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Managing Gen Z agency employees (and anyone else with less experience than you)

Agency owners frequently lament to Chip and Gini that their employees don’t have a proper sense of urgency and don’t seem to work hard enough.

The co-hosts explore whether this is specific to Gen Z or if it has broader applications.

At the same time, Chip and Gini look at the causes for this concern and potential solutions. (Fair warning: a big piece of the answer lies in the mirror.)

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “I don’t think it’s Gen Z, I think it’s people. And it’s less about how old or young they are and more about how motivated they are in their jobs.”
  • Chip Griffin: “A lot of it comes down to bad recruiting and bad management. And I know most owners who are listening don’t want to hear that.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “We’re almost like therapists, parents, bosses, all in one.”
  • Chip Griffin: “I’ve seen agencies that try to build all-star teams. All-star teams do not work.”


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 today, I thought in honor of your birthday week when we’re recording this, we’re gonna talk about remembering what it was like when we were young, right after this.

Well, that audio seemed to hiccup there a little bit for me at least, but hey.

Gini Dietrich: Oh, it didn’t on my end. Weird.

Chip Griffin: Oh, okay. Well, listeners, you may have heard it hiccup. You may not have heard it hiccup, but it certainly hiccuped for me. In any case, first of all, happy early birthday.

Gini Dietrich: Thank you. Thank you, thank you.

Chip Griffin: I actually did remember it this year, so I can call it out on the show when usually I forget and realize it after the fact when I start seeing all the flood of happy birthdays in the Spin Sucks community.

Gini Dietrich: Well, and now it’s on your calendar as well.

Chip Griffin: So now, now it is on my calendar, so I will remember, and of course I do have to thank my wife Jen, because she’s the one who prodded me and actually looked at my calendar for later in the week and called it out to me.

So, in any case, we’re not, this topic is not really chosen because of that, but I thought that it, it is appropriate because what we’re gonna talk about today are, well, we’re gonna, our jumping off point is gonna be Gen Z employees and how you manage them effectively. This is a question that came up in the most recent SAGA Community monthly meetup. It’s something that came up in the Spin Sucks Community as well, in the past couple of days. And so, so how do we manage less experienced workers, shall we say? Cause I always try to avoid speaking in terms of age, even when we’re talking young folks, because you don’t want to get yourself into age or discrimination problems.

And it really is more about experience than age in most cases. But I think as we go forward, we’ll also realize that some of what we’re gonna talk about applies not just to folks with just a couple of years of experience. But you know, in some cases 20 or 30 years of, of experience, right, depending on their mindset and approach.

So, you know, the question I think usually comes down to, geez, I’ve, I’ve got these employees. They’re not particularly motivated. They, they don’t have a sense of urgency. They’re not coming up with their own ideas. I’ve gotta give them all this direction. I’ve gotta micromanage them in order to get the job done.

It’s just, it’s stressing me out. What do I do?

Gini Dietrich: Yes, that is normally how it comes up.

Chip Griffin: Did I encapsulate pretty much what, what you hear from agency owners? I know it’s almost verbatim what I hear.

Gini Dietrich: That is what I hear. Yes. Mm-hmm. Yes. And it was almost verbatim from the Spin Sucks Community too, which was, the words that were used were very precious with boundaries, which I see as well, and a lack of urgency around getting client work done.

Which I also see, and I think it’s, I don’t think it’s Gen Z, I think it’s people. And it, it’s less about how many, you know, how old or young they are and more about, to your point, how motivated they are in their jobs. Not everybody’s a type A employee like we are. Not everybody is, you know, self-disciplined and self-motivated, and so it’s really figuring out if you’re recruiting and hiring the right people versus trying to fit somebody into a role that they may not be best suited for.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and it’s, I mean, look, I, I have sympathy for anyone who’s hiring right now because it is challenging to find the right employee for whether you’re an agency or lots of other things. We see this constantly. We see this in the, the macro numbers that get published, but we see it anecdotally every day in the conversations that we’re having with people who are hiring.

It is difficult. And so I think there’s a tendency to cut corners in hiring and settle because you want to have the seat filled. And so I think that’s, it’s making the problem worse today than perhaps it was five or 10 years ago where the job market was a little bit more favorable to employers. But ultimately, at the end of the day, I don’t think this is a new problem.

It is not a, as you say, a Gen Z issue. Right? It’s something that’s been around, it’s just that those of us who are agency owners, we’re older and a lot of our employees are younger, and we misremember what it was like to be a 20 something in the workforce because we remember our own experience.

And the fact is that most people who go on to become an agency owner, we’re type A, we’re workaholics, we’re let’s, let’s get this done, let’s show what we can do. But if we, if I, you know, do my best to work through my feeble memory, back to some many years ago when I was surrounded by my peers who were in their twenties.

There were a lot of them who weren’t particularly motivated and weren’t self-starters.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, that’s a really fair point.

Chip Griffin: And, and needed a lot of help and guidance and so, so part of this I think is, is new, but I think a large part of this is really just the way that the workforce has been for as long as I’ve been alive.

Gini Dietrich: I will say that some new challenges have come up, especially since the pandemic. And I think where almost everybody is, especially from an agency perspective, are either remote or hybrid. You know, managing a team like that in a culture where you’re not together is a lot more challenging. There are societal and cultural things that are happening in our world that affect some of the decisions that are being made, and quite honestly, there’s one thing that drives me absolutely insane, and I try really hard to respect it, but it drives me crazy.

We have partners and we have employees, and we have contractors who are very, like, in their box, on their boundaries. And if you ask them to do one thing outside of the box, even if it fits their scope of what they should be doing, they tell you no. And that drives me crazy because that’s not the employee that I was.

Right, right. If you ask me and, and honestly that’s not an agency owner that I am. Because if a client wants something and it’s within our scope, we’re going to do it. And you know, , even things like, oh, you’re going on vacation in two weeks. Let’s take, take a look and think about all the things that need to happen before you go so that your team isn’t left in the lurch.

And they’re like, no. Like, what do you mean no? Yeah. So I think there are those things that are happening. I think we should recognize that, that, you know, society has changed and culture has changed, and certainly the way, the way that we work has changed. But yes, there are, and now as I think back into my twenties as well, I remember a couple of people who would just come to work, work at their desk, leave. And you didn’t, you didn’t see them on nights or weekends like you did some of the rest of us.

Chip Griffin: Right? Yeah. I mean, I worked with many employees, coworkers who were, you know, clock watchers as I used to call them. Yep. Yep. I had at least a couple of employees over the course of my career that were absolute clock watchers.

I, I recall very distinctly one junior employee that I had in one of my businesses many, many years ago, who literally would sit there and look at the clock on the wall so that she could walk out the door at 5:00 PM on the dock. At like 4:58, she was donning her jacket so that she could walk out that door the minute the second hand… because you know, we used to have analog clocks in offices for all you young people who might be listening and she was out the door just like that. It, it was, it drove me bonkers. Absolutely madness. And, but a lot of this, and, and I think that the pandemic did certainly make a lot of this more challenging, particularly with the work from home.

But I think that that excuse is gone now and we need to try to figure out how to manage effectively with that. Right? Because the solution isn’t just to complain about work from home and how it’s done this Yes, the, the solution is that we need to change our approach to management to deal with that, and we need to change our approach to recruiting to deal with that.

Yep. And I think fundamentally, some of these problems are endemic, but a lot of it, it comes down to bad recruiting and bad management. And I know most owners who are listening don’t want to hear that, right? They want to hear that it’s the the employee’s fault and they need to shape up, and that we can get them some outside help and it will solve it.

It will not. You need to look in the mirror first. That’s where this solution lies.

Gini Dietrich: I have a really good friend who runs a business, not an agency, but she runs a business and she complains constantly about her employees.

And I’ll go in to her retail location and I can interact with her employees and I’m always like, you know, why you’re not happy with them? Because you’ve hired people that you, that are yes men that, that tell you yes no matter what. And don’t challenge you. Don’t give you any ideas. Don’t bring new ideas, aren’t motivated to do things.

She gets really mad at me when I tell her this, but like that’s the truth is she’s hired people that she can, for lack of a better term, control. And because of her personality type. And so when you think about how you’re recruiting, you have to think about, okay, do I want people exactly like me?

Maybe some, but not all. Like if a room full of Ginis would drive me batty, right? I have to live with one of ’em, let alone I have to work with ’em. But really think about, you know, what is your culture and what kinds of work needs to get done. And every organization needs team A and team B players. We do. You need, you need a cross mix and you need people who are willing to go the extra mile and people who are not.

But you have to figure out how to manage those individuals. And it’s just like having kids. Like you can’t parent kids the same way. One kid may excel in certain things and the other one does not. You have to parent differently, and you have to think about that as you’re leading a team as well.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think you’ve just made a really great point there, which is you need to have a mix of A and B players.

And that doesn’t mean that you need to have C and D and F players, right? No. Right. But, but you do need to have a mix because I’ve seen agencies that, that try to build all-star teams. All-star teams do not work. They don’t. They don’t work. And, and they don’t work, not just in the agency world, but if we look into the sports world. There’s a reason why most of these teams don’t have all all-stars, and it’s not because they don’t have the budgets. In many cases, there are teams out there that could afford to hire an entire team of all stars to play for them. They don’t because all stars need to have other, they need to have supporting actors and supporting players that, that help bring them along.

Your agency needs that too. So, so part of it is you need to set your expectation that not everybody on your team is going to be an all-star. Again, doesn’t mean you need to accept mediocre, but it does mean that you need to accept that they’re not gonna be just like you.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Right. And really think about, you know, so let’s go back to the being very precious with their boundaries and, and lack of urgency around, around client requests.

Like for an agency in my mind, we do client service. So if there’s a lack of urgency around client work, that’s a problem. And that’s a cultural issue that needs to be fixed because if you’re not delivering to clients what they need and when they need it, you’re not going to have clients for very long. There are some things that are…

Chip Griffin: yes, yes, but I think the first thing is you need to test it.

Are you correct that they do not have a sense of urgency? Because one of the things that I see frequently is that everything becomes urgent. Either on the client side or on the, the boss, manager, owner side. And, and if you do that, then you become essentially the boy who cried wolf. Right? And so you need to make sure that, that, if you are going to say they don’t have a sense of urgency, that it’s a legitimate sense of urgency and that it’s not a manufactured one.

Because if you, if you don’t treat this, correctly, then it becomes a problem because they’re, they’re never gonna listen to you because everything, oh my God, this is, this has got to be done yesterday. And I know a lot of this comes from the client side. A lot of this is clients saying, I need this right now.

And, and clients are great at, you know, dallying on their end and then expecting us to make up for the time shortfall. So, so some of this does come down to how you manage the relationships with the clients, how you convey urgency. So that when you truly need urgency, you get it, but you can’t expect it 24 7.

Gini Dietrich: Right. And I would say that you truly need urgency in a crisis situation. Otherwise, absolutely, almost never. Nothing else is, is urgent, like 24 hours I need it today, kind of urgent. So there might be things…

Chip Griffin: and it’s not an emergency when your client forgot to ask you to do something until the last minute.

That is not an emergency. I still want to try to accommodate it if I can , because that’s the mindset of a good agency. But it’s not an emergency.

Gini Dietrich: It’s not an emergency. No. I had an employee, I have an employee who was really struggling with meeting deadlines. And I couldn’t – with one client, not all clients, just this one client, and I couldn’t figure out why.

And I would have conversations with her and she would just be like, I, I don’t know. I just missed it. Or I didn’t see the alert in our project management system. Or she kept making excuses and it took me a long time. It probably took me six months to figure out that she was being abused by our client.

I had no idea. And she was trying to protect the team and me from that. But in the meantime, it was beating her down so much that she just stopped doing. I mean, she just stopped doing the work. She just didn’t do it. She didn’t meet deadlines. And when it finally came out, I was like, oh my gosh. Like why are we just talking about this now?

And she was like very, like, I didn’t, I was trying to protect everyone from it. I didn’t think that we should all be abused and we fired the client and she like rose back up to the top. But my point is that there are also situations in, in those kinds of situations where they might not be as meeting client expectations or as urgent as you think they should be on certain things because there’s something else going on.

So you have to sort of dig into, we’re almost like therapists, parents, bosses, all in one. We have to sort of figure out what, what it is that’s actually happening. Because if it’s, if it’s not a cultural thing and they’re doing thing, they’re, they’re working well in other situations, there might be something going on that you just don’t know about.

Chip Griffin: Well, and that’s why weekly one-on-ones with all of your direct reports is so, so important. Yes. Yes, yes. That’s your only chance to truly uncover some of these things because it’s, and I, and I think that this has become actually worse with work from home because people feel like, well, I’m on Slack with my employees all day, every day.

Gini Dietrich: Oh, yeah. No, it’s not the same.

Chip Griffin: You know, we’re constantly zooming and, and, and so I talk to them. It’s not the same. No, you still need a dedicated one-on-one meeting every single week without fail, never canceled, only rescheduled if absolutely necessary. If you do not do that, you are not giving yourself the opportunity to hear about the abusive client, to hear about maybe the challenge that’s going on in someone’s personal life that’s causing them to miss deadlines or those kinds of things, or have additional pressure and stress.

You need to know all of these things and, and the one-on-one meeting is essential, and you need to shut up during those one-on-one meetings. Yep. Because I’ve, I’ve sat in on one-on-one meetings and too often the manager is just, you know, yapping away and asking questions. Shut up, let the employee talk. Silence is good, if the employee doesn’t want to talk, just sit there quietly.

Yeah. Wait, wait for them to fill the gap. Yep. If you don’t do that, you are denying yourself the opportunity to have the best management tool available. And I firmly believe if you wanna change the behavior of employees, have those one-on-ones every single week without fail.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. You cannot. You cannot. And I actually just, I’m doing a podcast episode on how most CEOs think they’re really good at, at communications. And it’s actually, they’re not. Almost no one is. And in the Spin Sucks Community last week, I asked for some examples of leaders who are bad communicators and some of that stuff came up, canceling meetings, canceling one-to-ones and not rescheduling them.

Never talking one-on-one with your employees or your contractors. Interrupting, not listening, like all of those things came up in the conversation we had in the, in the Spin Sucks community and we’re none of us are immune from that. Right? Like, if you want, if you can look at your clients and go, wow, he’s, he or she’s a really bad communicator and it’s because this, this, this, and this.

Also take that introspectively and say, am I annoyingly doing the same things?

Chip Griffin: Right? And, the communications piece is essential too. You need to be communicating. If there is a sense of urgency, communicate that to the team member. If you are, if their performance is not up to par, communicate that, but not in the, in the way of shame on you.

You’re not doing your job. Communicate, give constructive feedback, right? If you’re not giving constructive feedback, then you can’t expect the employee to actually change their behavior, because simply saying, you’re not doing this fast enough, you’re not doing it well enough. That’s not enough. You need to be a coach and mentor to your team members and you need to work with them to improve.

I don’t have a problem when an employee makes a mistake. Screws up, Misses deadline, something like that, as long as they learn from it, right? And don’t do the exact same thing again, right? Nobody is perfect. We’re all gonna make mistakes. They need to feel comfortable owning up to their mistakes and sharing with you that something is wrong, right?

So part of this is the culture that you’re creating, and if your culture is tsk tsk, shame on you. You will not ever have that opportunity to coach and mentor.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, it’s, I think you’re right, the never canceling one-to-ones, always have like to being consistent about it, making sure that you’re listening and asking the right questions.

You know, this, this employee of mine, I kept digging and digging and I couldn’t. I couldn’t get it. And then finally I was like, are you telling me the truth? And she put her head down and said No. And I was like, finally, we’re getting somewhere. But it took a really long time for me to get there because she just was not comfortable saying, this client is being terrible because she didn’t know if it was her fault or, you know, like, and…

no, like I don’t put up with that, so I immediately, we immediately fired that client. But yeah, you, you have to be really, and you have to be patient. Because sometimes it doesn’t come out in the first or second conversation.

Chip Griffin: Right. And it, it all goes back to what you said early on in this conversation, which is who are you hiring?

Yep. The recruiting, you know, and I, I say this about a lot of things, whether it’s about client retention or employee retention, it all goes back much earlier than we think. And so just as I say, onboarding doesn’t start on the first day that someone’s an employee or a client. The behavior of the employee and their performance starts during the recruiting process.

And you should be observing how they’re handling the recruiting process. Yep. Because if they’re sloppy in their emails, if they are slow to respond to appointment requests, if they, you know, don’t respond…

Gini Dietrich: really great point.

Chip Griffin: To you out of hours, all of these thing are not going to improve once they’re an employee, right?

There are certainly cases where people overperform during the interview process and, and the recruiting process and, and then disappoint you. I have never seen a case where someone went from mediocre in the hiring process to a star.

Gini Dietrich: Never, never, never, never.

Chip Griffin: So if you are seeing someone who is not a star in the way that they are performing, the way that they’re appearing, are they showing up late to the zoom for the interview? All of these things are signals that you need to look to and how they’re handling those things are a good indication of how they’re going to be as an employee. So you need to do a better job of recruiting. You need to be willing to keep a seat empty if you don’t have the right person to put in that role, rather than just putting a warm body in the seat.

Because if you do, you’re just delaying when this problem is gonna pop up. And it just doesn’t make any sense. So do if, if you’ve got a problem, the mirror is the place to look. Yep. Totally. That totally. I know you don’t wanna hear that. You don’t wanna hear that. Not you, you know this, but listeners don’t want to hear this.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. It’s true. And I think, you know, I do recognize the fact that things have changed and that there are, you know, workplace has changed, culture has changed. Society has changed. But if you are, if you’re recruiting and hiring the right way, and you’re setting expectations and you’ve built a culture that allows for flexibility as well as urgency, then I think you’re going to be much better off than just expecting that your younger generation employees are gonna figure it out, even though they’ve only been out of college for two years.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And the last piece of blame that I’m gonna throw at the owner’s feet here, because I just, this is a trash owners show apparently now for me, which, which I’m sure will help me in generating new clients. I’m sure. Yes, it will. Anyone listening to this is gonna be like, oh, I, I want to hire Chip so he can beat up on me.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, he, well he does beat up on you.

Chip Griffin: But in a kinder gentler way.

Gini Dietrich: It is in a kind way. It is.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. Pricing. Part of the reason you’re worried that your employees don’t have a sense of urgency is because you’re asking them to do too much is because you didn’t price appropriately, so you can’t resource appropriately.

Yep, yep. And so a lot of this can be also alleviated if you’re resourcing correctly. So it’s one thing if you’ve got an employee who you know is supposed to be full-time and you know, doesn’t want to put in more than 20 hours a week, but in a lot of these cases, it’s, you’re asking ’em to go above and beyond.

Right. And, and when I dig into these things and some, ah, they’re just not willing to step up when we need it. What they’re saying is they’re not willing to stay an extra couple of hours working on a project or something like that. And a lot of times it’s not because there’s something truly urgent or an emergency, it’s because you didn’t resource correctly because you didn’t price correctly.

So you can’t afford the staffing that you need, whether that’s employees, contractors, or what have you. So, so look in the mirror, solve recruitment, have those one-on-ones and for God’s sakes, price correctly.

Gini Dietrich: Love it. Great advice, great advice.

Chip Griffin: That will end my rant and probably my business, so with that, we’ll draw this episode to a close. Before I dig my hole any deeper, 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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