What Keeps Agency Principals Awake At Night

For the most part, agency principals love the challenge of running an entrepreneurial enterprise. The difficulties are real, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. The only common denominator is their aptitude for risk, and they are very good at leveraging that advantage. Otherwise they are different people who look for different things from their experience.

But their greatest fears–what keeps them up at night–are surprisingly similar. It took me years and hundreds of interviews to see the patterns. I could make a recommendation that was easily supported, only to find an invisible barrier that kept a principal from exercising what otherwise would be good judgment. I’ll list those fears that you’ll bump up against as you manage your own creative firm. Maybe you’ll see yourself in a few of these and then adjust your reactions accordingly:

  1. Losing That Critical Employee Who Finally Lets Me Pull Out Of The Day To Day. As your shop grows, you personally take on more of the heavy lifting, forming more of a bottleneck in the process. You know what sort of people you’d like to hire, but you just can’t afford them yet. As soon as you can, though, you begin filling those slots with more qualified people. Often their performance is judged primarily by how effectively they free you from the weightier responsibilities that you need to shed. “Ann is invaluable to me because she’s the first person who can handle a client crisis on her own.” Or “Stephan guides the staff by answering a hundred questions every day so that I can focus on new business.” Or “Judy is the only person at our studio besides me who can close new business.” Or “Tim has raised the quality of our work far beyond what even I was capable of.” So when you have someone who helps you breathe easier in these four areas (clients, employees, prospects, creative), you might understandably overvalue their contribution, be too quick to give them partnership, or let them get away with bad behavior. It took you so long to find that first really capable person that you assume that finding the next one will be just as hard. It won’t, and be sure that clear values are driving your decision making.
  2. Employees Knowing How Much I Make. I publish specific metrics for what principals should make, keyed to the size of the firm, and most principals are right at or just under that range. But for some reason, principals are nervous about employees knowing what they make, especially if it’s what they deem to be a lot. The reality is that well-managed employees operating within a great culture couldn’t care less if you make a lot of money. In fact, great employees will support that notion. If you’re stingy with them or abusing them in other ways, they’ll hate the double standard. By the way, there’s a very direct but inverse relationship between how open principals are about the finances and how well they and the firm are doing. The most poorly performing agencies are the most open about their finances.
  3. Ungratefulness, Or Being Taken Advantage Of. Principals are very different from each other. Some are introverts. Some value control. Some believe in process. But the common struggle all of them have is feeling like someone is taking advantage of them. That’s the flip side of aptitude for risk, and organizational development scientists know that but haven’t yet figured out the cause. You’ll see this in yourself when you determine what bonuses will look like this year, when you guide the policy on remote work from home, when you have a discussion about a title change, etc. Just recognize that you have a tendency to overreact when you’re feeling this way–it’s very common and comes with the territory.
  4. How We Compare to Other Firms. Many principals are obsessed with how well they are doing in relation to their peers. They pump new employees about it, scan competitor’s websites, quiz common freelancers or suppliers, and generally want to know how they measure up in every way. (This doesn’t translate to awards, which most everyone knows are a bit of a sham, but everything else is fair game.) They’ll care more about doing better than a rival firm than whether they meet more objective performance criteria. It comes with their competitive natures.
  5. Perception that the Firm is in Trouble. This is something that principals avoid at nearly any cost. They might continue a tradition even when they can’t afford it, hold onto people longer than they should, or not even consider bringing the firm to an orderly dissolution. Not because it’s not the right thing to do but because it smacks of failure. I really understand this, too. To pull off running a firm like you do requires a certain level of confidence. Pierce that confidence and you falter in front of clients, lose some of the killer instinct that’s served you so well, and so on. It’s good to recognize this in yourself, though, and not be trapped by your own fears of perception. Part of the new authenticity pervading our world is that there is less stigma around “failure” and I think that’s a very healthy development.

What keeps you awake at night? Do you struggle making the right decisions when fear has too large a role? Do you have a trusted colleague or competitor or business associate who can help you think objectively when you’re struggling?

I hope this helps you realize that there are many effective principals like yourself who struggle with the same things.

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