Chip and Gini discuss the importance of being as transparent as possible with your agency team members, sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly when necessary.
Too often communicators focus so much on their clients and the external world and fail to invest properly in internal communications. Yet some of the greatest business gains will be achieved by bringing your employees into the conversation.
A well-informed group of talent can often spot things that you might miss or offer innovative suggestions. On the flip side, if you keep your team in the dark, they will make assumptions and guess about what’s really going on — and often be very wrong about it.
In this episode, Chip and Gini provide practical examples and suggestions for improving your agency’s own internal communications efforts.
Of course, Chip mentions one of his favorite techniques — Management by Walking Around — and Gini points out that this can even be done in virtual agencies (something that they discussed in more detail on a previous episode).
- Chip: “Agency owners and executives really need to be thinking about how and what and in what manner they’re communicating with their own teams about the agency business itself.”
- Gini, on learning from personal experience: “But since then … I’ve been far more transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly, because you find that people do want to rally around and help you find solutions. And you don’t have to take that all on yourself.”
- Chip, on owners using good judgment: “You always have to figure out exactly how transparent to be because there’s a fine line between sharing enough that people can help you solve the problem and sharing so much that you create a sense of panic.”
- Gini, on how one-on-one meetings benefit in many ways: “It definitely helps with culture, it helps with retention, it helps with loyalty, it helps with all those things. So that when somebody is approached for a new position, they aren’t interested, because they really love where they are, and they love that they have access to you.”
CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.
GINI: And I’m Gini Dietrich.
CHIP: And we’re here today to talk about internal communications.
CHIP: Not the internal communications of our clients, but the internal communications at our own agencies. It’s something that I think gets overlooked. We’ve mentioned that before in previous episodes, but agency owners and executives really need to be thinking about how and what and in what manner they’re communicating with their own teams about the agency business itself.
GINI: Yeah, it’s interesting, it’s a good topic for right now, because our team has grown. It’s tripled this year. Wow. And yeah, so when you think about, you know, the process that we had in place in January, for internal communication, and I had direct contact with pretty much every member of the team at that point. And now I don’t I just have direct contact with my direct reports, and how the information is funneled through them. It’s been, I would say, challenging. And trying to figure out the right process, but also trying to figure out how to get the information to everyone, how do I say this correctly, because, you know, we, you know, when you’re a kid, you played the telephone game where you whispered something in somebody’s ear, and then it got passed around. And by the time it got back to you, it wasn’t, either it was completely different, or, you know, had been modified. And so thinking about how to get information to everybody that they need to have on a daily basis that – you know, is outside of your more traditional company wide meetings is a real challenge.
CHIP: Right. And I think you’ve made a great point that it’s something that needs to evolve as your agency grows and changes, because what worked when you were five people won’t work when you’re 10, or 15, or 20. Right, right and really won’t work when you’re 50 or 100. So you need to make sure that this isn’t a one size fits all approach, you said it and then forget it, it really does need to adapt and change as your business does.
GINI: Yes, and it’s something that you may not have the expertise to do. And so there may come a point where you have to bring in some help to do it. And I mean, truthfully, that’s why internal input and employee communicators exist, because there is a certain expertise to it.
CHIP: Absolutely. And, you know, obviously, if you’re, if you’re, you know, five or 10 people, that’s you probably not going to turn outside just yet. But, sure, but it’s something that you need to be thinking about. And, frankly, even in a small agency, there can be communications issues, because a lot of times my experience is, agency owners have something in their head – a vision, an idea for the business, those things, but they may not be fully sharing it. And there are a lot of reasons why they don’t fully share it – one may be, hey, we’re too busy, just, you know, or, hey, it’s not relevant to that person’s job, I don’t need to share it with them. And in some cases, it’s – I don’t want to say paranoia, but there is I think amongst some agency owners, there is a reluctance to be true transparent with employees, even senior leadership, and that often causes a breakdown in communications and, frankly, impacts performance.
GINI: Yeah, I, you know, I, I will admit that that was a really hard lesson I had to learn during the – when the economy crashed. And I had to let go, I had to lay off half of my team. When that happened, I’ve had a couple of people come up to me and say, you know, had you told us, we would have helped you through this. And I really believed at that point that I needed to – I was the owner, I was the CEO, I was the founder, I had to take that all on myself. And I didn’t want to stress people out or ask them not to take a paycheck or, you know, like all these options that they later said, we would have done that for you. And it was a really, it was a really hard lesson to learn. But since then, because of that I’ve been far more transparent about the good, the bad and the ugly, because you find that people do want to rally around and help you find solutions. And you don’t have to take that all on yourself.
CHIP: Right. And yeah, it is, that’s a great point that it as the owner, you don’t have to be the sole source or the sole person to shoulder the burden. There is – you have a team for a reason. It’s not just to serve clients, it’s really to help you build the business. And if you let them in, and if you share more about, you know, what your vision is, what your opportunities are, what your challenges are, they can often come up with ideas or solutions that even build upon what you thought was possible.
GINI: Yeah. And they do. They find stuff, they throw things out that you wouldn’t consider like, honestly, and truly, I would never, ever, ever ask somebody to go without a paycheck. And some people have said, I would I would absolutely do that. Absolutely do that just to help us get over the hump. And so it’s it, it’s pretty interesting to think about it from that perspective, as well. Like you have people who are truly invested in the growth and success of your agency and are willing to take on some of the burden.
CHIP: And it – Look, this is a this is a challenge. And you always have to figure out exactly how transparent to be because there’s – sure- there’s a fine line between sharing enough that people can help you solve the problem and sharing so much that you create a sense of panic. Because for every employee who is willing to forgo a paycheck and work with you, maybe you have another who will jump ship prematurely out of fear. So right, you know, there are there are trade offs anytime you’re communicating. But I think in general, I would say most agency owners could do with being more transparent than they are. Not just you know, financial things are the things that typically come to mind, talking about, you know, at least high level profit and loss information, go back to our p&l episode, if you want to understand the basics of that. But, you know, communicating things like that, that’s one step. But it’s also it really is sharing, you know, who are your ideal clients? What is it that you’re trying to achieve with the business, helping people to understand that because you really need everybody singing from the same song sheet, just as they are just as you would work with your clients to make sure that they’re on message, you need to make work with your own team to make sure that they’re on message as well, because they have plenty of contacts, they know people who are potential clients or, you know, know people who know someone who’s a potential client, you want to make sure that they are able to talk about what the agency’s strengths are, and identify, you know, what real opportunities exist out there. And they can only do that if you’re…
GINI: Well, and you also may think you’re doing a good job of communicating that. And it’s always interesting, actually, one of the things I do when we interview new employees, is I say, or candidates for new jobs here is I’ll ask the candidate, What have you heard about our vision? What have you heard about what we stand for? What have you heard in terms of our values? And that always tells me, you know, if they can give me a concrete answer, and it is what it is, then that tells me that I’m doing my job correctly. But in the past, there have been convoluted answers where, you know, they get the correct answer from someone in one interview, and then something completely different in another interview. And so that tells me I’m not doing my job correctly in communicating all those things internally.
CHIP: Right, that’s a game I like to play with sales reps too, when they call up and say, oh, I’ve heard so much about your business. And I think we’d be a great fit, then I start asking them questions about my business, and you realize that they have not a clue. None whatsoever. It’s sort of like, you know, we get we get a fair number of people who will pitch I’d like to be a guest on this podcast. Well, first of all, if you listen to this podcast, you would know we don’t have guests. So let’s, let’s start there. Yeah. But even if you even if you did, the guests that you’re pitching has not a whit to do with running an agency. So why would we anyway? But you know, but yes, that is that is a good exercise with job seekers, it can be something useful to do with your own team as well, you obviously want to be careful that you’re not, they’re not feeling like they’re being put on the spot and tested. It is one of the things that that I get to do as an agency consultant now. So so the agency owner doesn’t have to do it – I just ask their team, you know, not kind of Mr. Dummy, you know, so tell me, you know, who are your best clients? What, you know, what do you think the differentiators are. And you can start to see, you know, how well an organization is doing as far as not just communicating but having it stick because it is one thing, as you say, to sort of throw it out there and feel like you’re sharing that information, but is it being absorbed, is it being taken on internally by everbody?
GINI: You know, a really good example of that is I added to my leadership team about almost two years ago. And one of the first things I had him do during an all company meeting was ask what our vision was, and I didn’t, I didn’t participate in the conversation, I just listened. And it was, it was both terrifying and fascinating to hear what it was, and people like loosely got it. But nobody could say it succinctly. And so then I knew that my job had to be how do we get it so that they can say exactly what it is? And I, you know, it took a couple of years, but we are there now. And of course, as you add more people, it becomes a challenge again, but you definitely have to find those opportunities. If it’s a consultant, if it’s a new employee, if it’s just, you know, somebody that you trust on the team, your second in command, who can say, okay, you know, during it, let’s do an exercise during the team meeting and talk about these things. What are our values? How do we represent them? That kind of stuff?
CHIP: And, you know, the dirty secret is that one of the reasons why agencies are not very good at communicating this is because a lot of times, the agency owner themselves can’t answer your question.
GINI: For sure, for sure.
CHIP: They haven’t, they haven’t necessarily gone through the processes we’ve talked about previously, on the show, there is a certain inertia that takes over many agencies, especially the ones that go from freelancer to quote unquote, a real business. And they haven’t necessarily gone through the exercise of putting together a vision defining who ideal customers are, you know, clearly stating what their differentiator is, and understanding what it is that they want themselves from the business, which is why my AIM-GET framework A is ambition, because the owner has to figure out what do they want out of it. And, and so you really do need to start there, if you’re an agency owner, or partner in an agency, make sure that, that you’ve got your clear message there, and only then can you communicate it out to your people.
GINI: Yeah, and make sure you are communicating it. And I would say that that’s not it’s not a typical of just agency owners, it’s business leaders around the globe. I mean, you can ask any, almost any business owner, those questions, and most, not all, but most cannot articulate it.
CHIP: Right. And, and a lot, even when they can articulate it, if you sort of drill into it, it really isn’t necessarily a differentiator. I mean, you know, when you ask, you know, what are your business values? My guess is, if you were to ask 10 agency owners what their values are, and compare them a lot of the same things would appear on those lists. So there, I mean, every agency will tell you our differentiator is our….
GINI: We’re strategic and results driven.
CHIP: I mean, have you have you ever run across an agency that did not say their people are a differentiator? They all say, yeah, and yet, how is it a differentiator if everyone says it. It’s not. Yes. Now, it may be that you have people who can do certain things. And so but that’s, that’s a very different thing than just generic, saying, Our people are a differentiator, why, explain it? And then, frankly, prove it to me, that that’s the case. Because otherwise you’re just, you’re just tossing things out there. And so, okay, we’ve talked about how big picture, things need to be communicated. But there’s a lot of internal communications that needs needs to take place on a more tactical level, you know, making sure that you’re just communicating the ins and outs of what’s going on at the agency, who are, you know, what clients have we won, and what clients have we lost? What, you know, what, what processes are we going through what’s changing with our software, you know, all of these different things that any business has, and particularly as virtual agencies become more popular, and so people are not all in the same place. So they don’t just, you know, get things at the water cooler, you have to have a more – I don’t want to say formal process, but you have to have a little bit more of a structured process in order to get the word out to the whole team.
GINI: Yeah, and it’s a real challenge. You know, I keep saying using that word, because it is, but I have found that one of the things that works pretty well for me, and my team is I, when I do my one to one meetings with my direct reports, I have a conversation with each of them. So their individual and then during our leadership meeting, we have the conversation as a team. So by that time, they’ve heard it twice. And then I asked them to communicate it to their teams. So that now I know, I know, not, not only did they hear the hear the message, but they participated in the conversation as a group that allows them then to not play the telephone game and deliver the message correctly.
CHIP: I think one of the interesting things is that since you’ve been experiencing growth in your agency, you know, how has that impacted the frequency with which you talk to people, obviously, but when everybody reported directly to you, I assume you had regular one on ones or at least were communicating one on one on a fairly regular basis. But how would you tier it out now between you know, your direct reports? The next tier? And then you know, everybody else?
GINI: Well, I would say that that’s one of my biggest challenges right now. Because I feel like it’s all the time, and I can’t get anything else done. So I do have weekly one to one meetings with all of my direct reports, we have a weekly leadership team meeting, and then we have every other week, company wide meeting. It’s a lot. And I really, and then of course, you have the random phone calls or zoom chats where people are like, hey, I need you for five minutes, and then you end up talking to them for an hour. So there, it’s it’s a lot. I probably talk to, I talk to everybody at least weekly, no matter where they are in the organization. But the more structured stuff, if they’re direct reports they’re twice a week, so individually, and then as a group, and then the whole company more structured is twice a month.
CHIP: Right. Well, I and I think what you’ve described is a fairly typical structure for a lot of agencies that particularly the the weekly one on one. And as listeners to the show, know, I’m a huge believer in having weekly one on ones with all of your direct reports, whether you think you need it or not, right, because there are certain things that will come up in those you know, even if you talk to somebody every day, I still encourage you to have a set aside weekly one on one because it’s a good catch-all for things that someone won’t reach out to you about independently. So that’s, that’s, I think, important. One area where I think a lot of agencies fall down a bit. And that is, as they grow, the owner, the partners don’t have enough one on one or small group contact with the most junior people within their agency. And I think that’s, that’s incredibly valuable and incredibly important to still set aside time. So even when you’re 30, 50, 60, 70 employees, there’s real value in making sure that on some sort of regular basis, obviously, not every week, or every month even, but that you’re having regular opportunities to engage quite directly with the most junior folks, because you’ll learn a lot as an agency owner from it, they will take huge value out of it. Because the larger you get, the more of a pedestal the owners or partners get put on typically. And so it’s special to them that they get to go. And so I know some agency owners, when they get up to 50 to 100 people, they may, the owner may have a monthly lunch where they have, you know, five or six of the more junior people kind of rotate through. So they have that opportunity to have contact with them. You know, maybe maybe it’s even only averaging out once a year or so depending on size. But the smaller you get, the more frequently you should be having these conversations. And certainly if you’ve got you know, 10 or 15 people, you should have a lot of one on one contact with even the most junior person in your agency. Because it’s it’s just a way to to to help them to learn about what’s going on and hopefully find ways to improve your business.
GINI: Yeah, and you know, one of the things that we recommend for clients, when they get to that point is getting up and walking around the organization and just stopping by cubicles or offices to have conversations and that works really well. If you’re a distributed organization, my – I think I’ve talked about this on the on our podcast before, but my favorite thing to do is go Hey, can you jump on Zoom for a minute? and people freak, which I have a mean streak. So I think that’s kind of funny. But it’s always just a checkin it’s just a, you know, five minute 10 minute, how are things going? Tell me what you’re working on that kind of stuff. You know, after the first few they realize that they’re not about to get fired, and they actually enjoy it. But those first few were kind of fun for me too.
CHIP: Absolutely. And, and it – Look, it does help because that when you need to have a more serious conversation, you know, you’re able to do it in a way that’s less threatening. Yeah, because they’re just they’re used to having that sort of outreach from you. Look, I’m a huge believer in in management by walking around and BWA. When I was a senior executive at an agency, a number of years ago, we had two floors in an office building. And I used to every day, just about every day, I would do a loop on each of those two floors. At some point, when I had a gap in my schedule, sometimes I would make the loop and not run into anybody. And you know, just it was a little bit of good exercise. And, but a lot of times, I would just run into somebody who I wouldn’t have had a conversation with otherwise. And I learned a tremendous amount about it, I was hopefully able to share good information in the process as well. And it’s just it’s good to get up and stretch your legs as well.
GINI: Yeah, get your steps in and talk to people. It’s amazing how that works.
CHIP: Exactly. And look, it’s you know, there is something about internal communications, that is a bit like wearing a Fitbit, it is, is getting those steps in. You know, a lot of times in internal communications isn’t necessarily fun. You sit there and say, Oh, this is not billable time. It’s not helping generate new business directly. But it’s helping you on all of those things, you will deliver better client service, if you have better internal communications, I guarantee it, you will generate more clients, I guarantee it. So you need to have that kind of culture where you’re communicating information. And just as important as what we’ve talked about so far, which is spreading information out into the world, your internal world – is getting information back, it’s getting feedback. So you also need to create a culture where internal communications is as much about listening from the executive team as it is about disseminating.
GINI: And, I mean, you brought up the culture point, but it definitely helps with culture, it helps with retention, it helps with loyalty, it helps with all those things. So that when somebody is approached for a new position, they don’t – aren’t interested, because they really love where they are, and they love that they have access to you.
CHIP: Of course, it’s a you know, it’s a fine line between them loving you and you being a pushover, you know, there always has to be that that balance. But at the same time, you know, I think one of the complaints that I’ve seen most frequently from not just agency employees, but employees and other businesses as well, is you know, there’s just not good communication. I don’t know what’s going on. And it creates, it’s not only that good internal communications will help you – bad internal communications will hurt you. Because the other thing to keep in mind is in the absence of official information that you’re sharing, people will make assumptions.
GINI: Yes, they will, yes, they will.
CHIP: They will guess, and most of the time those guesses are horrendously wrong.
GINI: Yes, they are.
CHIP: I mean, just nutty wrong. And so you know, you have to remember that people are always reading tea leaves. And so, you know, if you all of a sudden start having closed door meetings with, you know, your number two, and you’ve never had them before, people are going to start wondering what’s up? And and when it turns out that you’re simply having conversations about, you know, fantasy baseball or something like that, you know, it doesn’t matter, because people are assuming that you’re talking about something bad that’s about to happen.
GINI: Yes, they are. That is true.
CHIP: Then when you start asking employees for reports that they’ve never been asked to produce before, they will start speculating about Okay, does that mean that job cuts are coming or we’re being sold or you know, whatever. So, there are obviously times where you cannot share, but to the greatest extent possible, you need to share and if something if you know that something unusual is taking place, you know, you’re having a lot more closed door meetings, you may not be able to fully explain it, but at least say, look, this isn’t a bad thing. This is a personal issue or you know, something just so that you’re able to hopefully avoid that horrendous game of telephone that is now out of control. And people think something dramatically bad is happening.
GINI: Yes. And I’m laughing because I have been there. I was just having a meeting, people!
CHIP: Well, I think I’ve mentioned on this this podcast before, you know, my practice, when I had an office with employees around me was that I would always keep my door closed for every meeting. Yeah. Because Because that way, people didn’t get nervous when it was a one on one plus, if the meeting all of a sudden that had something that you know, shifted into something that, you know, shouldn’t be widely heard. I didn’t have to say, can you get up and shut the door? Right. But that’s not that always feels weird, even with the person that you’re with, asking them to do that. But and I think this particularly comes into play with financial things. Just about every agency employee thinks that you are doing either much better, or much worse than you really are. Typically, it skews towards the much better. Typically, people think oh, my God, this, this guy owns the agency, you know, he must be a gazillionaire. I can only imagine how much he’s putting in his pocket. And usually, it’s all a lot less than they think, Oh, no, not always. But But usually.
GINI: It’s actually funny you say that, because we just had, you know, I do some group coaching with agency owners. And we just had our call and somebody said, How often do you pay yourself? And pretty much across the board, everyone was like, if there’s profit at the end of the year, we get paid. And if not, I don’t it was pretty funny, because and that’s exactly right.
CHIP: That just pains me for so many reasons.
GINI: I know, you know, but…
CHIP: But that’s why we have this podcast to hopefully…
GINI: And it illustrates your point that people really think that you’re getting, you’re making all this money, and you’re not.
CHIP: Right. And hopefully you will be, right, and then you can figure out how to address that as well. But the you know, the bottom line is, I would encourage all agency owners to spend a little bit more time thinking about their internal communications, thinking about what message it is that they want to be communicating, and then taking the steps to actually follow through on that and doing it with regularity, not just when you panic and say, Oh, my God, I haven’t talked to the team in a while. Let me just let me just schedule something. Let me send out an email, and then forget about it for another year. You know, make it part of your habit to communicate with the team.
GINI: Yes. And I would say if we can figure out how to do that, with not necessarily having more meetings, that would be amazing.
CHIP: You know, it’s difficult to get around meetings, but I think it’s more about finding the efficiency in those meetings. So you may, you may still have a bunch of meetings, but if you can make them shorter and more effective, that’s often good as well. And the last thing I would leave people with and particularly in this age of virtual agencies is think about how often you’re having face to face contact and that that face to face via video, or better yet in person because you – while it’s fine that we can communicate via audio with our team at pretty much anytime just by dropping in on them. At the same time there is that that real value you get from the human contact that you don’t necessarily get otherwise.
GINI: That is true.
CHIP: Unfortunately, podcasts are not about that. So you’ll just have to live with listening to our lovely voices. And you’ll have to give up on that for right now because this is the end of this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin
GINI: and I’m Gini Dietrich
CHIP: And it depends.