You Are Not Alone: Many Management Struggles Are Similar

As part of every Total Business Reset we do, we survey all of a firm’s employees on a number of different factors… from onboarding experience to internal processes to people management. It can be an incredibly insightful exercise, not only for us as we piece together our picture of a client, but also for the client. All the answers are tied to a specific person, but the feedback we give the firm’s leaders is shared anonymously and presented in aggregate, so we often get more candid responses than we otherwise would.

After doing dozens of these over the past couple of years, we are starting to notice definite patterns amongst growing firms. It can be lonely running a business, so if nothing else, let this be a reminder that you aren’t the only person to deal with these issues… and there are also solutions. Here are a few things we have been seeing recently, in no particular order:

Your team is more ready than you think they are for you to step away from the day-to-day.

One of the more insightful questions we ask is “What should the owner(s) be spending more time on? Less time on?” Almost without fail, employees want their owners to be working on the business and not in the business. This is a phrase that I’m sure you have heard before, but for some reason too many of you don’t think it applies to you. Sure, when you were a one- or two-person shop, you had to do the work as well. And sure, a big part of the reason you are running a business is because you love the work. But you hired people to do the work, so let them do the work. You tell yourself you do the work better than anyone else on your team, or that your clients would evaporate suddenly if you took a step back, but the real reason you don’t relinquish control is because you’re a control freak. You can absolutely run a successful business as a control freak, but in order to grow, you’ll need to loosen your grip and learn to trust those you’re paying to trust.

Your reporting structure is getting unsustainable as you grow.

In those first few years, it makes total sense to run a flat organizational structure. Everyone might even report directly to you. But you might reach an inflection point around 8-10 employees when you need your first level of “middle management”. Once you get past 25-30, you’ll most likely need to add another layer of management. This is a hard realization for many, for a few reasons:

  • It’s harder to control the culture the farther you are away from individual employees
  • You are inherently untrusting (see above)
  • You hate having to invest in overhead that isn’t tied directly to profit

We hear you on all counts. All of the above can be true, but you are still going to hit a ceiling without good managers in place. If you have more than a half dozen people reporting directly to you, you are most likely doing both yourself and your direct reports a disservice.

Your team feels like a piece of the culture is missing now that you’re remote-first.

Unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone has really cracked the code on this one yet. But it is helpful to at least acknowledge that it isn’t just a “you” problem. Here are a few things that might help move the culture scales more in your favor:

  • Go back to in-person first.** Your employees might be more receptive than you think.
  • Beef up your onboarding processes.** Make sure there is plenty of relationship building and networking time built in, particularly amongst employees that won’t be working together in the course of daily business. People want to feel connected to the entire business, not just their team.
  • Set aside that rent money for culture building.** If you go remote-first, that doesn’t mean you automatically eliminate the big “Rent” line item from your Income Statement. A good chunk of that should most likely be reserved for in-person team-building, whether that’s a big annual retreat or more regular in-person gatherings.

There is a serious disconnect between the folks pricing the work and the folks doing the work.

This is sometimes attributed to what we will call willful ignorance. Your rainmaker (and this might be you) might be too eager to sell the work without properly scoping projects. Sure, you are always able to adjust on the fly and figure it out, but what we are seeing is that approach starts to take a toll on your team. Remind yourself that your team is not as adaptable as you are as a business owner. They crave more structure and process. Consistently missing the mark on scoping a project starts to breed frustration over time. Improper scoping upfront also makes it far too easy to blame your project teams down the road.

You (as an owner) don’t spend enough time on marketing and business development.

This is either because you actively avoid it or because you think your time is better spent elsewhere, such as on client work or internal team-building. In either scenario, the most helpful advice we could give you is summed up in the idiom “Suck it up, buttercup.” You might not be uniquely gifted at marketing and business development, but as the person in charge, you are uniquely positioned to do these things. Client prospects expect you to. Employees expect you to (as they so clearly mention in these surveys). So either embrace it enthusiastically, accept it reluctantly, or solve for it sustainably. One quick aside here: making sure your positioning is tight and your lead generation is strong is one surefire way to start reducing your reliance on traditional sales over time. Shameless plug for our New Business Audit if you don’t need a comprehensive deep-dive.

You bend your pricing standards too often “to get your foot in the door.”

Your employees notice, and it cheapens their work as much as it cheapens yours. It’s far too easy to rationalize lowering your pricing for the right client, or because business is slower. But every time you do this, you’re training clients to get a certain caliber of work for a certain price. Believe it or not, it’s harder to raise prices after the fact than stick to your guns with pricing upfront. Holding firm in your pricing might result in you walking away from a few projects every year… but were they the right fit for you long-term? If you’re constantly having to discount your work because you need to make payroll, consider lowering your payroll to meet actual demand and work your way up from there. It’s hard to restructure and make layoffs, believe me. I’ve done it. But it’s a one-time hardship, not a recurring hardship. Associate discounted pricing with respect in your mind. Every time you discount a project, you lose a little respect with your team. Just make sure you can look at yourself in the mirror.

You are the worst manager on your leadership team.

No one actually says this explicitly, but we’re pretty good at reading between the lines. Fortunately, your top staff doesn’t necessarily mind that you’re not a strong manager. They are self-directed and fairly autonomous. They acknowledge that you’re a good person with good intentions and you care about them. But they probably won’t be asking you for management advice regularly, so you might need to seek outside management training if this is a need for your team.

You are avoiding difficult conversations and it does not go unnoticed.

We see this a lot. It’s easy to actively avoid a hard conversation in the moment. Inertia is a helluva drug. Maybe you’re letting a struggling employee off the hook too easily. Maybe you and your business partner(s) are no longer seeing eye to eye. Maybe you are refusing to make a decision that only you can make, like narrowing down your firm’s positioning. In any case, your team is more perceptive than you would hope, and your refusal to address obvious issues affects the culture and their work more than you would like.

Every digital, marketing, and design firm deals with growth pains. Many of them deal with the same growth pains. If you are dealing with one or more of these issues, just know that you aren’t alone. Every one of these issues is solveable with courage and focus.

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