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Building an agency culture where everyone can take time off

“If an employee is too critical to take vacation, your problem isn’t the employee.”

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss the importance of ensuring that no one in an agency, including owners and key employees, is too indispensable to take time off. They explore the belief versus reality of being irreplaceable, and provide actionable strategies for agency owners to create processes allowing team members to take vacations without disrupting operations.

The conversation touches on company culture, employee empowerment, and the benefits of experimenting with practices like four-day work weeks and dedicated days for business focus.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “No one person should be that critical to the operation that they can’t step away for a week or even two, and be completely disconnected.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “One of the things I like to see agency owners do is have one day a week where they’re totally solely focused on the business. And if you get in that habit, people are already accustomed to not having you for a day. They’re going to be okay for four more days as well.”
  • Chip Griffin: “As the owner, you don’t have to solve all the problems yourself. If you have team members, you should be tapping into them.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Coach your team to delegate and do the right kinds of things so that they’re not micromanagers and they’re not control freaks. And that goes for the owners too.”


The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And Gini, you know, I really want to take a week off here. But, you know, the show would not go on. So

Gini Dietrich: that is true. The show would not go on without you.

Chip Griffin: Well, so maybe this isn’t the best example for our conversation today.

So what we’re going to talk about today is a line that a friend of mine had in a LinkedIn post and the rest of the post is not really relevant to the conversation. But, as part of it, he had the line: “If an employee is too critical to take vacation, your problem isn’t the employee.” And that just really resonated with me because of the number of times that we have conversations with agency owners, where they either say

they have a team member they can’t have, can’t afford to have them take time off or they need to really tightly regulate when they take time off or the owner themselves feels like they can’t take time off because the agency can’t live without them. And I, I think that it really comes to the bigger point that we’ve talked about before, but no one person should be that critical to the operation that they can’t step away for a week or even two.

And be completely disconnected. And if you can’t do that, you need to look at how you are structured. You need to look at your processes and come up with a better plan.

Gini Dietrich: Including the owner. You should be able to take a week or two off and not have everything come off the rails. As it turns out, clients are okay if you want to take time off, they’re really okay. Not that big of a deal. So I totally agree with you. Like there’s not one person in that entire agency who can’t take time off and have it hurt the agency. Now, if we’re talking six months or a year, that’s different, but a week or two should not be something that, that debilitates the entire business.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And I think if, if you or a team member feels this way, like… as if one person cannot take that kind of time off, then you need to dig into it more to figure out is the belief at fault, right? In other words, you just, it is the sense that you are so important, you are so critical that you can’t step away. Because I’ll tell you often the case that’s not oftentimes an owner takes a week off and they realize they weren’t missed all that much.

Gini Dietrich: Yep.

Chip Griffin: And I always say, and they almost sound disappointed. I’m like, no, that’s a victory.

Gini Dietrich: That’s great.

Chip Griffin: That’s great that you can just step away And things did not go off the rails

If on the other hand it is not a belief if it is reality if there is someone on your team whether it’s yourself or someone else that cannot step away, that things really do grind to a halt, and it does impact your ability to serve clients.

Well, then you need to look at how you’re resourced, how your processes are, and how you go about doing things. So that, but that first critical piece is determining whether it’s belief or reality.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and, you know, I have a really good example of this that, certainly hindsight is 20 20, and I learned a great deal from it, but we had a social media director who managed social media for several clients.

And for us as well, for the agency and she did a great job. She was really good at her job. What I discovered though is that she was hoarding all the work to herself because she didn’t believe that anybody could do it as well as she could including me. And because of that It was too stressful for her to take time off because she knew that she would have to do a whole bunch of social media in advance. She would still probably have to check while she was out because she hadn’t given empowered her team and she had a team .She hadn’t empowered them to do the work and to oversee it so that things could continue on with or without her.

And after about a year and a half of her literally taking no time off, none, I said to her during a one to one, listen, you’ve got to take some time off. And I will never in a million years forget her reaction. I mean, she was offended. She was angry. She was like, I can’t believe you’re telling me to do this.

And I was, I was altruistic about it. I was like, you haven’t had any time off in a year and a half. Like take a week off, go do something. Go hang out with your partner, go play in Europe, do something. And she was really angry with me. And I think she was in, in retrospect, I think she was angry because she didn’t feel like I was supporting her in the way that she was doing her job.

You know, fast forward to today when I think about it. It probably did seem that way to her because I didn’t realize she was hoarding all of the work. So when she, she ended up quitting and when she left, I realized that that’s what, that’s what was happening. So when we replaced her, it was, I had to ensure that the onboarding and the coaching and mentoring of that new director, social media director was doing the work that we needed her to do, which was delegating and mentoring her team so that nothing came off the rails. And there was, you could miss, one person on the social media team could miss a week or take a week off or even two weeks off and be okay. So I think you have to kind of understand is the employee hoarding all the work? And because of that doesn’t feel like they can take time off or is it a cultural thing for the agency where you’re so busy and all these there are lots of other issues going on like you haven’t priced correctly and you you know you’re over servicing and all that. You have to figure out what the, the root of the problem is and fix that.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, and that’s true of everything, right? The, more you can get to the root cause, the better you can find an appropriate solution that actually works. Yep. As opposed to a bandaid that addresses it in the near term. And, and I like that you’ve identified some of the reasons why an employee might feel that way.

Whether it’s because they truly are being overloaded or because they are a control freak micromanager type who just, you know, wants to hoard all the work. I would add another into the mix, which is that some employees tie up their self worth in the idea that they are indispensable as a lot of owners do too, I think.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely.

Chip Griffin: And so, you know, if that’s the problem, then you need to figure out how to, how to separate their sense of self worth from the idea that, that they truly can step away from time to time. And so getting into all of those things really helps you to, to find an appropriate solution. And I would say in general, you should look at this kind of like technology.

And I’ve overseen a lot of development teams. I ran a software company for a while and one of the concepts that we have in technology is to address single points of failure.

Gini Dietrich: Love it.

Chip Griffin: And so, you know, what that effectively means is if you’ve got a website, you’ve got a backup version of the website that can be turned on instantaneously or near instantaneously. That you’ve got, you know, a parallel version of your database running. And all of those key components so that if something happens you can continue to move on. And you need to do the same from a human resources perspective within the agency and identify what single points of failure do you have, whether it’s yourself as the owner or one of your team members and figure out how do you mitigate that. You’re never going to eliminate it.

You never going to, even, even when we had backup servers running, they often were not as full powered as the main one, because you couldn’t afford it. That’s fine. But you have to have some kind of a plan so that things don’t just completely go off the rails. If someone calls in sick, if they have an accident, if they quit, if they want to take vacation, whatever it is.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. You know, I think I learned this lesson when I was, I had just started my agency and I was – there was a huge client project that we were working on and a big product launch. And we were trying, we were pitching the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and USA Today for this story. And it was happening at the same time that I had a ski trip, booked.

Now I don’t miss my ski, like you got to figure this out. So I was trying to figure out how to make it work so that I could, I could go on my trip, but also none of these balls would be dropped. And I remember my phone rang while I was on the chairlift and it was the reporter from the New York Times that we were, we had been working with and she explained, you know, what she needed and how she, what her deadline was and all that.

I was like, great. Well give me half an hour and I’ll get back to you. Got off the chair lift, skied down to the bottom of the mountain. I called the client. I said, this is what we need. I called the reporter back in 30 minutes, did everything that we needed to do, got back up and went skiing. Like, there are ways that you can do it and still be able to manage things.

Today, it’s a little bit different because now I have a media relations team that would handle that, that they wouldn’t need me. But that’s how I did it at the time because there were like four of us on the team at the time. And we were very, very small at the time. So you can figure out ways to make it work, especially in today’s world, where you don’t have to be stuck at your desk.

There are lots of ways that you can figure out how to build the business so that you can be absent for a little bit. If it’s half a day or if it’s a day, one of the things I like to see agency owners do is have one day a week where they’re totally solely focused on the business. They’re not doing meetings.

They’re not talking to clients. They’re not doing internal meetings. There’s no one to ones. It’s all about them and what they’re able to accomplish for the business. And if you get in that habit, people are already accustomed to not having you for a day. They’re going to be okay for four more days as well.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, I mean, I, I think our teams are more resilient. Our clients are more understanding. And we and our individual team members are not nearly as critical 99 percent of the time that we think we are. And so, and, and what I always encourage is just start with those things. Start, start with one day off, right?

Whether that’s you or a team member. Yes. If you think it’s just not possible, start with a day. And I, if, if you cannot go one day, you’ve got, I mean, we’re talking fundamental existential problems that you need to address because there is nobody who ought to be that vital that they cannot take a single day off.

Now, I mean, there’s obviously exceptions. If you pick the day that your client has their biggest launch, then that’s what you were hired to support. Well, of course you can’t take that day off. So don’t come to me and give me that example and say, well, of course I can’t take, no, of course you can’t take that day off, but most days. Because, well, I mean, that’s, it’s the pushback I get.

I always, someone pulls out the most extreme possible example of when they can’t take time. Well, yes, of course. Like we got it. There are specific times that you cannot take off. However, those are, and should be extraordinarily limited. And, and if they are not, then you need to figure out how you can make it so that you can take that time off so that your team members can take that time off because they are not the problem.

You are not the problem. You are the problem, but you’re not the problem in the way that you think you are.

Gini Dietrich: Right.

Chip Griffin: And, and there are so many ways that you can address this, starting with convincing yourself that it’s just not as big a deal as you think it is. It’s like when, when someone makes a mistake, everybody’s like, Oh my God, the client’s going to fire us.

I cannot tell you how many mistakes I’ve made for clients over the years. I I’m sorry to disappoint everybody, but I am, I am not perfect. I’ve already said that before and gotten into trouble with

Gini Dietrich: Jen, we’ve got another one.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, there you go. She can clip this one, too And send it send it to Gini and my kids so that they can send it to me whenever they feel like it Which is oh so helpful. But it’s reality.

We all make mistakes We do and and I have to tell you I have never been fired by a client knock on wood for any mistake I have ever made That’s right. And I’ve made some pretty good ones. Yeah. And I don’t really know of many cases where someone has made a mistake and their agency got fired. I mean, are they out there?

Of course. Of course there are examples. But usually it’s not just a mistake. It’s like a catastrophic mistake.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Or the mistake is the tip of the iceberg and it’s like, okay, enough is enough. That was like the last straw, but it’s never usually the reason.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, even, even when you have the case of, you know, an agency on behalf of a client posts something to their social media account, that’s completely inappropriate, I mean, oftentimes the employee does get fired off of that.

Gini Dietrich: Yes.

Chip Griffin: But not even a hundred percent of the time. Sometimes they just, you know, get a solid scolding and a don’t do that again, kind of thing. But I, most of those circumstances that I’m aware of, at least the agency itself didn’t get fired. So you’ve got to be realistic about these things and understand that you’re not as important as you think you are.

Your team members are not as important as you think they are, or they may think they are. And so if you’ve got this kind of a problem, you just need to come up with a plan to solve it.

Gini Dietrich: Yes, I think there’s a couple of things happening in the world collectively overall right now that I think can help with this.

One is people tend to have summer hours during the summer Which we’re just we’ve just hit Memorial Day in the US and that tends to be the start of summer hours. And I think that train, you know for us we’ve the entire time I’ve had in my agency we’ve always closed Fridays at noon And that’s just what we’ve done between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

That’s great. Clients don’t care because they’re probably not working either So that that’s not a big deal. So getting them used to that, but they’re this trend toward the four day work week that’s happening right now globally. I think is a really a really good example of that as well. One of the things that we’ve talked about internally and we’re not quite there yet but we’ve been we continue to discuss it and figure out a way is the agency itself can’t be closed because A day a week, like it can’t be closed on Monday, Fridays or Mondays, because that just won’t work.

So what we’re talking about is, you know, we’ll continue to stay open, but then we rotate, we all rotate who has time off, because of course, everybody wants a Friday or Monday off. We can’t do that, so we’re rotating. You know, one week you get Monday, next week you get Tuesday and so on and so forth. So you’re still getting a four day work, work week.

You know, in some cases you might have to work Monday Tuesday and then Thursday, Friday, which kind of sucks. But then the next week you like, so you, you get your turn. So we’re trying to figure that out as well. But I think that also trains clients to understand that this is important to you and it’s important to your culture.

And it trains your team to say, okay, well, if I’m not here for a day, I’m the social media director and I’m not going to be here on Thursday. I need the team to be able to do the work versus hoarding it to myself. And I, although I’m pretty sure this person still would have said, Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. And pretended to take Thursday off, but still did the work.

But I think in general, if you understand that that’s what’s going on. You help to coach them to be able to delegate and do the right kinds of things so that they’re not micromanagers and they’re not control freaks. And that goes for the owner ourselves, right? Those are things that we have to think about too.

So there are things like that I think you can implement that will help you get over these hurdles because everybody is going to want that benefit. Everybody’s going to want the, you know, there was the an unlimited PTO thing for a while, but everybody wanted that benefit. So there are opportunities for you to sort of test this out and figure out how to craft that plan that you speak about to be able to manage this kind of stuff.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and I mean there are so many things going on right now, in terms of conversations around remote hybrid in office, unlimited PTO is seeming to fall back out of favor after having really, you know, risen for a number of years. So there’s all sorts of these different, the 4 day work week, as you mentioned, a lot of these things are in the conversation.

None of them take away the need to make sure that nobody is indispensable. Some of them may or may not make it easier or harder for addressing some of those things. But I think we all have to be ready for those conversations as well, which I guess is probably beyond the scope of what we can cover here today, since we’re starting to run out of time, but I think we need to be thinking about and open to all of these things and it needs to be part of a dialogue with our team.

So. If we feel that someone can’t take the time off, we need to talk with them and say, Hey, you know, I, I feel like, you know, if you take time off, we’re, we’re in a bind, how do we solve that? And, and we all need to remember, we’ve said this over and over again, as the owner, you don’t have to solve all the problems yourself.

If you have team members, you should be tapping into them. And if, if, if you see a team member as, you know, having this as a potential bottleneck, talk to them, they probably have some good ideas. That may not be the same as yours, but may work even better, maybe with a lot less effort than you think. And if you, if you don’t have those conversations, you’ll never find them.

And by having those conversations, not only will you find the solutions, but you’re also demonstrating your respect of your team member because you value their opinion, and you’re also demonstrating that you want to be a problem solver and not just someone who’s heaping the problems on their shoulders and expecting them to deal with it.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think that’s a really great, that’s really great advice. I think that’s advice that I could have used early in my agency life. So I hope that people heed that because they, they want to be… That’s a way that they feel valued and being able to help support the growth of the business is what pretty much every employee wants to be able to do.

So when you entrust them with that kind of stuff and, and ask them for help in solving it makes them feel more loyal and dedicated for sure.

Chip Griffin: Now, all that said, I’m going to remain a single point of failure on this podcast, and if I don’t show up, we will not have a show that week, so.

Gini Dietrich: Dang it.

Chip Griffin: It is what it is.

Gini Dietrich: Same goes for me, actually, you know.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. Although, I suppose I could put someone else in that chair, but you don’t even have the login to do that. I guess Jen could give it to you. That’s true. Actually.

Gini Dietrich: I could get it. So there we go. Yeah. Yeah.

Chip Griffin: So we’re, we’re both sort of single points of failure, but by choice, because we don’t want to deal with having to have alternate co hosts and all that kind of stuff.

Yeah. Too much effort. Takes away all the fun too. Anyway, so that will draw to an end of this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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