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Do you spend enough time listening as an agency leader?

Updated April 30, 2022

Most of us who end up in leadership positions can do a pretty good job of talking, but that’s not the most important skill we need to exploit to be effective.

Why it matters: Agency leaders often feel like they have more to do than time in the day, so they want to cut directly to the point when meeting with team members. With prospective clients, we often get so excited about our ideas, that we don’t pause to catch our breath. That means we don’t get the information we need to make better decisions about every aspect of our business.

Listening helps with business development

I have been part of many agency pitches where we had the opportunity to talk with a prospect that we were really excited about winning. We developed some great, creative ideas and put together a compelling PowerPoint deck. Sometimes we invested real money in research and preparation. In some cases, we even prepared custom videos (before video was even commonplace).

Our team would show up in the prospect’s conference room and jump in to our presentation. We would excitedly talk about our credentials and experience doing similar work for other clients. Then we would parade them through our ideas and describe how we would execute them.

By the end of our presentation, the clock would show that we were running up against the maximum time allotted for the meeting. We would field a few questions, reiterate our desire for the business, and agree to follow-up soon.

While we certainly won our fair share of business from these types of presentations at all of the agencies I have been involved with (including my own), too often we walked away empty-handed.

Of course, there is no single reason that we lost the business. But as I reflect back upon these meetings over the past couple of decades, there is a common thread: we talked to the prospective client rather than having a conversation with them.

Simply put: we didn’t listen enough.

When I work with agency owners today to help them grow the business that they want to own, I encourage them to start conversations with prospects with a direct question. It’s often the one that I asked them when we had our own first call: what caused you to ask for this meeting?

If the prospect answers with something simple and vague like “we need better PR” or “we want a new website” then follow up to get them talking more. You want to listen and hear what the actual triggering event or thought was.

We need to remember that agencies aren’t really in the business of selling, we are in the business of match-making to find ideal clients that we can deliver outstanding results for while contributing effectively to our own bottom line.

If you walk out of a conversation with a prospect and did more than half of the talking, you didn’t spend enough time listening to gather the information that you need to determine if they truly are a good fit.

Listening helps with managing your team

Agency managers should be having weekly 1:1 meetings with all of their direct reports, without exception. These conversations provide a chance for you to stay informed, provide feedback, and discover issues and opportunities.

But to be truly effective, you need to let the employee drive the 1:1 agenda. They need to be doing the talking, and you need to be doing the listening.

I recognize that this can be difficult because you and your team are probably busier than ever. You just want to get through the discussion as efficiently as possible so that you both can move on to “more important” things like getting client work done.

That would be a mistake. The time you spend listening will help you spot an employee who may be thinking about leaving — at a point when there is still something you can actually do to make the situation better.

It may give you the data points that you need to recognize a potential problem with a client that could be avoided before it threatens the relationship. It might even provide you with the perspective that you need to identify an opportunity to expand the services that you provide by meeting a need that your team member uncovered for you.

Listening to your team in 1:1 meetings and all of the other points of engagement that you have with them will also assist you in spotting trends — in your agency’s culture, in your client work, and in the industries that you serve.

Listening helps with your growth as a leader

Many agency owners neglect themselves when it comes to focusing on professional development. It is easy to get caught up in the day-to-day issues of running a business, managing a team, and obtaining and retaining clients.

Yet you need to recognize the importance of continuing to grow yourself. That means you need to avail yourself of opportunities to listen to outside sources of thinking and information beyond the meetings that are actually required to keep the trains running on time.

How you do this very much depends upon your own personal learning style and interests. Do what you enjoy doing to learn and you will do more of that.

It could be reading articles or books. It might be listening to podcasts. Or maybe you enjoy going down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos on professional topics.

Whatever it is, you should be looking to expand your knowledge of the industries you serve, the services you provide, and business in general.

Beyond that, you should take some time to benefit from serendipity. One of the biggest challenges I think we face with the demise of print publications is that we are less likely to come across an interesting headline in an area we wouldn’t naturally explore. Flipping through a magazine or newspaper forced you to read headlines and then decide to read or skip.

Today, algorithms tailor the headlines that we see to match our interests — or more accurately, to match our past behavior. We need to interrupt those patterns by going out of our way to read and listen to content that we might not otherwise find.

That might be by browsing websites we don’t usually visit or clicking on section tabs of news outlets that we don’t regularly visit.

The more we listen to new ideas, the more we will figure out how to adapt them and take advantage of them to grow our own businesses to become what we want them to be.


The good news is that by reading this article you have already demonstrated an interest in listening and learning.

Now ask yourself if there are things that you could do or behavior that you could change in order to benefit more from listening in the work that you do every day.

Chip Griffin

Chip Griffin

Chip is the Founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance and a longtime agency leader and entrepreneur. He helps PR and marketing agency owners build businesses they want to own.

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