Recently, I was listening to an interview with Craig Berube, coach of the St. Louis Blues hockey team. The interview covered how they’ve been able to stay very competitive and lead their division while enduring the absence of their most productive player, who underwent shoulder surgery in October.

He said two things. “We have a well-defined system based on a high level of competition and our players have a clear understanding of their roles.” That resonated with me as I thought about how that applies to managing our agency teams.

The fact that the club has a solid system of play enables them to identify the types of players who can thrive under the stress. And it gives each member of the squad an opportunity for success by following the system’s specs – which is a “North/South” approach with aggressive forechecking.  No worries if you don’t understand hockey terms – just know that every player understands what’s expected of them.

Berube shared a story of talking with a young player who was having a bit of difficulty gaining success in the system because he hadn’t fully bought into it. His message to him was, “Look, you’re a really talented player who belongs in the NHL. But here’s the deal. You have to play within the system we have, or you’ll just have to play for a different team.”  That’s a very clear message. 

As agency owners we often fail in being clear with our teams about expectations. And think about how much easier it would be if our systems were well-defined. What if we provided a road map for team members to follow and meet those expectations?

Why is it that we sometimes struggle with committing to a system and being true to it? Could it be that it’s the challenge of creating one in the first place? Or perhaps it’s because we have difficulty holding people accountable. 

Let’s start with systems. In my role of coaching agency owners and working with their teams I’ve discovered that while many have systems in place, it’s the inconsistency of following the system that causes issues. For example, let’s assume the agency’s system calls for a meeting summary or conference report. This is then delivered back to the client as a tool to ensure there is a record of the discussion and to have the client confirm agreement on any action items discussed. Also, assume the agency has an enterprise-level client and has two account teams managing the relationship with several business units. What happens when one team follows the system and issues the follow-up report and the second team often ignores doing so? At the least, the agency fails to deliver a consistent experience across the enterprise. At the worst, the second team’s client fails to remember to approve something by the discussed deadline and the agency scrambles to deliver the work on time. This may result in the agency having to pull people from other work, placing other deadlines in jeopardy. 

Here’s a tip/tool to assist you in clearly communicating expectations to your staff and a means to be a smart delegator. Those who manage others in the agency should use this, too. A member of one of our Key Executive Network groups I facilitate introduced her fellow members to this.  It’s an “empowerment contract. It’s quite simple and is an opportunity to have a negotiated discussion of authority with each team member. The contract has three sections:

These are the things I expect you to do and have the authority to carry out.

These are the things I expect you to do but ask you to let me know in advance of before doing so.

These are the things I expect you will discuss with me before taking any action.

This leaves nothing left for interpretation and gives each person clearly defined authorities and boundaries. View this as an organic document that will probably change over time – such as when team members change their function or there is a change in seniority in the agency. Nonetheless, everything is documented and provides a record of understanding. 

Coach Berube attributes having talented players who understood and accepted their roles and responsibilities, and adherence to the Blue’s system of play, as the reason that they hoisted the toughest trophy in sports to win last year – the Stanley Cup.

What victories are ahead of you and your agency if everyone commits to a system with a clear understanding of what’s expected of them?