is that we’re trying to solve all the problems and deal with our stress up here, and it actually needs to sink down here. And sometimes it’s not comfortable because there is a lot of pain and there is a lot of struggle internally, and we’re not taught to get comfortable in our body. So that would be something right away, if someone could just practice getting into their body, whether it’s their feet or their hands or more specifically into their heart, and do one minute of heart focused breathing that can start to improve the ability to handle stress.

And it can actually bring you into what’s called coherence. And coherence is the zone. And they measure that with heart rate variability. One of the greatest indicators of health is your heart rate variability. The higher the number, the better, that means you’re flexible, that means you can handle stress. And most of us today are running around in a stress state, whether it’s acute or chronic, and that builds up over time. It’s like your battery’s being drained every single day and you’re not recharging the battery. So just some simple breathing techniques can actually help you get into coherence and get into your body.

Drew McLellan:

So if I’m starting to practice better breathing, I start to recognize that my phone or my computer or my email is a sav to stay in my head, to not connect my body.

Jeff Salzenstein:


Drew McLellan:

All right. So if I am more disciplined about that a little bit, and even a little bit would make a difference