Episode 160

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One of the challenges for all of us as agency owners and leaders is finding the balance of creating a relationship with our employees, but also being the leader and helping them recognize their blind spots, areas of growth and when they’ve messed up.

This requires the courage to have candid conversations with your team members. It’s never easy or all together comfortable, but to truly be a leader in our agency – this is not an optional skill.

I see the avoidance of these conversations when I’m on site with an agency, when I’m on a coaching or and when I’m with a group of owners, talking about their employees. We don’t address behaviors that we know are unacceptable or not up to par. We may joke about it, or hint at it, or even deal with it passive aggressively – but we don’t tackle it head on.

We hide behind silence, email exchanges, and even through text messages – all to avoid that face-to-face conversation.

I get it — you’re afraid of what your employees’ reaction will be, or what it would do to the agency if they quit. You feel as if you’re between a rock and a hard place. So you tolerate the behavior. You make your staff and clients suffer from the behavior. You risk losing employees and clients rather than addressing it.

And worst of all — you greatly diminishing your reputation as a leader because everyone around you is wondering why you’re letting it continue. And quite honestly — they’re wondering why they should follow the rules if others don’t.

The skill of having difficult conversations and course correcting your team is vital. And we as agency owners need to get good at it.

There may be a few of you who are really great at this. You give really honest, candid, specific feedback, and you’d do it early on when you first see the behavior, attitude or bad decision, not after it’s been happening for months and months.

But for the vast majority of you, this is not your gift, but if you think avoiding difficult conversations isn’t affecting your agency…you’re wrong. You’re absolutely wrong. This is a skill that you must own if you want to grow your agency in terms of profits, respect, and your people.

And that’s why talking through how to get better at having difficult conversations with your employees will be our focus during this solocast.



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Why employees become more engaged and committed when they receive honest feedback from you.
  • Why leaders who are rated the highest are the ones who most actively give and seek feedback from their team.
  • Why caring about your agency’s culture is about more than just “Beer Fridays”, the parties, or the fun. It’s about the level of candor you have inside your shop.
  • How not addressing bad behavior and course correcting an employee early on causes you to lose the respect of your team.
  • How to take and apply a sample script for starting off a difficult conversation with one of your employees the right way.
  • How to prepare yourself to have a difficult conversation with one of your employees.
  • How to apply the elements of having a difficult conversation — the pieces of doing this well.
  • How to focus on specific issues during the difficult conversation.
  • Why creating an action plan for correcting the behavior is not your responsibility – it’s your employee’s.
  • Why if you’re not having difficult conversations on a regular basis, or not celebrating your people by praising them, or coaching them so they get even better — that you’re not doing your job.

Drew McLellan is the CEO at Agency Management Institute. He has also owned and operated his own agency since 1995 and is still actively running the agency today. Drew’s unique vantage point as being both an agency owner and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies throughout the year gives him a unique perspective on running an agency today.

AMI works with agency owners by:

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE Bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with those 250+ agencies every year — Drew has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written two books and been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

The Golden Nuggets:

When you avoid correcting the bad behaviors you see in your employees — showing up late to meetings, being disrespectful to team members, or not having grace with clients — it soaks into your culture and becomes the norm. - @DrewMcLellan Share on X I totally get how intensely uncomfortable having a difficult conversation is with an employee and how it creates anxiety. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s a process you can follow to help you prepare. - @DrewMcLellan Share on X When you’re courageous enough to have a difficult conversation with an employee — from a place of caring, planning the outcomes, and wrap up with an action plan created by the employee — the conversation is actually a gift. - @DrewMcLellan Share on X Sometimes you worry an employee will quit so you literally become a hostage because you’re tolerating their behavior. So what you’re doing is teaching bad behavior to everyone else in the shop. - @DrewMcLellan Share on X If you don’t get the bad behaviors fixed, you’re going to lose your ability to lead your team. They’ll see that the behaviors are ignored and the cost of that is everyone will choose which rules they follow and which they ignore. - @DrewMcLellan Share on X Your employees can’t get better without your help and feedback. You need to invest in your people. It’s more than sending them to a workshop. It's about you taking the risk of having difficult conversations. - @DrewMcLellan Share on X


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Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

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Drew McLellan: Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me today. I want to have a really serious conversation with you, and that’s why I wanted to meet someplace where we could have some privacy and also we could control the distractions. Honestly, I think this is going to be a tough conversation for both of us, but I want us both to remember throughout the conversation that we are on the same team and we are working towards the same goal. Getting better for ourselves, our clients and our agency, that’s what this is about for me and I know it’s what it’s about for you. It’s important for me that you know that I completely believe in you and your abilities. I know that you can be an amazing leader. So, my question for you is, are you willing to work at getting even better at that, even if it means hearing some tough feedback? There’s an area of your leadership that needs our shared attention.


  I have observed it for quite a while and decided that it was something that was important enough to both of us, that we talk about it. The truth is that you struggle with confronting bad behavior inside your agency. You allow some of your employees to violate your rules, like client deadlines, or you tolerate them mistreating their coworkers. You let them get away with murder and you either pretend to ignore their behavior, or worse, sometimes you joke about them behind their back with other agency employees like, Oh, look like Babbette got up on the wrong side of the bed again this morning kind of comments. And you’re better than that. Many times you do this because I think that you are afraid of the employee’s reaction or what it would do to the agency if they quit.


  So, I think you feel like you are between a rock and a hard place and so you tolerate this behavior, but the truth is you are greatly diminishing your reputation as a leader, and the consequences are significant. The rest of the team is watching you and they’re wondering why you’re allowing this behavior to continue. And quite honestly, they’re wondering why they should follow the rules if everybody isn’t held to the same standard. This ability to address bad behavior, to address people coming in late all the time, for sloppy work, for mistakes, whatever it may be, this skill, to be able to really talk about it and course-correct your team is a vital skill. If you’re going to keep running the agency and guiding its growth. If we don’t get this deficiency fixed, you’re going to lose your ability to lead the team. They will see that bad behavior and they’ll see that it’s ignored or at least ignored for some people.


  And the cost of that is, we’re going to have everyone choosing which rules they follow and which rules they ignore. The ones that are most valuable to us, the employees that are our A-players, are going to leave us to go work for a company that actually honors their values and doesn’t talk out of both sides of their mouth. If you want to grow your agency in terms of profits, respect, and your people, this is a skill and an area that must get your attention, focus and commitment. That’s how you start a difficult conversation. And that’s what I want to focus on in this solocast episode of Build A Better Agency.


Speaker 2: 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. Now in our third year of brand new insights on how small to mid-sized agencies survive and thrive in today’s market, we’ll show you how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make with 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.


Drew McLellan: Thanks for joining me today, thanks for listening to the solo cast. If you are a new listener, welcome, if you are a repeat listener, welcome back. One of the challenges, I think, for all of us as leaders, is finding the balance of creating a relationship with our employees, but also being the leader or the guide and helping them get even better at their job. And as the employee shortage has gotten tighter, one of the behaviors I’ve noticed in many of you, and I’ve seen it in person, I hear about it in your stories, is that you are tolerating behavior that you know is unacceptable and for many of us, that’s a really difficult thing to do. Having those difficult conversations is really hard and really uncomfortable and the truth is that you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t, or shouldn’t be giving your team honest feedback about their performance, but the truth is you don’t want to.


  You’re afraid, you’re uncomfortable, you’re afraid of the repercussions of that. And so there may be a few of you who are listening to this solo cast that are really great at this that you give really honest, candid, specific feedback, and you do it early in the behavior, not after it’s been happening for months and months and months. Well, if that’s you, I promise you this solo cast, probably not for you, but for the vast majority of you, this is not your gift because it’s hard, it’s scary, it’s uncomfortable. And honestly, you just don’t want to do it, so you’ve let yourself off the hook. The best thing about owning an agency is you’re accountable to no one, but the worst part of owning an agency is that you’re accountable to no one. And so, unchecked by yourself, this behavior, this avoidance of these difficult conversations will continue.


  And if you don’t think that it’s affecting your agency, you’re wrong, you are absolutely wrong. This is a skill and a behavior that you must own and hone. We all know that people flourish with candid assessments and input, we know that. You’ve probably read books like Crucial Conversations and Radical Candor, intellectually knowing that it’s important to do is very different than building the muscle, strengthening the muscle so that you do it better and more frequently. You tolerate a lot of bad behavior in your agencies, you grouse about the employee who can’t come to work because their pet goat is sick, or who always shows up late, or who’s disrespectful to team members, who comes late to meetings, or who has no grace with clients. But out of fear, typically, you avoid correcting all of those behaviors, so they soak into your agency’s culture instead.


  Again, they soak into your agency’s culture instead. If you don’t course correct this, this is going to become the norm and one person doing it turns into two people doing it, or three people doing it. You’ve got to course correct these behaviors. And if you have somebody who’s got technical skills or is good at some aspect of their job, and you allow these behaviors to continue, you’re going to end up showing that person the door, implicitly or explicitly, and you’re going to lose those skills. Research shows us that employees are more engaged and committed when they receive honest feedback. And the leaders who are rated highest in effectiveness are the ones who most actively give and seek feedback from others. Again, intellectually, we totally get it, but truth is, this is a little like the emperor’s new clothes. We all pretend to do it, we all pretend we understand how important it is, but most of you really aren’t good at this, or you don’t do it at all.


  I get it, I totally get it. Two-way dialogues are often intensely uncomfortable and they create a lot of anxiety prior to the conversation and during and sometimes after, on both sides of the conversation. You worry about everything from demoralizing someone or having them quit to being less popular and all of those worries are legitimate and real. So, either we avoid it altogether, or we do it through a very ritualistic, formal, stiff process, like an annual review where we use stilted, weasel word language, where we avoid saying what we need to say, or we talk about it in a very passive-aggressive way and we don’t actually address the issue. And quite honestly, a lot of times the employee doesn’t even hear it. So, the reality is, this lack of a skill on your part, this fear, giving into this fear, this costs you a great deal as an agency leader.


  Over time, you actually lose the respect of your team. They see the problems and they see you avoiding the problems. I’ve made this mistake. Every time that I have finally dealt with an employee issue, as I have let it go too long, especially early in my career as an agency owner, anytime I let it go too long, sooner or later, when I finally addressed the issue or, worse, back in the day when I was really lousy at this, when I didn’t address the issue and instead I was forced to finally fire this person, because I couldn’t have that conversation and I no longer could tolerate the behavior. You know what the other employees said to me every time? What took you so long? They see it, they’re watching us, they are waiting for us to take action, they want us to take action.


  And quite honestly, even if it’s their behavior, they want the feedback. We worry about being disliked, we worry about stumbling over our words, we worry about showing too much emotion, which by the way is not a bad thing. But when you do it with care and you do it with planning, it doesn’t have to be punitive, it doesn’t have to be super difficult, it really is actually a gift. It is a gift to the employee to give them an opportunity to be a better employee, to be the best employee they can be. And it is a gift to the rest of your employees, by creating a culture and an environment in which they want to work. It is your job to protect the whole and sometimes that means addressing a specific problem so it does not infect the whole. Sometimes you worry about they’ll quit and you are literally being held hostage by that employee and tolerating that behavior.


  And what you are doing is you are teaching bad behavior to everyone else in the shop. I see this particularly when it’s difficult to hire positions like web dev or senior people, you’ll let them get away with not doing their time sheets, with missing deadlines, whatever it is, because you’re so afraid they’ll walk out the door. Your employees can’t get better without your support, your help, and your feedback. You need to invest in your people and this is more than sending them to a workshop or doing lunch and learns, this is about you taking the risk of having a difficult conversation. A lot of times employees have very unrealistic perceptions of their performance, so they’re getting madder and madder in their own corner because you’re not promoting them or giving them a raise, but the reality is they have a behavior or a habit, or they are violating rules that really bind you.


  You can’t give them a promotion or a raise, but they have no idea. You know why? Because you haven’t talked to them about it. Mostly, this is about your lack of confidence, your discomfort, it’s not about the employee or their reaction. We use that as an excuse, but the reality is we’re not good at it. We want to be well-liked, we want to be perceived as a great boss, and we think that having candid conversations, where we’re very specific about the course corrections that need to be made, we think that those conversations diminish their view of us as a leader and the reality is, they elevate their view of us as a leader. If you actually care about your agency’s culture, it’s not just about having beer Friday or the parties or the fun, it really is about the level of candor that you have inside your shop.


  Again, it is about the level of candor that you have inside your shop. It should be a two-way street. So, not only should you be giving feedback, but you should be asking for feedback and that can be equally painful, but you’ve got to cultivate a culture where people know that they’re going to hear the honest truth about their performance, and can be honest with you about what they need to be successful. Worst case scenario, you keep your mediocre employees. These are the people that you are not willing to have the conversations with, that you are not courageous enough to talk to about their bad behavior. And then as a result, they don’t get better, they don’t grow and they drive away your top performers. Your A-players will not tolerate that kind of a culture. They don’t have to right now, the marketplace is too strong for them.


  I hope that I’m helping you understand that this is not an optional skill for you. In fact, I think it’s one of the most important skills for a leader to have, and I want you to have it. So, in a minute, I want to walk you through some of the ways that you can hone this skill for yourself, how you can do this better for both yourself and your agency. But first I want to take a quick second and tell you about three workshops that we have coming up in January. In January, we are going to be spending four days with the folks from