Upgrade your life: Make yourself “Needed but not necessary”

Upgrade your life: Make yourself "Needed but not necessary"
Written by: Karl Sakas

I’m on a mission to help agency owners become “needed but not necessary.” This applies whether you have five people, or 50 people, or 500.

The goal is to let you get rid of the things you don’t want to do so that your agency stops running you.

One of my clients introduced me to the phrase, apparently coined in an article about investor Mark Cuban. It’s a great way to encapsulate what I do for clients as an agency consultant.

If you read only one article on my site—and you feel stressed and overworked running your agency—this is the article that might change your life.

The Problem with Being Necessary

When you’re necessary, you’re indispensable—you’re a linchpin. This feels good for a while‚you’re making decisions, directing the action, and putting your stamp of approval on every deliverable.

When you first started your agency, you were unavoidably necessary—if you (or you and a partner) are the only full-time people, it’s normal for you to be necessary. Of course your clients called you every time they needed something—there was no one else to call (or email, or text).

Yet when you stay indispensable as you grow your agency, you run the risk of burnout. You can’t step away from the business to go on vacation because your presence is mission-critical. Everything’s in your head.

And even when you’re around, you become your agency’s worst bottleneck—everything goes through you. This means you have a ginormous inbox (often literally and figuratively) and your team’s waiting on you.

You’re Trapped: Too Much to Do, but You Can’t (or Won’t) Let Go

The problem is that you become trapped. I saw this problem early in my career, where our general counsel had to sign off on almost all marketing efforts due to industry regulatory issues.

Our copywriter kept an unofficial list of things he’d submitted to our in-house lawyer. The record was a low-priority request that spanned three calendar years—submitted to counsel in November 2006 and returned to marketing in February 2008. The general counsel’s office was stacks and stacks of paper—reams of paper, in fact.

Talk about pressure—when you’re necessary to running your agency, you are trapped. And that’s a terrible feeling.

What’s the solution? Make yourself “needed but not necessary.”

How to Become “Needed but Not Necessary” at Your Agency

This isn’t going to be an overnight fix—it’s going to take time, but it starts by recognizing you have a problem and then making a plan to fix it.

Accept that you have a problem.

You can’t change ’til you accept you have a problem—that being necessary is no longer a good thing. Perhaps you’re working 60+ hours a week. Perhaps you can’t remember the last time you took more than a day or two off, because it feels like you can’t step away. Whatever the symptoms, it’s gotten to the breaking point.

Start by stepping back for a moment.

You can’t assess the system when you’re in the middle of it. It’s easiest when you get out of the office—a retreat is nice, but let’s start with coffee or brunch or some other setting where you can feel safe to turn off your phone.

Review how you’re enmeshed now.

This might include being a primary client contact, having sole signoff responsibilities on all creative, approving all expense reports, or sending all invoices.

Write down what will happen if you don’t change… and then what will happen if you do change.

Wanting to change is a critical step—you can’t make a real shift to “needed but not necessary” without accepting the need to change. Visualizing the outcome—whether through an Advance Retrospective or just writing a few sentences—helps you get there.

Identify if you need professional help.

For me, it took speaking with a therapist to understand how being a control freak and a workaholic was hurting me. When work is your drug, you have no reason to work less. When you love jumping in to put out fires, you’ll find ways to fight more fires, not fewer.

Set a goal for what you prefer.

This might be an hours/week target, a maximum number of clients where you’re the primary contact, or areas where you want your team to handle all the “Level 1” work before escalating any “Level 2” items to you. For instance, one of my clients decided she would reduce her client-billable work by 50% within 3 months.

Outline a plan for changing processes.

This includes the current team members you’ll enlist to help you take things off your plate. People don’t love increasing their workload, but I bet they can’t wait to get you out of the workflow so they can do their job.

Identify new roles you need to hire.

What are the things that you’re doing now that need to happen… but you don’t want to do them? You may need to hire other people.

If you don’t want to do project management and/or client service, someone will need to do it. Same with admin work, and same with sales.

Keep in mind that it’s easier to outsource to freelancers on Subject Matter Expert (SME) work, and harder when it comes to project management and account management (because clients expect your PMs and AMs to be plugged into what’s happening on their account).

Define “swim lanes” for your team.

That is, identify the areas where you want your team to decide/do things without you, and the areas where you still need to be involved. For instance, you may want to sign vendor contracts, client contracts, and checks over $1,000—but you don’t need to negotiate the contracts or review $50 expense reports. You’ll need to decide what’s right for you—for instance, you should be watching every expense in your early years—but the point is that when you make others in charge of a task, they won’t bug you at each step.

Here’s a full article on the Swim Lanes concept.

Get out of the office.

I’m a fan of taking a mini-retreat. There’s a lot of value getting away from your day-to-day routine—and your day-to-day interruptions.

You don’t have to fly to another country to take a retreat—you have options near you.

Want to rent a room for a few hours? LiquidSpace has a directory of options, and Breather runs its own spaces in several major cities.

Want to rent a space for a few days? Use Airbnb. I rented this guest house last year to do some strategic planning—a complete change of pace, but only 20 minutes away—for just $109/night for a totally private space. And I enjoyed staying at a small house in New Orleans, also for around $100/night.

Create and implement the transition plan.

Begin with the end in mind—identify what success looks like in the future, and work backwards from there. This includes setting longer-term goals and creating shorter-term milestones that break the long-term goals into smaller chunks.

The transition isn’t a “one-and-done”; it’s going to be a continuous process.

Keep looking for opportunities to practice being “needed but not necessary.”

Every time you get something off your plate, you’re winning at becoming “needed but not necessary.”

For example, I recently did an interview for my blog. I did the interview itself in person, but didn’t do most of the rest—my assistant handled scheduling, I uploaded the audio file to Rev.com for transcription, I sent it to one of my freelance copywriters for editing, and I asked her to upload it to my site. All I did was the interview itself, the post-editing review, and emailing the subject to check some quotes.

Look for those opportunities—you don’t have to do it all yourself.

Take a deep breath when someone screws up.

When you delegate, someone will make mistakes. Maybe you weren’t clear about expectations, maybe they made bad assumptions or didn’t have the skillset, or maybe you didn’t build check-ins in the schedule.

Expect mistakes will happen. The more you delegate, the easier it’ll be. When people make mistakes on small things, they’re less likely to make them on big things—that’s why you can do a phased approach to trusting people with more things.

When you’re hiring new people, use that phased approach, too—create a paid test to let people prove themselves, before you put them on mission-critical, timeline-driven, client-facing work.

Add a few “how did it go?” check-ins (with yourself) for the future.

Open your calendar and add “self check-in” appointments for a month, three months, six months, and a year from now. Note where you are today, plus your long-term goal. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised—and if you’re not, you can adapt instead of continuing as-is.

Applying This Advice

You can do all of this yourself—but if you’re still stuck, contact me for help. I’m glad to do a free exploratory call to confirm if there’s a match.

Question: Based on where you are now, what will it take for you to come “needed but not necessary”?

Need to make a tough decision at your agency?

Tough decisions are easier when you talk to an expert first.

I’ve advised owners of 600+ agencies in 36 countries—and you can get a bite of that knowledge at a fraction of the cost.

I can’t make the hard decisions for you—but I’ll help you find clarity to make better choices, so you can move closer to your best possible outcome.