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How to hold agency employees accountable

Agencies are fundamentally a people business, but managing people is always a challenge. How do you get the best performance and the right results for clients? And what do you do when an individual falls short?

That’s topic that Chip and Gini explore on this week’s episode. It all stemmed from a post on Reddit asking about “consequences” for agency employees. While the hosts don’t like that term, the concept is still an important one to explore.



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

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

GINI: And I am Gini Dietrich.

CHIP: And if you do not listen carefully to this episode, there will be consequences, won’t there, Gini?

GINI: Yes, indeed, you might get a timeout or have to spend time in your room or grounded but yes, there will be consequences for sure.

CHIP: Grounding. I think grounding is a very good idea. And, and the actual topic of the show is indeed consequences, but it’s not for you. The listener is for agency employees. Yes, and it’s yet another topic that comes from Gini’s favorite website in the world

GINI: favorite Reddit site. reddits. But I have to say So after you make fun of me, which, you know, I it scares me, I still little spent a little time digging deeper into the agency subreddit. Is that correct?

CHIP: That is it’s a subreddit. Very

GINI: good. Thank you. Thank you. And I found some really great content. I mean, there’s some good stuff in there. So I am wrong, I’m still not going to go to the homepage. And it’s still not going to be my, my social network of choice. But the agency subreddit is pretty interesting. So one of the things

CHIP: it’s a nice place for finding people asking questions that the answers oftentimes are not very good. So I’m not sure that I would encourage folks to go there read the challenge or and run run with what they get out of the four or five answers that are there. Some of the suggestions are really really horrible advice. But it but it is it gets you thinking and for the purposes of this show, yes. That’s a great thing.

GINI: Yes. So one of the things I found is seeking advice. I’m creating consequences slash accountability within our company. I kind of like accountability better than consequence, especially with employees because you know, you are working with grownups.

CHIP: Yeah. And you think Yeah, consequences is I think it’s a really harsh term and, and probably suggest with this particular individual is coming from in their management style, which is probably not the best place to come from.

GINI: So pretty much what they said was I’m part of a leadership team at a small agency, and we’re struggling to find the best way to help our accountability while maintaining classic positive culture. We all have a lot on our plates with work since we’re so small, so oftentimes to do’s will not get done, or people will not follow through with what they said they originally could handle. We’ve identified that we need to have better accountability as well as consequences if things aren’t done properly. However, unlike big companies, we can’t just afford to fire people if they make a few mistakes.

CHIP: I think that’s I think we’ve got the gist of the journey. And and it is it is a good question because it is it is a management challenge that you have in agencies is, you know, trying to figure out, you know how to make sure that you’re getting the results that you need, you know, set aside consequences, accountability, you need to get results for your clients, you need to be doing the things that that the agency needs to do to be successful. And so how do you go about doing that? You know, one thing that you might do is use spellcheck, which this individual didn’t do any consequences for failure to use spellcheck before posting publicly on Reddit. But look that the the reality is that this is something that every agency faces and and small agencies have particular challenges, I think, in making sure everything gets done because yeah, smaller agencies more so than large ones tend to be stretched them.

GINI: And it’s Yes, I think it’s really challenged. Particularly when two things happen, one leadership does not have the same accountability. And they’re not willing to roll their sleeves and do the hard work alongside their teams.

CHIP: Yeah. Well, let’s, let’s pause right there, though, because I think that is absolutely critical, because the accountability starts at the top. Sure. And, and, and quite often what I see when I’ve got a manager who’s who’s talking like this, they often don’t help hold themselves accountable. Right. And and so that rubs off on their teams. Right? So you can’t just, you can’t expect your team to do things if you’re not willing to do it yourself. willing to embrace mistakes and we’re falling short.

GINI: Yeah. And I think that’s one of the most important things. It’s I think it’s one of the most important leadership qualities that a person should have. I also think that there’s a challenge when goals are not clear, or that nobody understands where they’re trying to go. So yeah, sure. We need to get results for clients. But why? And yes, we’re trying to add income to the agency. But why? What does that mean to us? So you want to make sure that you’re not just speaking from the top of the mountain and in bestowing, you know, to do is on people but explaining why and in some cases, I tend to think about this a little bit like you know, when your your children are two and three, they asked why all the time, and you’re just like, but I think it’s a really good lesson. Because if people know why, then they can accomplish things. But it when it starts to get into the when when you start to have problems is when you just tell people what to do and expect that they’re going to do it and not understand why.

CHIP: Right? And if you trace many of these issues back to the root cause it does come down to communication that comes down to the fact that you either didn’t communicate effectively what you needed and when or you didn’t listen well from your team and understand what it is that They didn’t understand or what other competing priorities they had and help settle it for them. So you know that this really, you know, before you even get to the stage of accountability you need to have communications and and make sure that there’s a clear understanding on both parts of who’s doing what and why.

GINI: Yes, and then the last thing I will add to that is process helps to write so instead of trying to micromanage and have consequences and you know, fire people for a few mistakes, really think about what the processes and try to figure out what’s missing. So if our processes this, this, this and this, are we missing a link somewhere in there, and what does that look like and fix that? You know, I always talk about how everybody knows what the Big Macs made up right? to all be patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles onions on this list of easy button. Everybody knows that. And it doesn’t matter where in the world you go, you can get a Big Mac and it pretty much stays the same. I mean, the night Meat might be a little funky depending on where you are in the world, but your goal, you’re going to get to all beef patties special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun, that’s what you’re going to get.

CHIP: So if you buy McDonald’s, right, only they would pay

GINI: only they would pay us money. Um, but I think that that’s what you want to think about is what is your recipe for success? And how do you teach that to your, your team? And that’s how you hold them accountable.

CHIP: Yeah, that process helps avoid so many problems. It, it not only makes you more efficient, but it also, you know, makes you less prone to mistakes because you, you have it clearly laid out step by step, right what you’re doing, it’s sort of like you know, if you’re, if you’re working off of a recipe, when you when you cook dinner, it’s likely to turn out the same way each time. Whereas if you’re just doing it from memory, you know, it may still be good, or it may not it sort of drains and I you know, full transparency. I’m not a recipe person, which is why I don’t bake. I like to be inventive and creative along the way. My wife hates that because then I can’t recreate dish exactly the same way. I’m not a restaurant chef, I don’t have to make the dish the same way the next time I get there. But in an agency if

GINI: you are that, yes,

CHIP: you are, you are like a restaurant. And people expect that when you’re taking on a campaign, they’re going to get the same results time after time. And the way you do that is through process. But the you know, the other thing you have to do is, you know, when something goes wrong, whether it’s you missed a deadline or something that you know, there was an error made, or something went out that shouldn’t have or whatever it is, you need to sit down with your team and understand exactly what went wrong and why. So you know, and I’m a big believer in anytime you finished a big project, you should have, you know, some sort of an after action review with your team, what went well, what can we now incorporate in our process going forward? What went wrong? How do we need to change our process, so this doesn’t happen again. And that has to be a comfortable environment. It has to be a place where there can be honest to give and take with the team to identify it because if they look at it As a consequence moving, where they’re going to be put in timeout, or grounded or you know, whatever, right, they’re not going to give you their best in that. And so therefore, you’re going to keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again.

GINI: And when you have those that I really like the idea of doing it after every single campaign, like so many agencies, so many businesses in general have annual reviews. And that’s the only time you get feedback. And I just think that’s wrong. Because it right I mean, I don’t understand why that’s the process. And so if you’re doing it on a consistent basis, not only are you creating a culture where it’s okay to have those conversations that people know that they can provide feedback and get good feedback consistently and not be fired for a few mistakes. Versus I’m going to wait until their annual review and just tell them all the shitty things they did. Right for the last year.

CHIP: Right. And by the way, if you are the kind of person who keeps notes of all of the shortcomings your employees shares at once a year. First of all, what are you doing? You’re wasting your time. It’s bad enough if you do it and you just make up that list just before the meeting, but I keep a running list of all of all of your goals. Yeah. Why? share those try to address them in real time. Don’t wait, who does that? Sure,

GINI: nobody in it serves nobody and this is going on a side note. But I also think that providing examples like that just makes the person wants to defend the situation versus look at the overall challenge that there is. So that’s a that’s a different leadership thing. But from an accountability standpoint, it’s creating a culture where people feel comfortable, getting and receiving feedback, receiving and giving feedback is really important.

CHIP: And they have to be comfortable pushing back. So when when you go to Italy and tell them you know they need to do x by y date. If they can’t do x or if they can’t do it by y de Or both. They need to feel comfortable saying, Hey, boss look at you know, I’ve got these 17 other things or Hey, I don’t have the training to do X, can you? Can you explain how to do it, but there is, there is unfortunately a culture in a lot of businesses, particularly agencies where employees feel like they can’t admit that, that they just have to take whatever is given and figure it out. And often, that’s because the boss is communicating that either directly or indirectly, that they just need to get it done. I don’t care, it just needs to be done. Well, that doesn’t help. And so you need that be able to have those candid conversations before the mistake gets made before the deadline is released. And that’s all about creating that culture of communication between members of the team.

GINI: And look, I will admit that it’s sometimes frustrating when you feel like somebody should know something and they say, Oh, I don’t know how to do that. And you’re like, Oh my gosh, should we ever heard of Google? But you will have to set that aside and to your point, really say okay, if I You really don’t know how to do this, let me show you or let me demonstrate or let you know talk to so and so because they continued, they have done it that job over and over and over again. So give them the tools that they need. If they still can’t get it right, then that’s a different problem. But if they’re honest with you up front to say, I’m super happy to help you do this, but I just don’t know how, right, give them the tools to be successful.

CHIP: Right. And I’m not trying to suggest that I’m, I’m perfect in this regard. I like to think I’ve improved over the years. But you know, when I was when I first started starting out as a manager, I would often do many of these bad things that, but I’m talking about here, I would just say this needs to be done. Now, I don’t care.

Unknown Speaker
It needs to be done. Yeah, absolutely. And

CHIP: I’m guilty of having been exasperated with employees in the past and just say, you know, how can you not know how to do this? How could you have made this mistake, you know, whatever. And so we all need to work at this. This is not this is not suggesting? That Yeah, we’re doing these things. You’re a failure. You should give up and run away. It. Know It. We all know need to improve on these things but there, you need to be conscious of what you’re doing and the more you look at how you’re acting, you will learn why some of these things are occurring in your business.

GINI: And to your Yes, I will echo that I am also not perfect and there are some days where I sit here and I think this is so hard. What are you growing up? I feel like you’re grown up doesn’t hard, but you have to get that out of your system before you have a conversation.

CHIP: And the reality is, you know, those of us who will become owners typically we know more than our employees they’re always not always but in general we we know more we more experienced probably we’ve been around longer we’ve seen more things so we can’t expect that that our team members no matter how talented they may be, know everything that we do can do everything as quickly as we can do it. And the speed thing is an important thing to remember here because Yang Okay, yes, yo I need you to write this press release and you assume that like you they can write the press release in 20 minutes. Guess what? They probably can’t you may take them two or three hours. Yeah, that’s a hard one. And so you know, when you’re doing time estimates, you need to look at how long is it going to take them to do it not how long would it take you? That’s a really tough one.

GINI: And that’s one that I continue to struggle with. Because I mean, blog posts writing is a great example. I can write a 2000 word blog post in an hour. Apparently, that’s fast. And so that I struggle with that, because I’m like, I don’t understand you all week. Yeah, I mean, apparently, it’s, so it takes people very long time. And I that I really struggle with that. So

CHIP: it gets it’s incredibly difficult. I mean, you know, things like podcasts, you know, I have done podcasts with people in the past and they’re like, you know, I, I, you know, I need to know the topics in advance I need to be able to prepare for, as you know, and I think we’re very similar in this regard. We can just basically take a sentence and start running with the show. Yeah. Is it a good show? Who the hell knows?

GINI: Maybe I will tell you

CHIP: this show we actually did a little bit of preparation for I’m shocked, I’m not sure whether you’ll think this is any better than some of the ones we start off with just a sentence and hit record and see what happens. But, you know, you have to understand that not everybody is just like you and that will, I think, help you better prepare for these things. Because ultimately, it’s not, you really don’t want to be thinking about consequences. You want to think about how do you avoid getting to that point? Right, at all? Right. And I think the other thing that I would suggest here is that, you know, there is certainly a point where there do have to be consequences of some sure and there does have to be accountability. So I’m not saying that, that you you allow employees to just, you know, make mistakes, Miss deadlines, willy nilly. There are times where you have to address them. And you there are a couple of keys here. I think the first is to try to make sure that the same mistakes don’t happen over and over. Again, if people are not learning from past mistakes, then there’s something bigger wrong, either that employees not up to it or your processes are not correct or something, and you really need to make a significant change. But the second thing is, the reality is not every employee is going to work out. And you’re going to have people who are not good fits whether they’re not a good fit for your agency or for the role they’re in with your agency or whatever. And so ultimately, you may have to get to consequences. But, you know, the consequences aren’t timeouts, consequences are they need to move on to another job. I mean, I’m a big believer, that’s, that’s basically the only legitimate consequence, in most professional environments is they need to move on to another opportunity. Yeah. You know, I, as we’ve talked about on the show previously, I don’t believe in performance improvement plans. I don’t, you know, certainly not kind of go fine or suspend employees, you know, we’re not, we’re not in that kind of business where you do those kinds of things. So, you know, ultimately, they may just not be a good fit if you’ve tried everything you can to work with them, and they’re just not up to it.

GINI: Yeah. And and that’s okay, too. But and I think you’re right. That is that is the consequence of missing deadlines not getting, you know, for me, it’s always if a client is unhappy and continues to be unhappy, if you can’t figure out a way to build trust and do the work up to the client’s expectations, then it’s not the right fit. And it might very well be that it’s not the right fit for that client. And you’ve right and we can move them to a different account. But if it continues across the board, it is time for you to go on.

CHIP: Right. Right. And then that client may not be a good fit for the agency either. Right there there are, you certainly run into clients who have unreasonable expectations? Yes. And that’s a whole different show. Yeah. And we’ve talked about that a number of times in the past but you know, when it when it comes to your team members, that the vast majority of them you can find ways to work with but at the same time, if you if you’re one of these managers who comes to me and says, you know, I’ve been a manager for 20 years, I’ve never fired anybody. Okay, well, then chances are you haven’t really valuated your team? Well, I, I have I have talked to a number of managers who’ve never had the fires on one never or in 20 years, I’ve only fired two or three people. Wow. I

GINI: know I wish I could say the same.

CHIP: Yeah. And and, and part of my challenges in organizations that I’ve been in I’m, I’m sort of viewed as the person who’s comfortable terminating people.

GINI: So it does not surprise so

CHIP: my body count is especially hard because in a number of organizations, people said, Well, can you just do this for me? Can you?

GINI: Yeah, sure. I’m gonna start calling you. Chip. I need your help.

CHIP: Well, I mean, in my consulting role, now, I’ve actually done it for clients. Have you really

GINI: I have I have, I’m gonna I’m gonna hire you for those. If I if I need to do it in the future. I’m,

CHIP: I’m like, was it George Clooney and up in the air?

GINI: Yeah, yeah.

CHIP: And I’m just as good looking as George Clooney to

GINI: you. I agree. I can Yes.

CHIP: You might want to get Camera effects there are not more like it’s Michael anyway. Before we take this completely off the rails Do you have anything else to hold people accountable for

GINI: the only thing I would add to this is that we tend to have, to your point with experience, we tend to have the curse of knowledge. And so one of the things and I say this to clients all the time, too, is you have to remember that it is a curse of that of having the knowledge and you have to remember that not everybody has that same level. Not everybody has the same level. Not everybody has the same experience. And so when you think about it, from that perspective, I think you tend to, I would hope, tend to be a little more lenient in educating and teaching and coaching.

CHIP: And you have to understand that as much knowledge as you have, you don’t have it all either. And what I know, I know, you know, we’ve talked about how how much more you know, and how much faster you can do things as a boss as an owner, but the reality is, you still don’t know everything. I know. Continue to learn things every day, you clearly do because you’ve now embraced Reddit. Or can maybe that’s a little bit stronger. There’s

GINI: a little strong, but

CHIP: Yes, it’s important to have tolerance. And so so you know, you have to be open to learning yourself. And so anytime that something goes wrong, make sure you’re going into resolving it with an open mind, don’t go in assuming you know the answers. And instead be willing to listen be willing to try to figure out, you know, why it didn’t go the way that you or the client may have wanted and and find a viable solution from there.

GINI: Yes, it’s one of the hardest things that we have to do as human beings, but surround yourself by people who are smarter than you and who are not well who are willing to say no, when appropriate, and then you will have a culture of accountability versus consequences.

CHIP: And actually saying, No, that’s it. That is a good topic for a future show. Because I think as an agency owner, that’s one of the most difficult things to defined and also difficult for the president united states? Well, we’re going to stay away from politics, Jenny. We don’t want to start off the new year with a political fight. Although I don’t think you and I are and

GINI: no, I think we will read about that. Yeah. But but but

CHIP: nevertheless, we probably would. And the reality is we’re talking about agency business here. We are not talking about the business of the United States government, or the British government or any of the other places that seem to have challenged their dysfunction. Yes. And so with that,

GINI: on that note,

CHIP: we will we will call to an end this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

GINI: And I’m Gini Dietrich,

CHIP: 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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