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Helping your agency’s new managers

As small agencies grow, individual team members usually begin to take on direct reports — often for the first time in their careers.

These newly-minted managers need mentorship and support to excel. Owners need to make sure that they set aside time and resources to help these talented individuals develop the skills that they need.

Chip and Gini share some of their experiences, including things you may want to avoid with inexperienced managers and some areas where you should focus your efforts for the good of the business.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Part of the problem is that a lot of agency owners don’t really have a lot of management experience. They don’t have a lot of their own training and mentorship that they’ve gone through to get where they are today. So to some degree, it’s the blind leading the blind.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “We have to be really good at making space to have those conversations and to coach them and mentor them so that they can do the same for their direct reports.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Now, giving people room to fail does not mean abandoning them. So there is a happy medium here.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “I pay attention, especially in client meetings, to how they behave and the ways that they treat their team. You can learn the things to do and things not to do by observing, and encourage your team to do the same.”

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: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And Gini, I wanna find out how I can best manage you.

Gini Dietrich: Thank you.

Chip Griffin: Right after this,

There was a lovely little pause there though.

Gini Dietrich: There was.

Chip Griffin: I’m, I’m sure you’ll not be hearing because I’m sure that it will be removed in editing, but…

Gini Dietrich: I really hope it’s not.

Chip Griffin: There was a pause because I realized that I had not queued up the little jazzy intro for everybody.

Gini Dietrich: The look on your face was great. You were like, woo ..

Chip Griffin: Yeah. It is what it is, you know. We all make mistakes, and that’s, that’s sort of what we’re talking about today. Because as we, you know, learn to new, new – learn to do new things, learn how to speak, perhaps even.

Gini Dietrich: Maybe one of those.

Chip Griffin: We need to think about how we can help our team members do that same sort of thing.

So, basically we, we’re in a situation where small agencies have people who take on increasing responsibility on the team. And ultimately who may become a manager. And so now they’ve got people reporting to them. And this is something that if you’re, it’s someone who’s come up in a small agency environment, they may not have any experience with that.

And so you need to try to figure out how do I give them the skills, the guidance, the mentorship in order to be able to effectively manage other people.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it’s really hard. And you know, I think some, some agencies are really great at providing professional development and training to teach to help your, in your staff as they’re moving up and some are not.

Like when I, when I was moving up and I started to manage people, they said to me, So we have someone who’s on a PIP and she’s probably gonna be fired in 30 days, but let’s see if you can turn her around. And I was like, What? What? and she wanted nothing to do with me. She was like, mm-hmm. Because I was like five years younger than she was.

I’d never been her manager before. Didn’t even work on the same team. But by all means, let’s do that. That’s a great idea. She didn’t make it past 30 days, by the way.

Chip Griffin: And, and I think all of us who have come up in the ranks over the years have our own stories of, of how we learned, you know, whether it was completely on the job, whether we got some sort of mentorship and, and a lot of that depends on who you reported to at the time and

Gini Dietrich: Right. Fair.

Chip Griffin: I, I still remember, one of my earliest management positions in a senior management role. My boss was very much of the mindset, just throw ’em into the deep end of the pool and see what happens. And so from, literally from day one, that’s what happened because, on my first day I was there, and I had replaced my predecessor who had been terminated on Friday.

Gini Dietrich: Oh my gosh.

Chip Griffin: This was on Monday and my first responsibility was to supervise him cleaning out his desk.

Gini Dietrich: No.

Chip Griffin: And, and he was probably 10 or 15 years my senior.

Gini Dietrich: Terrible.

Chip Griffin: So that was, that was my first experience as a senior manager in this organization.

Gini Dietrich: Terrible. That’s terrible.

Chip Griffin: I, it was an interesting experience, let’s put it that way, and, I mean, I, I will say that boss taught me a ton of things about management.

Whether that was the, the right first step, who knows? It’s probably not what I would do generally speaking to a new employee in my organization, but, there are these different styles. And so you know, some of this is going to vary depending upon all of the personalities involved, what your personality is as an agency owner, what your team member is.

You have to find something that sinks though. And part of the problem is that a lot of agency owners don’t really have a lot of management experience, right? Right. They don’t have a lot of their own training and mentorship that they’ve gone through to get where they are today. So to some degree, it’s the old expression of the blind leading the blind.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, for sure. And I will say that, you know, when I started my agency, I like literally, my, my experience was what I just described and it was, it was not good. And you know, I think many of us rise through the ranks and we watch people. Sometimes it’s our bosses, sometimes it’s, it’s their bosses, sometimes it’s colleagues, but we watch how they behave and we learn what to do and what not to do based on that, just based on what we appreciate.

Right. But when I started my business, it became really clear that I had no idea what I was doing. And so I, I hired a coach first, and then I joined Vistage and I really, and then I hired another coach and I really tried to figure out, you know, what was the best leadership style that worked for me, but also gave people the opportunity to learn and grow.

And I think that part of hiring somebody to help or doing, getting some professional development for your team is extraordinarily important.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think you’ve made a great point there, which is that your team members take cues from you. Yep. Right? Yep. So just as you’ve taken cues from anyone who’s managed you in the past, your team members are doing the same thing.

So if you’ve got, you know, someone who’s a junior, becoming a mid-level employee and starting to manage people, they’re going to, to echo their behavior in large part based on what you do or what they didn’t like about what you’ve been doing.

Gini Dietrich: Yep, absolutely. Yep.

Chip Griffin: And so you need to really be aware of that because every time you manage someone who’s a direct report to you, you’re also influencing how they manage below them.

Gini Dietrich: You are for sure. And you know, one of the things that I like to do, especially in my one to ones today, I would not have done this 15 years ago when I started the agency, but today as I’ve learned is I will say, you know, how are things going? Do you have any challenges? Are there any pitfalls? Anything we need to worry about?

Here are some things I’m hearing about your direct reports, let’s talk about how to best approach it. And you know, for one person in particular, he has a direct report who is not, doesn’t pay attention to details, and it’s driving the rest of the team crazy. So we’ve been talking for several weeks about how to help him coach his direct report to be more detail oriented in the kinds of things to be looking for, because he just didn’t know.

So I think you’re right in that they’re taking cues from us. But we also have to be really good at making space to have those conversations and to coach them and mentor them so that they can do the same for their direct reports.

Chip Griffin: Well, and that’s critical as well, that you, that you think of yourself as a coach and mentor and not simply as a manager, someone who’s gonna hold your team accountable to certain goals or objectives. You are there to facilitate their excellence and to help them figure things out. And, You need to give them the space to do that, which means you need to be really careful about micromanaging because if you micromanage your direct reports, they’re never going to really be able to fully develop as a manager in their own right, because they’re going to depend upon you to make a lot of the tough calls.

And so you need to give them room, which means accepting that they will make mistakes. If you don’t accept that your team will make mistakes you will never be able to get things off of your plate. And those are the agency owners I work with who sit there and say, Oh my God, I can never take a day off.

I, you know, I’m working 80 hours a week. It’s because you’re not letting go and not allowing for these mistakes to occur. And they will occur, right? But most of them, 99.99% of them will not be fatal. So just accept that, that mistakes will be made and you’ll just figure out how to deal with them when they do.

Gini Dietrich: I mean, this is the same thing that we talk about with letting your team have you know, autonomy when it comes to clients and client service and doing work directly with clients. If you continue to step in, they’re never going to trust your team and this, and they’ll always come to you. And this is the same thing.

If you can continue to step in and you, you’re the – certainly, I think many of us will be like, like I always joke that you get to fire, you get to fire my people because I don’t like to do it. Many of us would prefer that somebody else handled that. But you, as a leader, as a coach, as a mentor, as a manager, you have to do that hard work as you grow through your career.

Because if you always have somebody handling that for you, you’re going to get stunted and you won’t, you won’t be able to get to where you need to go.

Chip Griffin: Right. Now, giving people room to fail does not mean abandoning them. Right? So there, there is a happy medium here because one thing I’ve seen a lot of managers do or owners do is simply say, Well, I assigned this to so-and-so.

Gini Dietrich: Go handle it.

Chip Griffin: They’ll handle it. That’s not going to work in most cases either. No. So you, you do need to be there and, and have that supportive role where you’re asking them questions and you do keep tabs on them without micromanaging, but you do need to understand what they’re doing. You also need to be able to help establish some guardrails so that, for example, if, if you’ve got a direct report who’s going through the hiring process for the first time, make sure that you’re sitting down and having a conversation about how that process works.

And things they can and can’t ask. Right. This is, I know I harp on this on a lot of episodes because I’ve seen so many horrendous interview questions that are just way over the line from what you’re actually allowed to ask and, and that the list of what you’re allowed to ask shrinks year by year as more revelations come into play here in the US and, and so you need to make sure that whatever it is that you’re working with them and helping them to understand where is that third rail in whatever thing they’re doing.

From a management perspective, whether that’s hiring, whether that’s performance improvement plans, whether that’s, you know, just generally having a conversation about performance and, and questions you can’t ask as part of that. You know, those are all important to understand because if you’re not doing that, then you really have just abandoned them to the wolves and that’s not a solution either.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely.

And you know, I think it’s, I think you bring up a really great point in terms of hiring, which is, you know, we typically, and, and with our clients too, everybody puts the team that they would, that this person with the candidate would work with in the interview process. And many of them have never done it before.

So sitting down with them to say, Okay, let’s talk about, let’s, let’s assign like one thing to you. We want you to focus on results, or we want you to focus on their experience with media relations. Whatever happens to be, What kinds of questions would you ask. And almost to a mock interview while you’re explaining, you know, that’s okay to ask.

This is not okay and this is why. So that they get really comfortable with being able to do that work.

Chip Griffin: And, and from time to time sit in on different things, right? You don’t sit in on everything, but, but occasionally sit in on a client meeting, sit in on an interview, sit in on a, a staff, a team meeting if they’ve got a team of people reporting to them.

From time to, because you can just observe things. Now you have to understand that your presence is going to change behavior. Right. So, so the mere fact that you are on that zoom or in that room means that it’s not going exactly the same way.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. That’ll be on their best behavior. Yeah. .

Chip Griffin: But still, and resist the urge to take over the meeting or conversation when you do this.

Try to be the fly on the wall as much as it’s possible to be a fly on the wall as the owner. But you will learn things from that and that will give you room to, to provide constructive feedback to those new managers on your team to help them continue to grow and develop. Because it is a process. And frankly, we are all continuing to grow and develop those managers as leaders.

Right. Or at least we ought to be. And if we’re not, that’s a problem.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. You know, you’re right. And I, I mentioned earlier that I’ve hired a few business, leadership coaches. I was a member of Vistage for a long time. Those kinds of things have helped, but I also pay attention, especially in client meetings, to how they behave and the ways that they treat their team.

Like I, I will never, as long as I live, forget this one client we had, we were in our very first meeting with them. And their chief operating officer was in the meeting with the CEO and he laid into her in front of us in the very first meeting and I thought, Oh no, this is, We made a mistake. This is not somebody we wanna work with.

And we, we waited for one more red flag, and then we actually resigned the business. But you can pay attention to the way that your clients are treating their teams as well and learn from that, right? You can learn the things to do and things not to do, and encourage your team to do the same. Like just pay attention to how meetings are run and how people treat one another. With clients as well. So you can learn as much as you can just by, by observing.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And, and it’s, you know, a lot of this is sort of like what we all do, who all of us who are parents do, right? We, we look at, at how our parents behave. We look at how other parents behave and what they do.

And for sure. And we, we take lessons and, and we say, Okay, well this is, we like this. We’ll, we’ll adopt this. We don’t like that. We’ll, we’ll make sure we don’t do that. It’s not necessarily the best way to learn and develop, but it’s a way, and, and so, you know, always be on the lookout for those things and frankly, your team is gonna be noticing those things as well, right?

So if you’ve got clients who have a lot of bad habits or good habits, make sure that you’re letting your team know. Hey, we don’t ever wanna do this like client A, or, client B is a model and in the way that they function as a team. That’s what we aspire to as well. So make sure that because they’re seeing it, they’re observing it, they’re on those calls, and if you’re not cognizant of that, then you, your team may end up getting the wrong lessons from your clients as well.

Gini Dietrich: The other thing I like to do is, we do a book club. And we do it quarterly. You know, we tried, tried it monthly, it was too much. But we do it quarterly and I assign a leadership book to those, those managers that are aspiring or are in, in the thick of it. And it’s usually only three to five of us. We all read the book and then we discuss it and I have them tell me, like what they really liked about it, what they, what they learn from it, what they want to apply, and then we craft a plan based on that.

So we look at how to… to become better leaders by reading and by taking online courses and things like that as well.

Chip Griffin: Well, and I think, you know, part of this too is that your management team, as they’re developing, needs to feel like they’re, they’re part of that inner circle in your agency as well. And so they, they need to feel like they’re not just being given more responsibility and a headache and all that kind of stuff by having people report to them. They need to feel a little special. And they need to feel like, you know, they, they’ve got the, you know, the, the key to the secret club.

Yep. If you will. I mean, you, you don’t wanna go too far with this because then, then you create an us versus them set up within your agency and you don’t want that. But you do want your managers to feel like you’re taking them into greater confidence about what’s going on with the business because they are managers. Yep. And so if you treat them like they are the same as, you know, the most junior employee that’s not usually a good way to get them to, to do the things that they need to do to be excellent managers. So you need to be ready to share more information with them, help them to understand why you make some of the decisions that you’re making at an even more granular level than you would with the rest of the team.

Gini Dietrich: You know, I will tell you this, this has not worked for me at all, but this, this is what my husband does, and it may work for some listeners. He does a check in every morning from 9:45 to 10. It’s only 15 minutes, but he does it with his leadership team. So everybody that reports to him essentially, and they talk about these kinds of things, like so and so’s thinking has been really unhappy, or I’m trying to work through someyou know, constructive feedback with such and such. Those are the kinds of things they talk, talk about in that 15 minute meeting every day so that everybody’s aware and can kind of help to encourage and push things along.

I just don’t like the daily meeting thing.

Chip Griffin: No, I think daily meetings are… for the vast majority of organizations daily meetings are overkill. It doesn’t, it doesn’t mean that there’s not a a time in place for them. Yes. Yeah. Obviously I have, I have no idea about, you know, how your husband’s organization works, but I, I would say that for most agencies, daily meetings are going to be overkill. And so I, I know a lot of agencies, particularly if they’re struggling to figure out how to manage effectively, they will often institute these.

The problem that I’ve seen with a lot of agencies is they become more micromanagement sessions than truly, truly checkins, right? Yeah. And so it, it usually ends up being that the owner starts to, you know, to meddle in all sorts of things when they come up in, in that kind of a conversation. So be really careful about doing daily meetings and make sure that there’s a real distinct purpose. I do like the timing, you know, A, that it’s 15 minutes, but also that it’s at the end of an hour, right? Because that’s a lot less disruptive to most people’s calendars. You can generally find, you know, from 9:45 to 10 a window on your calendar more easily than you could even from 9 to 9:15.

Yeah. Because almost nobody’s gonna ask for a meeting at 9 45. Right. And, and so you can try to make sure if you’ve got a nine o’clock, that it doesn’t go more than 45 minutes or even a 9:30 that stays to 15 minutes. Right. So, So I do like that piece of it, and I do think that’s a valuable takeaway for folks to think about it.

If you’re going to a super regular meeting, whether it’s daily or three times a week or something like that. Do it in that way. And it also gets compressed because now you’re up against the end of the hour. If you start at nine, it’s easy to go from 9:15 to 9:30, because nobody’s probably scheduled themselves from 9:15 to 9:30.

So nobody’s gonna be able to say, Oh, I’ve got a 9:15, I’ve gotta drop off, I’ve gotta go. Right. Lots of people can say that at 10 o’clock. At 10 o’clock. Yeah. So, so there, there are, I, I like the strategy behind the timing of that meeting, even if I don’t love daily meetings.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I don’t love the daily meetings either, but it works. It works for some. I will say that.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And I, I think that the other piece of all of this is, is that you need to be, as I always say, ready to listen to your team. And that’s even more important as you’re developing managers. Don’t just, don’t just take them into your confidence to share information about why you’re doing things.

Also take them into your confidence in order to get their feedback on things that you’re thinking or problems that exist in the business that you’re trying to solve. Because, If the, if you’ve got someone who is moving up the, the ladder within your organization, they should be bringing more and more to the table.

And so that means you want their input on some of these decisions before it goes to the broader group.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, absolutely.

I am a big fan of coaching and mentoring. Of helping them along. Certainly promoting them through the ranks, but you know, handing somebody… asking, asking somebody to say, Okay, you’re being promoted and now you need to escort your predecessor out.

Like, that’s… Don’t do it that way.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, that was, that’s a bad way. Hey, we, we all learn from our experiences though.

Gini Dietrich: Fair. Geez louise.

Chip Griffin: The last thing that I would say is you need to understand from your team how they will develop their skills best. Yep. And so you will have some people who will work best if they have their own coach.

You will have some who will work best if you give them access to online training resources. You’ll have some who will learn best simply by talking with you as a mentor. Some will learn better because you send them away to some sort of a training program or something like that. So I have conversations with your managers, particularly new ones, and understand what skills they need to develop. Share with them what skills you think they need to develop. And then come up with a plan of action, which is not going to be one size fits all, because everybody learns differently.

Some people may just say, Hey, Give me a $200 book allowance and I’ll go out and buy a bunch of books and I’m, you know, I’m good to go. Others may be like, Yeah, I’m never doing that, but you know, if I can take an online course or I can get a coach or whatever, those things are the things that will help me.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely. Yep. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s definitely, people have different learning styles, so for sure.

Chip Griffin: Excellent. Well, hopefully, as, as you know, if you’re one of those agencies out there who’s growing your talent from within, promoting them and you’re, you’re thinking about these things, kudos to you.

Definitely come up with a plan of action and make sure that you are empowering those mid-level managers, because it will make your life easier and your agency more successful.

Gini Dietrich: Yes, indeed.

Chip Griffin: So with that, we will draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close. 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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