Be yourself... unless you're an asshole.

Don’t be an asshole. As an agency owner, explain the “why” behind your policies.

I recently got rear-ended at a stoplight. After I reported the claim, my insurance company referred me to a body shop for an estimate on the bumper damage.

While I waited in the lobby for the estimate, the receptionist was chatting with other customers. A customer asked why she was wearing a sweater on such a hot day. She said she has visible tattoos and corporate policy requires her to keep them covered up. He said he works for the fire department and his tattoos aren’t a problem there.

It was an interesting contrast—the fire department is focused on employee results, while the body shop is focused on employee appearances.

Meanwhile, I was thinking to myself—I have a client whose agency has a tattoo reimbursement policy, at $200 per employee. (Note: There are no brand requirements—the tattoo does not have to be the agency’s logo.) They’re encouraging employees to get more tattoos.

Policies? Yes. Stupid policies? No.

As agencies grow, they typically add more policies and procedures. Procedures are good if they’re well thought out, because you won’t have to reinvent the wheel. Policies help keep your company running optimally, but there’s a risk—you hurt morale and retention if employees feel like they’re following a million stupid rules. It’s up to you to convey why the rules matter.

This also means deciding whether something is important or not. One of my team members is sometimes late for in-person meetings, usually due to pet-related issues. However, I don’t mind because she’s insightful and highly productive. She’ll text that she’s running late, and I’ll use those 10-15 minutes to accomplish something else from my to-do list.

I’m focused on what counts, not a stupid policy for policy’s sake. And besides, it’s not like I’ve never been late myself.

Remember the Why, and employees’ WIIFM

Before you implement a new policy, think through the implications. How can you convey how your employees will benefit from the change? (For instance: Adding a new QA review means clients will be happier with deliverables, and the client-facing employees won’t need to do unpaid revisions for pissed-off clients.)

When you share news with your team, employees immediately think, “What’s in it for me?” (WIIFM). If you can’t explain that (and get your managers’ buy-in first, if it’s a big change), you’re going to have trouble making the policy change work. And now everyone’s unhappy, too.

It’s enough to want to quit, walk away from the business, and take a low-stress hourly clock-in, clock-out job. But that’s impractical—in terms of the income you’d lose—and also not as puppies-and-roses as you might fantasize. In fact…

Don’t buy a Biometric Timeclock

I know of an agency near me that installed a biometric timeclock. They require salaried employees to use their thumbprint to “clock in” and “clock out” each day. That’s a terrible idea. Time-tracking is important for agency profitability, but the point is to track billable time against specific clients, not employees’ time in the office.

Time-tracking, yes. Thumb-swipe, no—you’re just telling employees you don’t trust them. If you don’t trust your employees, you either failed to screen them adequately during the recruiting process, or you haven’t taken decisive action after seeing a problem emerge later.

Further, the biometric system creates a perverse disincentive—employees don’t get “credit” for the work they do at home or if they go to a client meeting enroute to or from home. That’s the kind of thing that leads to people doing the bare minimum.

As an agency owner, you’re running a services business, not a factory. Productivity depends on employees who want to do more than the bare minimum. Your future profits—and daily peace of mind—depend on it.

Benevolent Dictator or Asshole?

As the owner, you’re the dictator of your agency whether you like it or not. Are you a “benevolent” dictator, or are you an asshole? In my experience, your employee retention rate tells the truth.

If you’re seeing more than 10-20% annual employee turnover, you may be doing something wrong. Take 20-30 minutes to read my 2016 book, Made to Lead: A Pocket Guide to Managing Marketing & Creative Teams.

You don’t have to be a great manager to start an agency… but you’d better become one, or everyone’s going to quit.

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