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How to involve your team in annual planning for your agency and its clients

This SAGA Member Webinar is available only to individuals with active memberships. Login or join to gain access.
Webinar presented live on October 5, 2023

Just because you own a small agency doesn’t mean that you must (or even should) go it alone when it comes to strategic planning.

Whether you have 1, 10, or 100 employees, you should be taking advantage of their perspectives and expertise to help create more effective plans for your agency and its clients in the year ahead.

In this webinar, Chip Griffin reviews how you can effectively bring your team into the planning process. He talks about how to use responsible transparency with your team to provide them with the information that they need to come up with the best ideas.

Chip also looks at how you can use different formats, including in-person brainstorming, virtual collaboration, and off-site retreats to make the most out of the team you have.

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

Hello and welcome to today’s webinar. My name is Chip Griffin. I’m the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance, and I’m delighted to have you with me today. And we’ll be talking about how you can involve your team in the annual planning processes for both your agency and your clients. And I think it’s a topic that I’ve, I’ve had conversations with a lot of agency owners about of late, and it fits in nicely with the webinar that we did last month where we looked at how you can use the AIM-GET framework for planning for your own agency, as well as an upcoming webinar on doing annual planning processes for and with your clients.

And so A key part of that is understanding how your team fits into the equation, and so we’ll be zeroing in on that today. Before we do dive into all of that though, I do want to go through a few housekeeping things as I do at the start of all of these webinars. First of all, the replay will be available to SAGA Pro members.

And it will be available probably in the next day or two. So you can have access to it at any time on demand. You can use the Q&A function to ask questions throughout today’s webinar. Just use it. The Q&A button, I believe it should be at the bottom of the screen for most of you, depending upon what kind of device you’re watching on.

And I just saw that Jen posted in the chat if you are interested in signing up for the next webinar, she has included a link for that as well for your convenience, the one on planning for your clients. If you have a question and you submit it through Q&A, I will answer it at the Q&A portion of this webinar at the end.

That’s for live attendees. If you are watching this on replay, you won’t have the live Q& A, but you can email me your question at chip@smallagencygrowth.com, or you can become a SAGA Pro member and you have access to the slack channel where you can ask the question, not just of me, but of other agency leaders in order to get feedback for whatever you may be interested in learning more about, or getting feedback on an idea that you might have. If you talk about this webinar on social media, we’d encourage you to use the hashtag agency leadership to make it easy to discover. And any of the resources that I have or that I will mention today or even that webinar, those webinars that I’ve already mentioned, you can find them at smallagencygrowth.com.

So let’s dive into the agenda so you know what to expect over the next 30 to 45 minutes. I’ll be talking about why it’s important to involve your team. So on some level we kind of get that, but I want to go into some specific reasons, some of which you may not have thought of. I’m going to talk about how owners can get the most from their teams as part of this planning process, because you as an owner have a particular role to play and how you go about doing it will make a big difference in how effective the process is and what kind of side benefits you might be able to get from it.

We’ll have a talk about transparency because it’s impossible to talk about involving your team in the planning process particularly for the agency itself, but also for clients if you’re not more transparent than you may already be with them. We’ll talk about how you can use one on one sessions with team members to engage them in the planning process.

But we’ll also talk about group or team planning sessions and what some of those might look like. In particular, we’ll take a look at some of the challenges of the hybrid and virtual models that so many of you are using today, where it has changed how some of these planning processes might take place versus the way that they were done even as recently as four or five years ago.

We’ll talk about the specific ways to engage your team in the agency planning process, as well as specific ways to engage them in the client planning process. And finally, we’ll talk about how to make team collaboration and planning an ongoing habit and not just an annual process. So that’s what you should expect.

As I said, if you do have questions, feel free to use the Q&A function throughout and I will take those. during the Q&A session at the end. And without further ado, we will dive right into it. So let’s let’s start by talking about why it’s important to involve your team. Because if we’re going to agree on the fact that you ought to be doing it, we need to know why.

Because that helps drive an understanding of what the process should look like and how you can get the most from it. And so the top of the list is, is always better ideas, right? We, I mean, that’s the natural inclination to involve more people in planning as you get a variety of additional ideas into the mix.

And so obviously that is very helpful and that is something you should be looking to do. But if you involve the team in the planning process, there are additional benefits that you get and you should be thinking about and structuring in order to achieve them. For example, it can be used to strengthen your relationship with your employees.

Because you’re now treating them as, maybe not full peers, because they’re not equity owners in the business in all likelihood, but you are treating them as the talented individuals that they are, and you are respecting their viewpoints, and you’re honestly engaging them in a discussion about where the business should be headed and how to get there, where your clients should be headed and how to get there.

But it also is a process that can help strengthen the bonds between individual employees. And this is particularly important for those of you who are using a virtual or hybrid model. Because you may not have many of these opportunities where you’re coming together in a more wide ranging conversation.

And if you’re able to do it in person, and I’ll talk about why it’s important to try to do at least some of these sessions in person, it gives an opportunity, if you structure it right, for the team members to have some of those more casual interactions that will strengthen how they work together over time.

And I’ll share some specific examples of what you might think about doing when we get to that portion of today’s discussion. It also can be a way to enhance the overall performance of the agency, of the work you do for your clients, and for the team itself. And the reason for this is because the more that your team understands about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, the better they can make their day to day decisions and so I think one of the things that a planning process is useful for is getting everybody onto that same page leveling the playing field if you will. Because so often if we if we’re an individual team member let’s say you know 30 years ago when I started out as a junior account executive and and I just I’m finding out this is what we should do and I sort of say yep that’s what we should do but I never take the blinders off and take the any kind of a look at the bigger picture.

And so, I may be making decisions on a day to day basis in my role that may not really be in the best interests of the agency or our clients because I don’t know what that picture looks like and so I don’t even know that I should be flagging it for my supervisor. So by engaging your team, you’re able to enhance the performance on an ongoing basis.

and not simply put together a planning document itself. In fact, I often tell people that any kind of a planning process, whether it’s putting together a business plan, or an annual budget, or a strategic plan for the business or a client, it’s the process you go through, the conversations that you have, the thinking that goes into it that matters more so than the end document that you put on the table at the end of the day.

And finally, I would tell you that by engaging your team in the planning process, you’re going to improve your own morale as an owner in all likelihood. Because one of the things that I find with most small agency owners is they feel a bit lonely within the business. They don’t really have. A lot of opportunities to engage on the bigger picture conversations about where the business is headed.

Because if you’re a solo owner in particular, most of, you’re not spending most of your day talking with team members about this. You don’t have business partners to talk to about it. You don’t have a board that you’re talking to about it. You might talk to someone like me or another advisor who’s filling that role and being the sounding board and being able to work with you.

But most of the time you are not having those engaged conversations. And so by having these team planning sessions, you’re able to engage in that higher level thought process, not in your own mind, but rather with other really smart people because presumably you’ve hired really smart people around yourself.

So I would encourage you to do it because it helps you achieve these results, but it also makes you feel better in the end. And at the end of the day, if you are feeling better about your business, it will perform better. So now let’s talk about what you need to be thinking about as an owner in order to get the most from your teams during this process.

And I, I think that you need to remember that you are, you are really setting the tone for the whole engagement. And so my first piece of advice to you in planning is don’t talk. And I don’t mean that literally, don’t ever talk. But I kind of do. I mean, just zip it because part of the problem is that as an owner, once you have put a stake in the ground and say, and offered your opinion or perspective, it makes it much more difficult for particularly more junior employees to speak up and offer a contrary point of view.

And so one of the, and this was really tough for me to learn in my own businesses over the years, and I really had to condition myself to remember whether it was a, an annual planning process, a quarterly planning process, or even just a weekly staff meeting, that I should hold my thoughts until the end, because that’s how I made sure I was getting the most honest perspective from my team. Now, if it’s going off in the wrong direction and you know that there’s discussion about something that just is a non starter for whatever reason, by all means step up and say something. Don’t allow a session or the full meeting to go off in an entirely different direction because I told you to keep your mouth shut.

But as long as it’s a pretty productive conversation, even if you’re hearing things that maybe you don’t want to hear, that you don’t agree with, allow it to continue forward and be really judicious in the degree to which and the, the forcefulness with which you engage in that conversation.

Because you don’t want to skew the process. You don’t want to have an undue influence on it. You want to make sure that you’re collecting that information and that you really are making this as collaborative as possible. And part of that means that you have to be open to hearing criticisms of yourself or the decisions that you’ve made in the past or the direction of the business, all sorts of things.

The diversity of opinion that you will hear in a well structured, well run planning process is part of the benefit because it’s testing these things out that you may reinforce your own thinking because you hear things and you test it and you say, yep, I understand that’s a, that’s a potential problem with it, but I still think it’s the right course.

Or it can cause you to say, no, I think you’re right and we need to make a course correction or we need to change this goal or objective and go in a different route, different path. So these are the kinds of things that you need to be open to in order to be successful. And remember that your actions here do speak louder than your words.

So you can’t just say. Hey, I’m open to ideas. I want you to, it’s a very common thing for agency owners to say to their teams, Look, I want you to disagree with me. I want you to offer your honest opinion. But if every time an employee offers their honest opinion, you immediately shoot them down, or make them feel less than, or make them feel like they’re just wrong.

It’s not going to encourage that kind of behavior in the future. So, make sure that you are really being thoughtful in the way that you’re presenting things because your team views you, they, you’re up on a pedestal. And that’s an advantage in some cases, but it’s a disadvantage in others. So in this planning process, you want to bring yourself down to their level as much as possible so you really have that healthy give and take that you can have in all sorts of different planning environments.

And finally, remember that the best idea can come from anywhere. It could come from an intern on your team. And so, you should be open to that as well. And it’s one of the reasons why you want to make planning as expansive as possible within the team. And solicit these different points of view. It may be an idea from someone who isn’t even involved in the kind of work.

or the particular area that you’re talking about. Maybe it’s from a very junior employee who’s not involved in business development, but they have a great idea for how you might go about business development differently. Or maybe it’s someone who is younger and they can offer up a different perspective than you might have as someone with 20 years of experience.

And they might be able to help you to understand how you might reach a different demographic, a different target market, or be able to use some of the new tools out there that you may be less familiar with. So there’s a lot of opportunity to be had if you are really open to this kind of communication with your team.

But that does naturally bring us to the topic of transparency, and I think this is what holds back a lot of agency owners from really engaging in a thorough and open and robust planning process, particularly for the agency business itself. less so with clients, although I think we still have issues of transparency there to talk about, but it largely comes about in terms of the agency business.

And so you really need to think about being much less secretive than you are typically inclined to be. I would say that the vast majority of agency owners are more secretive with their team than they really ought to be. And, and you have to remember that your team probably knows a whole lot more about your business than you think they do.

They will tend to pick up in ways that you may not expect that what it is that a particular client is paying, for example. Maybe it’s in some document that you didn’t even realize they had a copy of and so now they see what that client is paying. And so you thought that you were, you were holding it back and yet they, they still have that information.

I would rather share that information so that they’re aware of it. Certainly anybody who is involved in managing a client on a day to day basis, they need to know what is the scope of work, what does that contract look like, what have you promised, and also what are they paying? Because the only way they can help to control costs in a reasonable way is to understand what their revenue is, what the expected spend is against that.

And how they get there. So you need to be much more open with those kinds of things. And you need to remember that when you don’t share information, employees will make it up and fill in those blanks themselves. Usually in a way that is less favorable to you. Not intentionally so. But in my experience, if I ask agency employees how much the owner is making, and I ask the agency owner how much they’re making, more often than not, the employees think the owner is making a lot more than they are.

Now that doesn’t mean that I think that you ought to run out and disclose to all of your employees how much you personally make from the business. That is not what I’m advising. What I am advising is that you share more about the overall financial performance of the business. You need to help educate your team about how the business works and walk them through the basics of the agency model.

What are the drivers of profitability? Why does profitability matter? Why is the amount that a client pays not anywhere near the amount of money that you put in your pocket? If you’ve got a client that’s paying 20,000 a month, You know, a very small percentage of that typically, I mean, in a well run agency, 20 percent of that number will go to the owners of the business.

Most employees wouldn’t realize off the top of their head that that is the case. Because they don’t see a lot of the other expenses that go into the business and they don’t understand how it works. So you need to educate them. Transparency only works when you share information but also context. And so I encourage you as part of this planning process to share that information but also the context to help them to understand how all of these things fit together.

And they can then be more partners with you. not in a literal sense. And we need to remember that employees are not owners. They’ll never act like owners. We need to stop thinking that way. What we do need to do is provide them enough information so that they can make intelligent decisions that do help the business move in the right direction because you’ve had these conversations with them.

And if they have this information, and they understand the why behind it. And I think this is, when I talk about context, a lot of it, it comes down to the why. In other words, we need to have time tracking. Help them understand why you need time tracking. The reason why a lot of agency employees hate time tracking is because they think it’s big brother.

That you’re just sort of peering over their shoulder to make sure that they’re doing enough work to justify their salaries. But good time tracking isn’t just for that. Good time tracking is also for understanding the resources that you have as a business and understanding whether or not you need to add additional resources to help that employee, or whether you’re over servicing a client and you need to do something to reduce the demands that that client is putting on that employee.

So there are a lot of benefits. And I call out time tracking because it’s one of the most common areas of objection. But when you’re thinking about the kinds of things that you do in a planning process, help them understand why are we trying to increase revenue by 10 or 20 percent. Help them to understand why maybe you’re looking for some larger clients to try to make up for the fact that you have one really large whale client now.

Provide them enough context to help them to understand why you’re taking the decisions that you are, so that they’re not just… sitting there thinking that you’re some petty dictator in the corner office saying this is how it will be. You need to help them to understand the rationale behind it and they will then be much more likely to help you row in that same direction.

I will give the cautionary note that there is such a thing as too much transparency. If your business, as many agencies are now, are perhaps having some struggles with clients who are being tighter with budgets, or you’re having some concerns about what 2024 may look like because there’s some uncertainty about end of year renewals or those kinds of things.

It’s important that you not be completely oblivious or keep your team completely oblivious to these challenges, right? Because if they don’t know anything about them, they can’t help you. And one of the things that Gini Dietrich and I have talked a lot about on our podcast is the importance of, if your agency is struggling, making sure that your employees know enough that they can actually step up to the plate and help.

And I would encourage you to go back and listen to some of the episodes where we talk about those challenges because Gini has done a great job of talking about particularly the challenges that her agency experienced about 15 years ago and how the team could have told her that they could have been more helpful if they had known some of the facts of the business at that time.

So really be thoughtful about that, but at the same time you don’t want to panic your team. You can’t tell them, geez, I don’t know if I’m going to make payroll next week or something like that. Right? You need to be to exude confidence that you are going to be able to move beyond whatever challenges you may have this month, this quarter, this year, or next year. You need to be realistic with them, however, and say, these are challenges that we need to look at. We have a whale client. We need to generate new business so that we’re not so dependent upon them. We have a problem with our margins. We’re not, you know, able to control our costs enough.

So we need to take a closer look at costs, and here’s why that matters, because that impacts our ability to grow and the cushions that we have. So make sure that you are you know, tempering, do more transparency, but temper it in such a way that as Mike McCurry would have said in the Clinton White House or did say in the Clinton White House, he was telling the truth slowly. Help them to understand what might be coming, what challenges might be on the horizon without bringing on a total panic that causes them to feel like they need to jump ship for their own safety.

So. Now let’s talk about some of the specific approaches that you can use in this planning process with your team. And I want to start with the less conventional. I think most of the time when people are thinking about strategic planning processes with their team and the agency, they think about sitting around the table and having brainstorms.

And it’s really not just about these group brainstorming sessions, it’s not about just, you know, sitting around and throwing out ideas and, you know, having the whiteboard or the flipboard where you’re just, you know, writing out all sorts of different things, it’s, it’s a whole lot more than that. And so you need to find ways to get feedback from your team in places and times that are comfortable to them.

And so part of this is finding an opportunity to engage with, depending on the size of your agency, either all of your employees on a one to one basis or key team members, maybe encourage your managers to have one on ones with key team members where instead of talking about the day to day or status reports or all the things you might be doing in your regular one on ones, instead you’re taking that opportunity to step back, take that 30,000 foot view of the business and your clients. And there are some people on your team who will be far more comfortable sharing ideas, feedback, perspective in a one on one environment than they will in a group setting where they feel like they’re being judged not just by you, but by others on the team. And so you want to encourage people to throw out ideas, even if they don’t necessarily feel like they are the, you know, the most exciting thing or the maybe the best idea.

You want to encourage as much of that as possible. And so you want to tap into all of the expertise that you have on the team because you have team members presumably who are more expert in certain areas than you are. And so you want to make sure that you’re really Using these one on one sessions to drill into the specific expertise that you know that they have.

The group settings are often an opportunity for people to, to get outside of their normal comfort zone, their normal lane. The one on ones are where you can tap into their expertise most directly because you can say to someone, if you’ve got a social media expert on your team, what do you see? Where are things headed?

What should we be specifically thinking about in this area? And really tap into the work that they’re doing on a day to day basis in order to get the richest flavor of information that you can.

These one on one sessions are also a great way to make individual team members feel appreciated and respected.

And we talked about that as being one of the benefits of doing this kind of process where you’re involving your team in planning and not just going it alone, not just doing it with your senior leadership team. But these one on ones are often a really great way to to put some extra shine on that and to really put the spotlight on those individuals who are able to help you, but maybe don’t get that same recognition on a regular basis.

Maybe they don’t get to spend a lot of time with you one on one if they’re not one of your direct reports, so take advantage of it whenever you can.

And then finally, I would suggest to you that you need to think about the timing of these one on one sessions for planning purposes. You may use them before you get together in a group setting, you may use them after, you may do some mix. I don’t think you need to talk every employee one on one before and after your group session, unless you’re really small, in which case it may make sense if you’ve only got three to five employees, maybe it makes sense to have a before and after one on one with each of them talking about planning issues.

But think about each individual and You know, how they’re most likely to react and where you think they can offer you the best value. So, for example, if you’ve got someone who is comfortable speaking up, maybe they’re a happy contrarian, as I sort of think of myself and have thought of myself in organizations.

I’ve never really had a problem in a group setting of offering an opinion that I didn’t think was popular. So, maybe with someone like me, it wouldn’t make sense to have me in on a one on one beforehand, but maybe after the group meeting makes a lot more sense because then I can work with the owner to poke holes or my boss at the time to poke holes.

So those are the kinds of things that you might think about strategically how to use them and make sure that you’re maximizing the time that you have available. And not every employee will fall into the same bucket. Some may be before and after, some may be before but not after, and vice versa. So just think about how you use that timing to get the most out of the process.

But now let’s talk about the heart of it. Those group sessions that really are what people think about when you think about team planning. And so obviously things are a lot different today than they were when I was first in the agency world 30 years ago. It is so much more common for most of you to have either entirely virtual or hybrid operations.

And so that means that you may have team members who are almost never together with you in person. And I do think that you can do strategic planning on a remote basis. I do this on a regular basis with agency owners as part of my consulting work. But I do think there is value, particularly when you have a team to come together on a periodic basis in person, even if you are in far flung places and don’t actually get together with any particular regularity.

And so I would suggest that if you’ve got an entirely virtual or a hybrid team, I would try to use your planning process as a reason to get together at least once a year. Maybe it more like on a quarterly basis would be ideal. Kind of depends on how many team members, what the expense is to bring them all in and how much sense it all makes.

But I would think on at least an annual basis, you would want to want to look at bringing everybody together in person, and that gives you an opportunity to have these planning sessions sort of in the traditional way where you’re sitting around the table with that white board and the flip board and putting all your thoughts down and sharing ideas there together.

But it also gives you an opportunity to have coffee breaks and lunches and dinners and things like that where you’re able to engage in a much more informal way with each other. And going back to the additional benefits of a planning process that I talked about earlier, That’s where a lot of those benefits come in because it’s an opportunity for team members who maybe don’t interact with each other a lot on a weekly basis through Zoom or Teams or whatever. They get together and they have these conversations and maybe they, they generate some ideas, but maybe they just strengthen a personal bond between them, which can help to address potential issues.

It can generate goodwill that helps to resolve issues going forward. Perhaps it opens a line of communication so that, you know, they’re talking on a more regular basis outside of regularly scheduled agency meetings. And so that can help to generate further ideas down the road or solve challenges or that kind of thing.

So, find ways to come together even if you are not in an in person environment. And if you are in an in person environment, think about taking your planning process off site. So, certainly you can do it in the conference room the way that many of us have done it in the past, but I think if you’re able to, to go off site somewhere, whether that’s renting a room at a hotel, or a restaurant, or using your own home, or something, Find some place to get out of the normal environment and get away from the normal day to day that you are all involved in and that will make for a much more productive, in my experience, planning session because you’re forcing people to think differently because they’re outside of that environment.

And particularly if you do have an office, it’s taking away the potential for the distractions of an office. Because my experience is when you do a planning process on site, in the agency office, then something comes up and you’re like, oh, I need to run back to my office and just do this one call, or I need to go do this one thing in my office.

These are all excuses to come away from it. And it doesn’t mean that you may not have things that pop up during your planning process, but I would encourage you to block that as much as possible. Really hold that time unless there’s a true client crisis and I mean something that really needs to be addressed right now I would avoid doing that on your during your planning windows because I think you need to have the team focused together working with each other and not having excessive distractions on the outside. That said, not all planning will be in person.

You will have to do some in all likelihood, whether it’s follow up conversations or if you’re going to, as I’ll talk about later, make this an ongoing process, have planning more on a regular basis. Some planning sessions will be by Zoom or Teams or whatever your platform of choice is. And so you can certainly do those effectively there.

I think in those cases you may need to look at perhaps regulate the number of participants in it. So, you know, if you’re an agency of five people, you can certainly do it all together in a virtual environment. But I would suggest to you that sometime, somewhere around the 10 person mark is where doing planning sessions by Zoom or Teams or other video conference starts to break down a little bit.

And so I would suggest to you that if you really want to have good engagement, from a process that is on on video instead of in person. You want to start to figure out how you might break it up into different pieces. And so maybe you do it by, you know, with some different team involvement. So let’s say you’re at 20 people.

Maybe you find a way to break it up into three different groups of seven. Obviously not making up, not picking specific numbers here. That was just for an example. You know, but try to find ways that are logical to, to break the team up and get information. At some point, you may need to bring together a full team of, of 20 or 30 people together on video.

But that’s going to be much less of a give and take in my experience at that point. And it’s going to be more of a an overall sort of a town hall style forum where you’re presenting something or other leadership team members are presenting something and perhaps you’re getting feedback more after the fact than during the session.

So think about those and think about how you can structure those virtual sessions so that they work for you and help you to accomplish what you’re actually trying to get in the session. And that’s an important part of the group conversations. You need to have good agendas. You need to have a clear idea of what you’re trying to accomplish out of them because if you simply say, you know, we’re going to spend four hours on annual planning and you walk in and there’s no agenda, there’s no plan, then you’re going to be in all likelihood wasting four hours of time other than the personal relationships that you might build out of it because there’s, you need to have some way of guiding it.

And so this is the kind of thing where you might want to think about having some sort of an outside facilitator help you to build and run an agenda. This can also be a way that you can have a situation where it allows you as the owner to step back a little bit. Going back to my point earlier about listening more than you’re talking.

A facilitator can often help you in that environment. So if you feel like you have a hard time holding back or you feel like you’re the kind of person who may be so full of ideas that it’s hard for you to be the one keeping the meeting on track. A facilitator of some sort can help you, whether that’s a consultant, a friend, a colleague who helps you, partners with you on other stuff, there’s all sorts of different ways that you can do it if you’re in a partnership.

Often times it’s one member of the partnership is better at guiding those meetings than others, and so that might be something to look at there. And then finally, you want to have a focused process, but you don’t want it to be so intense that it becomes grueling and painful for the team. So keep it headed in the right direction, but allow it to be lighthearted as needed and allow it to be a free flowing conversation to the extent that you can while still keeping it headed in a productive direction.

Okay, so let’s talk about how we use team planning, particularly in the agency business context. And so in the last webinar that I did, I had a very detailed discussion of how you should be thinking about an annual plan for your agency. And so I would encourage you to go watch that video in the, the archive if you were not able to attend that one live or you haven’t already watched it.

So I’m not going to go into tremendous amount of detail about the overall process for agency planning, but here are the specific elements that you want to think about as far as engaging your team in that process. I think the most important thing is to start with taking a look at what you’ve learned from the past year.

If you don’t look at the lessons that you’ve learned, then you are potentially doomed to repeat them, or you’re just making decisions in an oblivious fashion. So I encourage you to really walk through. You know, what have we done over the last 12 months? What’s worked? What hasn’t? What do we want to do more of?

What do we want to do less of? And then from there, you can start talking about, okay, what direction do we want to be headed in? And I know on the slide here, I used the word goals, and I, I, I do tend to use the word goals a lot, but I think we need to be careful about how we use the word goal. Because I think as soon as, as people these days hear, goal, they tend to think more in quantitative terms.

They think about, you know, I get asked a lot, what should I have for KPIs for the agency and for individual employees? And I, this is one of those things where I will tell you that in my experience, you’re better off setting a compass direction for the business and for the individual team members and departments than you are in putting together specific GPS coordinates about where you want to be at specific dates and times.

And the reason for that is simple. So many things, particularly in a small agency, come up and there are both challenges and opportunities. And if you are too rigid in how you set goals, you may get those actual goals. But you may also then miss out on opportunities or miss out on the ability to head off challenges before they become bigger challenges.

So, set that directionality. Get an agreement from the team. Make sure that you are working together so that everybody understands. Here’s where the agency is headed. This is what the agency we think is going to look like 12 months from now. What we’d like it to look like in terms of what kinds of clients are we pursuing this year.

Maybe it’s the same as what we’ve always done. Maybe there’s some evolution. What’s the evolution in the service offerings that we have or pricing? You know, all of those things are important. And so helping the team understand the directionality. of the business itself. You want to make sure everybody’s on the same page.

And then you start breaking that down to more granular levels, starting with whatever teams you have within the business. That could be client teams, it could be service offering teams. It really depends on, you know, again, whether you’re 5, 10, 20 employees. It’s going to be a little bit different based on what kind of small agency you are.

But it gives you an opportunity to start breaking down the component parts of that directionality. So everybody understands what their team’s role is within it. And then of course breaking that down to understand what your individual role is in it. And what do you need to be doing in order to help get the business headed in the direction that everybody has agreed on as part of this strategic planning process.

And I think if you, if you do that using, as I say, the compass direction instead of the GPS coordinates, it really allows you to sit there and three months from now, you know, Take a look at what’s actually happening and say, okay, you know, we’ve, we’ve added clients faster than we thought. That gives us an opportunity to accelerate where we’re going to be.

And so we’ll be at a GPS coordinate far beyond what we thought we would be at. Alternatively, perhaps you lose a significant client and so that causes you to have to make some adjustments, but maybe good adjustments. Maybe that’s, it’s a significant revenue client, but not a profitable one. And so maybe there’s a silver lining to that sort of thing.

And you want to make sure that you’re finding ways to take advantage of this. And it’s one of the reasons why later I’ll talk about the importance of planning being not just in the annual engagement, but also something that you do as a habit on an ongoing basis. The other place that we’re talking about obviously is on the client side of things.

How do you put together annual plans for them? And I’ve got a webinar, as I mentioned, coming up that will talk more, in a more detailed fashion about how to put together annual plans for and with your clients. So I’m not going to go into huge detail again here on that, but I do want to talk about how you engage your overall team.

In the client planning process. So in that webinar, we’ll talk more about the specifics within individual clients. Here it’s how we’re bringing the whole agency together to help. And so part of that is that I think you should be having your individual client team leads within the agency sharing information about what they’ve done for a client over the course of the last year.

Same kind of exercise at the agency level but just, you know, more granular and focused on the individual client. What worked? What hasn’t? What would you do differently? But it’s also an opportunity for the other client teams or others in the business to hear about different things and it may give them ideas for things they could do with the work that they’re doing, the clients that they’re on, the projects that they’re on.

Or it may provide an opportunity for them to make suggestions and say, Oh, I hear that, you know, you’re saying that you were having challenges in getting coverage from these kinds of outlets. Maybe, you know, here’s something that we tried on a different account that might be something for you to think about for next year’s plan for the client that you’re leading.

So sharing this information is often a good way for everyone to learn from each other and cross pollinate ideas in ways that may not happen on a regular basis because in any agency, even if you’re only at three or four employees, you tend to have everybody’s kind of in their own silo, whether it’s just the specific kind of work they’re doing or the clients that they’re working on or whatever, and they don’t have as much exposure to the rest of the business and the other ideas that the team may have.

So take advantage of this annual planning process in particular to shine a spotlight on that. And it allows everybody to really contribute across different clients and kinds of work. And I think if we’re learning from each other, then it also helps us to think more carefully about how we’re structuring things within the client work for taking the business in the direction we want to. So I encourage you to do your agency planning before your client planning process. And the reason why I encourage you to do the agency planning first is because you want to know where the business is headed. And so if you’re making a strategic decision that you want to lean into a certain kind of service offering or pull back from another kind of service offering.

Those are important things to consider as you’re putting together annual plans for clients because you want to make sure it’s consistent. If you say, I want to pull back on I don’t know, on events and I want to lean into social media then you don’t want to be putting together a plan for a client that does a lot more events than you’ve done in the past and a lot less social media. You know, that, that doesn’t make a lot of sense because then you’re not having that consistency between what you’re offering clients and what you want to be doing as a business. So make sure that you have this agency planning in mind as you’re putting together the client work.

If you’re saying part of our goal as an agency is to increase our margins, well that’s something that you need to be thinking about as you’re doing your client planning as well. How can you do things that will help to either generate new better revenue from the the client, how can you perhaps use the annual planning process to weed out some things that are not producing the kinds of results that clients need but are potentially taking up a fair amount of your time.

We’ll talk in the client planning session about how that’s actually a way that you can work in a price increase effectively for a client without actually changing the amount of the invoice, because a price increase can come because you get paid the same amount, but by just doing less work for that.

So those are the kinds of things that you want to be thinking about. And brainstorming about in these planning sessions that you’re doing with your team so that you can get ideas. And if you talk about a client where you say, hey, you know, we’re, we’re spending too much time on this, maybe collectively as a team, you have some ideas for how you can shave off some of the amount of time it takes to do things or to improve the results that you are getting for an individual client.

And I would encourage you as you’re going through this process to really, to not put a lot of restrictions on the discussion that’s taking place with your team. One of the things that I often see is that in a planning process, client team leads will behave much like owners do when it comes to the annual planning process.

And client team leads will be like, well, the client would never… You know, they’ll never think about that or they’d never be interested that they’ve, they’ve said they’re not going to spend another penny so we shouldn’t even talk about new ideas. I would encourage you to, to not let things like budget and client preferences and stuff get in the way of the initial stages of the planning process.

Because if you and your team have a great idea, I would sit down and try to think about, is there a way to make this mesh up with whatever the client’s budget or perspective is? Because your role as an agent or as an agency is to produce the best results that you can for the client. And so you need to be in a position where you and your team are applying the best thinking that you have, and it’s unconstrained.

And if they then want to say, no, we’re not interested in that, we don’t want to spend the extra money, no, we don’t like that particular idea because we don’t believe in that kind of thing, that’s fine. But part of your job is to make sure that you are out there and helping to educate the client about what you think is the best path forward to help them achieve the results that they’ve told you that they are looking for.

And in particular, I want to make sure that at no point in this process you allow anybody to simply say, well, this is the way we’ve always done it. I think it’s, this is the answer that I hate hearing the most from anybody. I’ve hated hearing it from employees. I hated it when I would come into a new organization and take over teams.

And I would ask, why do we do it this way? Because it’s the way we’ve always done it. And nowadays, I hate it when I have an agency owner or someone within the agency tell me that they’re doing something because that’s the way we’ve always done it. Make sure you’re using this planning process as an opportunity to take a critical look at everything.

Don’t just accept that because it’s the way you’ve done business for five or ten years that it’s still the best way to do it. And encourage your team to, and I hate this term, Think outside the box, because that is how you will start to come up with some of the better ideas and really take advantage of the fact that you’re not doing this in isolation.

You’re not just doing this sitting at your own computer on a laptop in a dark room and you’re coming up with your own plan. You’re actually engaging the team. Take advantage of that to find these new ideas. Even if they’re ones that ultimately get rejected by a client, they are still the kinds of things that will help you, whether that’s putting together better plans for other clients, or prospects, or those kinds of things.

So really, have as free and open a discussion as you possibly can. And then finally, once you’ve come up with the ideas, you then do have to make a reasonable decision about how hard you will push some of these ideas with clients. How far you will push in order to right size an engagement so that it is profitable in the way that you want it.

Or that it’s actually producing results that you know make a difference versus ones that you’re simply ticking a box to keep the client happy. You do have to make rational decisions at the end of the day, at the end of the planning process, how you’re going to use the information that you’ve gathered, but don’t hold back during the process itself because then you will likely find that you have tucked away potentially useful ideas that you could take advantage of to make your agency better and to make the work that you’re doing for clients better.

So the final point here before we move into the Q& A session for those of you who are attending live is to talk about making collaboration a habit. It really needs to be that you’re not just bringing the team in on an annual basis and saying, you know, I need your help. We’re going to put together these plans for the agency, for the clients, and I want your feedback.

I want your ideas. This really needs to be something that you’re doing on an ongoing basis. And, and some of this is by having structured processes throughout the year to review and update plans and, and have this kind of collaboration and engagement on the direction of the business and the direction of clients, but part of it is just in the general tone that you’re setting and so this is why I think I’m going to make another plug for what I think is one of the most valuable tools that any agency has.

That’s the Weekly one on one between every manager including the owner and all of their direct reports. It’s why no manager should have more than five direct reports if you can’t count them on one hand it’s too many. Because if you, if you do that, then you can’t have these weekly one on ones without fail, have those weekly one on ones.

That’s an opportunity to continue the strategic planning process. Yes, most of it’s going to be more on the tactical and the day to day and, and the grind, but some of it inevitably, if you’re doing this consistently. will become more strategic, but find ways throughout the year to have more team collaboration.

Make sure that you’re providing quarterly updates to your team on the performance of the business and how you’re making progress against the direction that you all set in the annual planning process. And this is where transparency comes in. Figure out how you can get enough transparency into this process so that they understand where you’re going.

Maybe it means that you talk about revenue and expenses in percentage terms, up or down, those kinds of things. Maybe you do share the top line revenue and expense numbers. Maybe you, you know, you put them in general terms so that people understand the the financial direction of the business.

Certainly you should be talking about what you’ve had for client wins and what you have in your pipeline. Make sure you’re sharing this and getting feedback and getting people to give you ideas and figure out how they can help move it forward. You know, a business development shouldn’t be something that you shoulder entirely on your own as an owner.

Part of that is making sure that you’re sharing. These are the kinds of clients we’re looking for. This is our definition of an ideal client. Who do you know that we should be pursuing? Who have you heard might be interested? Are you talking to your own networks and maybe you’re not actually pushing the new business forward as a junior employee, but you’re at least saying, Hey, you know, have we thought about talking to someone at so and so because that may then give you as the owner an idea.

Oh yeah, of course I know somebody over there. I should give them a call. And so those are the kinds of things that can help you on an ongoing basis, both strategic, strategically and tactically. So have these conversations, have those quarterly updates at a minimum, provide the context to your team, have people come together periodically, to share additional ideas as you’re moving forward.

If there’s some big event during the course of the year you know, you’ve had explosive growth or you’ve had some setbacks, that may be an opportunity or a requirement to have an additional supplemental planning session. You know, if you’re, if you’re having explosive growth in particular, that’s usually a time to pull together the existing team and say, Hey, how do we move forward from here?

And it’s difficult because when you’re having a lot of growth, you often start to panic and just start running around saying, how do we get more resources and you throw stuff in, but it’s not really with a plan. And so you want to make sure that you’re taking advantage of your team to help guide you in those processes, even if it means taking some valuable time out from trying to just drink through the fire hose of business that maybe you have suddenly found yourself in.

If your business is down, of course that’s a time to bring the team together and try to figure out how can we all collaborate and move us, you know, get us out of the hole that we’re in, whether that’s in terms of our expenses are too high, our revenue is down, whatever kind of challenge there might be.

Bring everybody together. Use your collective minds to come up with a solution rather than just relying on yourself as the owner to come up with a solution. You also want to make sure that you’re having learning opportunities throughout the year. So that might mean those sessions I talked about where you have client leads present about the work that they’re doing for clients.

Maybe you do that on a regular basis. Maybe once a month you have a client lead present at a team meeting to the rest of the team. What they’re doing, what’s been going on, what’s on the calendar ahead. And that’s that opportunity to have some of that collaboration. Maybe you do some lunch and learns throughout the year, even if you’re virtual, maybe everybody gets together for quote unquote lunch over zoom and someone presents on a topic or maybe you have a roundtable conversation about AI or you know, the future of Twitter/X and what it means for your clients.

There’s a lot of things that you can do to have this kind of collaboration be an ongoing thing rather than simply a one off annual process. You also want to think about how you’re, you’re working to consistently gather feedback. And so particularly as you grow, you want to make sure that while you’re not doing one on ones with every team member every week, sprinkle them in throughout the course of the year so that you do have an opportunity to engage with people that you might not on a regular basis, because that’s where you will get both strategic and tactical feedback, as well as feedback about the business itself that may be useful to you. Just little things like, you know it may be intelligence about, maybe they, they hear about an employee who’s unhappy, or maybe they provide feedback about a manager who could perhaps use a little bit of mentorship, for you to help them grow and, and manage more effectively.

All of these things can happen if you’re being proactive, if you’re finding ways to engage and listen to the feedback. from your team. And so bring it all together. Have this is a regular process. Find ways to build in real conversation amongst the team on an ongoing basis, and you will see much better results from the business.

And I realize that I’ve gone very, very long here on the presentation side of things. I will not do a formal wrap up as I usually do because I do want to make sure that I’m leaving time for as many questions as we can squeeze in here before we run out of the hour ahead. So if you have questions, feel free to submit them in the Q&A function if you’re attending live.

If you are watching this on replay, this is where the replay will conclude, but you can send me an email at chip@smallagencygrowth.com and I’d be happy to try to answer it or of course, as I mentioned, you can become a SAGA Pro member and ask questions in the slack community and get feedback, not just for me, but other owners.

So for those of you watching on replay, thank you for watching. For those of you live, we’ll jump into Q and a in just a moment.

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