How to ensure you don’t inadvertently become the bottleneck to growth

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I want to write about this topic since it is an issue a great many of my clients face. 

Picture this: 

You have built your agency up to a certain size where you have a good team beneath you.  You had hoped this would result in spreading the work load and taking some weight off your shoulders.  But you find yourself still being run ragged, clients still want to talk to YOU and you're frustrated that team members beneath you just don't seem to step up and fill the gap between you and the rest of your agency. This is compounded by the fact that new business still seems to sit on your shoulders and as much as you would like your senior team members beneath you to step up and take on more proactive business development they just don't seem to do it.

If you can relate to any of this then please read on…

You're the brains behind your agency.  You're the reason why it has been flourishing for the last few years. Clients love you.  So much in fact that all key clients want you to be working on their account and before you know it you've become the bottleneck to growth.  Whilst exhausted you finally recognise this cycle and are determined to do something about it.

So now you're turning your attention towards developing the next layer of leaders in your agency.  You recognise that you need to ‘get out of the way’ to enable your future leaders to flourish and for them to become a key contact point for clients.

Stepping aside so others can step up

I am sure the above scenario is familiar to you.  Yet sometimes its easier said than done, to create space for your senior team members to step up.  In the early days of running your agency you may have not been able to afford to hire the best staff and overtime this results in a big gap appearing between your skillset and the next tier of team members skillset, so make sure when you are hiring staff, you get the best staff you can find (and don’t be fearful of them challenging you!)


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Let’s look at 4 actions YOU can take to get your team on board with you and stepping up.  

1. Articulate your vision

  • It’s amazing how many owners believe that telepathy exists or what's in their head will automatically be transferred to others via osmosis! So you need to make sure that your team are as excited by the vision that is in your head as you are. It's also worth noting that the owner is always several steps ahead of the rest of the agency in terms of the development of the agency, so it's crucial that you communicate your vision clearly and get them excited to come on the journey with you.

  • If they don’t understand the vision for the company it’s going to be difficult to get them to act independently or make intelligent decisions.

  • To solve this problem, you need to take the time to articulate and document your company vision to get everyone in your company moving in the same direction. Depending on your leadership style and agency size, you can do this by yourself, or involve your team in the process - but either way, you will need a process for communicating these things to your team once you have them articulated.

2. Set your company structure up to complement your strengths

  • Most visionary agency owners are ‘knowing’ people.  This means they hate the minutiae and can easily get annoyed by having to manage the details and repeating themselves. An Integrator (the person in charge of day to day operations) is a person who sits between you and your team to make sure that any friction is smoothed out and converted into energy that will power the agency forward. This person needs to love managing and resolving day to day issues, have a passion for clear communication between teams, and must have a tolerance for repetition and process.  Now I appreciate in a small agency you may not be able to hire an Ops manager/integrator but you will be able to give this as a functional part of someone's bigger role.

  • As the owner, you need to focus on the things that only you can do, and delegate the rest.  To that end, make sure you ask yourself the right questions. Not “will they do it as well as me or as fast as me?” but “will they do it well enough?” and if the answer is yes then you should be delegating.  If you delegate down then this will encourage others to do the same.  However, if you hang onto all the tasks you will encourage others to role model that behaviour too.

3: Implement a system for communication and decision making

  • Chaos can reign in a small business. Frequently, these entrepreneurs (myself included!) hated all the meetings, processes, and systems they had to follow in their previous world before they started their own business - so they resist creating these things in their own agency. Unfortunately, non-entrepreneurs (i.e. almost everyone working for you) like and need process - they want to know what is expected of them, and they want to be able to make decisions and get work done without having to run to you all the time (more on this later).

  • If you have the right Integrator/ops person in place, he or she can help you create and manage a robust set of systems and processes your team needs to function efficiently - and minimise the number of processes and meetings you are involved in. When meetings run efficiently, decisions are made quickly and processes actually speed up your business, your culture and bottom line will begin to improve dramatically.

4: Get stuff out of your head so you can get out of the way

  • This is a SLOW DOWN TO SPEED UP moment in the development of your agency.  If you want to delegate tasks to others then you need to do it effectively!  Take the time to articulate what you want and what success looks like.
  • Also, acknowledge where you don’t have skills and bring those skills in-house (even if you are using a freelancer in the short term)
  • If you want to delegate something (like marketing) to someone else, but don’t understand what it really takes to set the marketing team up for success, you need to take the time to educate the person or team who will be taking things over, and then regularly receive updates on results so you can stop worrying.

If you would like to read more about staff retention and growth then grab a copy of my free e-book.


Don’t make assumptions!

Let's paint another picture: 

you have a superstar team member who is doing really well and clients love them and you now put them into a managerial leadership position. You've done this as a reward for their hard work and you see it as a natural part of their career progression. However, you quickly realise that this person is not a natural manager and is failing to motivate and direct their team.  As a result team morale is at an all-time low so you are forced to make a difficult decision that could result in this (previously superstar) team member exiting the agency.

Why is it that we invest a lot of time and money training our team to have great technical skills (e.g. web development, design etc.) but we don't invest the same time or money in giving people managerial skills whilst somehow assuming that as their career progresses they will naturally be a good manager (because maybe you were)!  Crazy!! Don’t be THAT leader. Instead have a clear career development path that includes leadership and management training as well as technical training. Remember these skills are useful for not only managing team members but also for managing clients and suppliers.

So now you have these steps in place lets look at how you can get your team members to take responsibility and be accountable.

Here are 9 steps to getting managers to step up:

Create clear roles & responsibilities and set clear expectations

When a team member is clear about what their role includes (and doesn't include) they are much more likely to take ownership and step into delivering that role.

Set time-bound SMART objectives

Make sure you are setting regular (e.g. quarterly) SMART objectives that are owned and delivered by each team member.


Get them a mentor or a coach - give them the tools to succeed

If you have a team member that you want to develop then a great way to expedite and broaden their development is to get them an external mentor or coach. You could set finding a mentor as one of their objectives. The mentor should be someone who is several steps ahead of where your team member is and ideally, are external to the agency and therefore they bring a different set of experiences.


Form your leadership team

As your agency grows and you develop more leaders beneath you, you should plan to create a leadership or management team who can collectively own aspects of delivering the vision and take more responsibility from your shoulders.

Give them responsibilities in addition to their ‘day job’

I spoke about this earlier when I talked about the Integrator or Ops Manager. Your leadership team will have their roles & responsibilities but you can also give them some additional functional responsibilities such as Operations, New Business, Marketing, IT etc.  This not only takes responsibilities from you but also further develops the team member.

Give them ownership of the quarterly business strategy 

As we discussed earlier, each year you will create your agency vision and communicate this to the rest of the business.  In order to deliver the vision (and it not just stay as a dream!), you need to break it down into quarterly strategies and have the leadership team take responsibility for delivering these strategies.

Support don’t rescue

This is a classic one that deserves a blog post of its own but as a leader, you need to separate the difference between being a supportive manager and a rescuing manager. A supportive manager will coach someone through a problem whilst a rescuing manager will think it's quicker to do it themselves and take the problem away.

Be a great delegator and give feedback

This is another example of slowing down to speed up we don't spend enough time giving our staff constructive feedback (both positive and negative) yet according to this study, 65% of employees want more feedback.

Get into the habit of giving feedback at the end of a project and ensure that the feedback includes an action plan so that the team member learns.

Slow down to speed up

I've said this a number of times throughout this blog and it is really an overarching summary of this whole post - which is slow down, invest time giving feedback and developing your team members in order to ultimately move forward more rapidly.

The entrepreneur, leader and agency owner who recognises as early as possible that they need to make themselves dispensable, are the ones who will rapidly develop a flourishing, growing profitable agency full of eager motivated team members.  However, those who believe it's quicker to do it themselves and that they don't have time to develop team members will quickly find themselves the bottleneck to growth and under a great deal of stress. Make sure you are opting to be the former rather than the latter.

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