Part 2: 10 Steps to Transform Your Agency

In the first installment of this two-part series, I shared IMPACT’s journey, and what it took for us to get to where we are today. I also got real with you about some of the mistakes I made along the way and the important lessons I learned from them. As a team, we learned to put people first, invest in values and culture, and to never, ever give up. That’s our story—now, let’s focus on yours.

1. Get your agency aligned on where you’re going.

When a team isn’t aligned, morale suffers and productivity plummets. For us, alignment meant taking an all hands on deck approach: the entire team worked together to define our vision and purpose—and what that would look like in our day-to-day operations. It also meant flattening the organization so that no team member was more than one level away from me. Restructuring the company helped us get aligned, and we injected this approach into every aspect of the business, from hiring to client relationships. Had we not gotten aligned, things would’ve gotten way worse and fast.

2. Build a strong leadership team.

Having a well-defined, trustworthy leadership team is key for growth. When things got bad for us, I decided to rebuild ours. I turned to key leaders in the company who had been with us for several years; people who were loyal and high-performing through our ups and downs. I promoted those individuals and organized it so that everyone else in the company rolled into those people.

Today, each member of the leadership team has functional roles. We have a healthy team, we meet regularly, and I exercise full transparency with them. The team can be candid with me: their opinions matter, I know their goals, and we don’t sugarcoat anything. I look to them when I make decisions, and because of that, our leadership team is built on strong, trusting relationships.

3. Listen to your people and take action.

Right when IMPACT was in the eye of the storm, I had a 360 Degree Feedback done for myself. For those that don’t know, it’s a system where you receive anonymous or confidential feedback from a variety of employees. I thought that my team would say much better things than they did—some shared comments that really hurt. There were people who saw me completely differently than I wanted. But it was eye-opening. I got past the sting and realized the disconnect. You have to listen to your people—had I assumed what they would say or chosen to ignore them, I would’ve missed the opportunity to improve.

Now, we survey the entire team on a quarterly basis and ask the tough questions. We articulate back what they’ve told us and we clearly address their concerns with action steps. We let them know what we’re doing to address concerns, what we can’t do, and why. Listen to your team and be as transparent as possible.

4. Define your culture.

Culture matters. You need to define your values: what your company stands for. You need to define your purpose: why you exist in the first place. And you need to define your vision: or the way you see the world being better for the work your company is doing.

It’s easy to skip over the step of defining your culture, prioritizing profit over people. Think again: we learned that culture has to come first. When you choose to invest in company culture with your team, you’re also investing in sales, profit, and employee happiness. At IMPACT, our values shape our culture and every employee has to be on board in order for us to truly succeed.

5. Live your core values.

There is a monumental difference between naming your core values and actually living them. A year ago, we thought we had checked the box on company values. We quickly learned that we had to work together to determine what those values meant to us in practice. Core values are essentially meaningless until you’re living them—and learning to live them is transformative.

Today, we have systems in place to celebrate employees for their commitment to our core values. Equally, we have a process to evaluate employees for their alignment with our vision, and a 30-day program to help team members focus on core values. When a team learns to operate as a collective unit aligned to a greater cause, they soar.

6. Don’t hold on to ‘B’ players for too long.

Trust me, I know—this is a tough one. Jim Collins said it best: Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. I learned that when you’re the one driving the bus, there are sometimes blind spots. But as leaders, we have to fight for the situation that’s best for everyone. I learned that when we went from 36 team members to just 23. Letting go of team members is hard, and it took me awhile to get it right.

Here’s what worked for us: when a team member needed to be let go, we helped them as they transitioned out. We had them stay for a set period of time, and we helped them find a new position. We worked with them to get their LinkedIn and resume in great shape, we provided recommendations, and more often than not, terminated employees thanked and hugged us on their way out. In turn, those team members we kept on board were given salary increases and more responsibility, and they’re now top performers in the company.

7. People can always do more.

It’s all about the hustle. I’m not talking about overworking your employees or letting people get burned out—in fact, it’s the opposite. From the leadership team down, we learned to get creative about how we do our work. Sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up, and learn how to maximize each team member’s time for efficiency. When someone really wants to grow, they have to do more than they already are, no matter what. The most valuable players will always figure out how to do more with the time they have and make themselves indispensable. Those are the people you want on your team, and that’s the kind of player you want to encourage your employees to become.

8. No room for bad managers.

I learned this lesson the hard way. To begin with, we had too many people in one department. Then, we took the top performer of that group, one of IMPACT’s most loyal employees, and promoted them before they were ready for it. Do you know what happens when you have even one inexperienced manager in place? Everyone under that manager becomes frustrated. Then come the quality issues, with employees underperforming because they’re undervalued and mismanaged. Unsurprisingly, the team working under this manager began to think poorly of me, since I was the one who had put that person in place. Our entire team was malfunctioning all because of one manager who should not have been in that seat. Finally, we were able to move that individual back to their previous role where they were performing and put a stronger manager in their place. Almost immediately, all of those issues went away. Never underestimate the power—for better or worse—of your managers.

9. Don’t delegate hiring.

It’s true: I used to delegate my hiring. I handed the task off to team members who had no experience interviewing and hiring people, and as a result, they often hired people off their gut or personal preferences. They asked fluffy questions—things like favorite sports teams and taste in music. As a result, we had the wrong hires on our team. We also lacked an onboarding process and didn’t prioritize alignment with our company values and vision when bringing people on. As a result, people started leaving. People underperformed. People even betrayed us.

Today, we’ve completely changed our hiring process. I revised our recruitment philosophy and added an intensive onboarding process. It’s not perfect, but it’s way better than before. We ask a lot of our applicants, but it brings us top talent who choose to stick with us. I’m actively involved in each candidate’s interview, and they spend the entire day with the team, allowing both parties to get to know one another. On average, we receive 35-150 applicants per position, we do a phone interview with around 30, and only about 10 get in the door for an in-person interview. Yes, it’s a labor-intensive process, but the payoff is a strong, aligned team that succeeds.

10. Enjoy the ride.

This is the lesson that kept me going when times got tough. No matter how bad things were, I never lost an attitude of gratitude. As stressful as it can sometimes be, it’s a privilege to even be able to do what we do. As leaders, we have to take the perspective that there are no bad days. Business is a game we get to play, and learning to take the bad with the good is all in a day’s work. The goal should always be to get better, move past the losses, and go after your next win. Hold on to your confidence in yourself, your team, and the company that you’ve built— and enjoy this wild ride.

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Author: Bob Ruffolo

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