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Handling frustration as an agency owner

Employee complaints? Accountable only to yourself? Trying to create a work culture? Welcome to agency ownership!

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss the challenges and frustrations of owning an agency, emphasizing the importance of seeking accountability and support, and reflecting on one’s own role in addressing issues.

The discussion also includes reflections on past experiences and lessons learned, as they share insights for agency owners to effectively navigate their responsibilities and address issues in a constructive manner.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Instead of seeking to assign blame to somebody else, ask what you could do differently.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Put the process in place, have the right conversations, but don’t get mad at the employee for taking advantage of the situation.”
  • Chip Griffin: “The culture of a small agency is a direct reflection of the owner.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “We have to remember that just like we have complaints and frustrations, our employees do, 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: Gini. I’m just fed up. I’ve had enough of this. I just, I can’t even tolerate this anymore.

Gini Dietrich: Fine. Adios. Bye. Bye.

Chip Griffin: Have you just ever felt frustrated with your agency?

Gini Dietrich: Yes.

Chip Griffin: I mean, I, I would pull my hair out, but…

Gini Dietrich: You don’t have any?

Chip Griffin: Wouldn’t have much impact. Oh, I always tell people before I owned an agency, I had hair, which is true.

Gini Dietrich: But you didn’t pull it out because of the agency, it’s no correlation.

Chip Griffin: No correlation. No, maybe there’s correlation, but not causation.

Gini Dietrich: Causation. Yeah. I mean, for sure. One of the things I think that’s really challenging about owning an agency is it’s, you know, the phrase it’s lonely at the top exists for a reason, because while we have may have lots of people around us, we don’t have people around us that we can talk to that are going through the same things that we are that have the same stresses that we do, that have put their whole life, blood and tears into the business like we have.

And so it’s lonely, it’s lonely at the top. It’s frustrating. We find things from usually junior level employees that make us mad and, you know, I don’t know that we don’t understand. I think one of the biggest challenges as agency owners that we see is, you know, well, in my day, I didn’t do that. Like I wouldn’t have complained about working 14 hours a day and I wouldn’t have taken three weeks of vacation and I wouldn’t have and I wouldn’t.

Well, that’s the reason you own a business. Most people do not own a business. So there are very frustrating things. It is lonely at the top, but there are things that you can do so that you can live your life happily and run an agency successfully.

Chip Griffin: Also, to some degree, I call BS on a lot of those ways that that all of us…

Gini Dietrich: You? No, really?

Chip Griffin: Recollect the past and it’s a lot like, you know, the whole, you know, I walked uphill to school both ways.

Right. And I think that that a lot of us as, as we become, let’s say more experienced tend to misremember some of those days. And you know, I don’t know about you, but I certainly had times where I complained about the amount of hours that I was working as an employee.

Gini Dietrich: For sure! Yes!

Chip Griffin: Even though I generally enjoyed what I was doing, and I, even from a young age, I was a workaholic, I, it, you still complain about it.

Correct. And, and I remember many times sitting there being frustrated with the owners of the businesses that I was an employee of. Yes. It’s natural, and the fact that now as we sit in the owner’s chair and as the manager’s chair, that we think that it should somehow be different for our juniors today.

That just doesn’t make sense to me. It doesn’t compute.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I think you’re right. And you know, first of all, it’s human nature, just it’s humans, it’s human beings, right? So it doesn’t matter how much experience they have, how professional they are, you know, whether or not they’re just out of college, that doesn’t matter.

That’s just how human beings are. Some days we have great days. Some days we have terrible days. Like my 10 year old occasionally will announce that it’s the world’s worst day because ever, because the internet doesn’t work right. Or it’s glitchy. Like you. That’s how human beings are. Always makes me laugh, though, because I’m like, I don’t think it’s the world’s worst day, but okay, and so, yeah, I think we have to remember that just like we have complaints and frustrations, they do too.

Chip Griffin: Well, that’s the point, right? They’re complaining about their employees complaining. And so I’m, I’m always there. Just, just take a moment. Think through what you’re doing right now. How is that different?

Gini Dietrich: It’s a good point. How is it different?

Chip Griffin: Because to your point, it is human nature. Yeah. Everybody complains about something at one point or another.

You can’t let it consume you. And you don’t want it to consume your employees if they are complaining, truly complaining constantly, not just you think they are because you heard it and you’re like, ah, I just, I can’t stand it. But if they truly are, then you need to address that.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Of course. And that’s the thing as the agency owner, it’s your job to ensure that the culture is right, the morale is up.

You know, if they are complaining about things that actually need to change that those things need to change and, you know, I tell the story all the time of how, and I’m sure I’ve told this, told it here is how, you know, when I had a, when I was just starting out and I had a young, workforce, everybody was complaining about being burned out and I couldn’t understand why, because their hours were nine to five and like they weren’t expected to do more than that. Some of them did do more than that. And I had a business coach that said to me, you are the problem because you are working like 20 hours a day. And so they expect that that’s what you, or they think that that’s what you expect.

So if you really don’t want them working before nine or after five, you need to come to the office at 9 and you need to pack up and leave at 5. I don’t care if you do work in the morning beforehand. I don’t care if you do work in the evening after. As long as they don’t know that you’re working. So no emails, no slack messages, nothing that demonstrates to them that you’re working 20 hours a day.

That you, from their perspective, you’re only working eight hours. Because if that’s what you truly expect of them, then you need to lead by example. And it’s the same kind of thing. If people are complaining, it’s because you typically are the problem. And it wasn’t until he sort of, he gave me some tough love and said that to me that I went, Oh yeah, you’re right.

People don’t leave the office until I do. I don’t expect them to be there, but you’re right. They’re not leaving. And it wasn’t until he said that to me that I really understood that I was the problem, they were not.

Chip Griffin: And that’s true for almost everything in the agency, almost every, if you have a problem with something that’s going on with your team or even clients, it comes back to you because it’s either something you’re doing or something that you did.

It’s either you’re not bringing the right people on in terms of clients or employees, and you need to do a better job in your business development or your recruiting to get the right matches. It could be behavioral as you indicate with the burnout issue. It could be, you know, I have agency owners come say, well, you know, how do I create this kind of culture?

Well, you can’t create culture. Right. Right. The culture of a small agency is a direct reflection of the owner. And so if you see something you don’t like, I will 99 percent guarantee that it’s because of something that you have done or did in the past, and you just don’t realize it.

Gini Dietrich: I have a really good friend who runs a business, not an agency.

But she said that she was really frustrated because a younger generation younger member of, of the workforce had taken a three week vacation unapproved. And I was like, how does that happen? And she said, well, I didn’t approve it. And I said, well, is that the process? Like, does, do you have to approve all vacations?

And she said, no, she has a manager. And, you know, the manager approved it. I was like, okay, so it wasn’t unapproved. It was approved. You’re just mad that she took a three week vacation. And you have unlimited PTO and the person went through the process. So what’s the problem? Well, as I was, I’m covering it with her and she was not happy with me, but as I, as we were unpacking it, there, there is no, there is no real process.

There’s no, they do have unlimited PTO, but there aren’t any guardrails in place, like saying you can only take such amount of time at one time, or you have to make sure that your, your time is covered, whatever happens to be. There were no guardrails. So. She was mad at the person for taking this three week vacation, but there weren’t any, there wasn’t anything in place to prevent that from happening.

And again, that was a her problem, not an employee problem.

Chip Griffin: Right? And if there’s anybody in that scenario to get mad at other than yourself, it’s the manager who approved it, right? You can’t – because it’s not unapproved time. If the employee followed as best, they understood what the proper process was and got the proper approvals.

Then you either have to look to how you created the approval process or you need to talk to the person who gave their approval. Right. That’s right, right. If it’s anyone other than yourself, it is certainly not the employee. It’s that manager.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. So put the process in place, have the right conversations, but don’t get mad at the employee.

Good for them for taking advantage. They knew what to do. They got approval from the right. They went through the process that they thought they were supposed to do. Do you want someone taking three weeks off? Maybe not, but you have to be able to say, you can’t do this and here’s the employee handbook that says so, or something, right?

You can’t just get mad at them because they did it and didn’t, there wasn’t a process that they were supposed to follow.

Chip Griffin: Right. And I think the other thing is when you see these things happen, you have to be careful that you don’t overreact and then make it so difficult, right? Because I, that’s what I often see is something like this happens and then there’s an overcorrection and you say, okay, well, yeah, well now you can’t take… you know, more than a week at a time or we’re getting rid of unlimited PTO and we’re going to go back to, you know, 10 days a year or something stupid, you know, so, so there is a tendency. And this is not just with time off. I mean, I’ve seen this happen if a mistake gets made on a client, you put in so much process that it now becomes a hindrance in and of itself.

So make sure that your, your course correction is not worse than the original error.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. It’s kind of like when you’re in grade school and somebody in the class gets in trouble for something and then everybody else has to, suffers the consequence, right? It’s the same kind of thing. Like why should everybody else suffer the consequence because of this one situation?

So yes, you should have process in place. You should have standard operating procedures. You should have things that you, expectations outlined and communicated consistently, but you don’t have to say, well, this person took three weeks off. So no more unlimited PTO. That’s the wrong thing to do.

Chip Griffin: I think part of the problem is, to your original point, as an owner, it’s hard because it is lonely at the top, and so when these things happen, you often have the debate just within your own head.

Right. Yep. And, and so You know, most of the time we are not good checks and balances on ourselves. And in a small agency, it’s, it’s less likely that you have a senior employee at all, who is more or less a peer. But to the extent that you do, it’s tough to get them to give you that truly candid advice. It can happen.

And certainly if you can get that person in your business, I would encourage you to do so because you need in some fashion, you need to have some way to not be so lonely. So that you can express your concerns and complaints. So that you do have somebody who can say, Chip, that’s just, seriously, no bud, you can’t do that, that’s, that is not the solution here.

You need that, that person or those persons, whether that is a senior employee, a friend, a spouse, a peer group, a consultant, something, someone, helps to alleviate that problem.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I think if you, there, there, I, I think any and all of the above work, you know, having a senior employee work is a great way to do that.

if you can’t afford that, or that’s not the right thing for your business, there’s, there are lots of peer groups, you know, there’s the Counselor’s Academy through PRSA, there’s Spin Sucks community. There’s the SAGA community. There are those kinds of peer groups. and then of course, there are consultants and business coaches as well.

Like I’ve worked with a business coach my entire agency career and in some fashion, and those are the kinds of conversations that when I’m like, I’m so mad because they did this and this, where the coach is like, Let’s, let’s really think about this and look at, is it a them problem or a you problem? And sometimes it’s not what you want to hear, but sometimes it’s what you need to hear.

Chip Griffin: And I mean, honestly, just even having somebody that you can vent those things to will often. Absolutely. It won’t solve the problem, but it relieves the pain enough that you’re less likely to do something silly as a result. I often joke with my clients that I’m basically a therapist because sometimes you just sit there and you just listen.

And you let them, you let them get it off their chest and they kind of work it out. And then at the end, they’ll say something like, you know, well, I kind of know what I need to do, but I just. Yep. Just needed to, to be able to say it to someone.

Gini Dietrich: And I think the accountability piece of it too, because one of the things I see a lot is when there is an employee that we leave, and I’m guilty of this as well, that we hang on to far longer than we should. So, you sit in, in a conversation with an agency owner and they vent in their, you know, they get that, get it off the chest, their chest, and in the end, they’re like, okay, this person needs to go, but then.

They hang on and they hang on and cause they don’t want the confrontation and they don’t want the heat of firing and like all that stuff. Right. So they hang on longer than they should. When you have somebody that’s holding you accountable to it, I will say, let’s get this done. It’s going to suck. Here’s what has to happen and let’s do it by this date. And by gosh, if it’s not done by that date, you better bet you’re going to hear from me.

So the accountability piece of it too. So it’s not just the therapy part of it, but it’s also the, you said you were going to do this. Let’s get it done.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And the problem solving aspect, right? It, it gives you the opportunity to talk things through bounce around. Well, you know, what if we did this? What if we did that?

And so you can have someone like that who can share those, who can ask those questions, but then also someone who can share those experiences either because there’s someone who’s, who’s been in that seat before. Or in the case of some smaller peer groups, you might get together with a group of other owners and, and they can say, well, you know, I just had a similar issue last year and this is what we did.

And this is, this is how it turned out. Yep. And so you can learn from all of those things and, and it often is much better than sitting there inside your own head. Absolutely. Stewing about how your employees are not, you know, up to par, you know, your clients are difficult, you know, it’s just, I don’t have enough time, all of these things, because all of them ultimately come back to you as the owner.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And because of that, it’s a lot of pressure. It’s a lot of stress. It’s a lot of anxiety. It’s a lot of sleepless nights. So find the resources that are going to make it easier for you. This podcast is a great one. Like if you have questions or things that you need help with, drop us a line and we can cover it on an upcoming episode.

There are resources for you out there to make it less lonely at the top, for sure.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And, and I think that ultimately, if you approach most of the challenges that you’re having, and you don’t seek to assign blame to somebody else, but you ask what you could do differently.

Gini Dietrich: Love that. Yep.

Chip Griffin: There are times where, where it truly is not your fault. It truly is someone else’s fault. They truly need to be blamed, and fine, you can move on from there. But most of the time, there is something that you could do differently. In the future to have a different result.

Gini Dietrich: Yep. I think that’s a great question. What if I’m frustrated, what is it that I could do differently?

That’s a great question to ask yourself first. And like you said, there are going to be times. Like I, I remember many years ago, a woman that was actually in one of my peer groups, had an assistant that she discovered was for 20 years was stealing petty cash and it wasn’t enough for it to make a difference that they would notice it.

I mean, it went 20 years without getting noticed. Right. But she did it originally because she needed a new refrigerator and couldn’t afford the fridge. So that’s why she did it originally. And then because she didn’t get caught, she just kept going and going and going. And I remember the business owner saying, The thing is, is if she just asked me, I would have bought her a new fridge.

Because over the years, she had done things for her like that personally. Like she’d help get a car loan and you know, things like that. If she had just said, My fridge is on the fritz and I need some help, she would have done it. And so she, she came to a meeting, was looking inwardly and were like, Yeah, this isn’t a you problem, that’s a her problem.

There’s nothing you could have done differently in this. So there are instances where it will be a them problem. If you can look inwardly first to see if it’s a you problem, that’s a good place to start.

Chip Griffin: And for all of you young folks out there, petty cash is something that we used to have when we all used to work in an office and used to use. It’s it’s paper money.

There was a day before Venmo and you know, and even corporate credit cards that were, everybody had. I mean, I remember when I first got started, almost no employee had a corporate credit card. Nowadays it seems like, you know, even the most junior person in a lot of agencies has a corporate credit card that they have access to.

So this was a thing because there was a cash box or an envelope or a zippy, one of those zippy bank bags. And you guys haven’t seen those either. So we also had telephones on our desks.

Gini Dietrich: We did. We did. Yeah. Yeah, we did. Had a cord. Couldn’t walk around with it.

Chip Griffin: No, no, I remember at home, we had one with like a 50 foot cord so we could walk around the first floor, but then you had to be careful if you came around a corner because you could get clotheslined by it.

Ah, the good old days. Well, I think, since we’ve started to veer off track here, we’ll bring this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close, but look in the mirror. Don’t be lonely at the top. Talk to somebody, get some help, and you can solve your problems.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely.

Chip Griffin: I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: 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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