Running any type of business is a balancing act. And while having the right clients, the right infrastructure and the right products are important, having the right team around you is vital for success.
To grow your agency, you need to find more customers and sell more. But even the best “products” will fail without staff that buy into the company, can effectively perform their roles and deliver a great service to their clients.
But understanding when to recruit staff, how to recruit, who to recruit, and how you can retain the best talent in your team, can be a challenge that many agency owners are not up to!
Never fear, however, because I am here to help.
In this blog, I will look to answer many of these questions and more.
So let’s start with the basics and how you can successfully plan for recruitment needs.
The importance of having a plan to help you know the metrics of when to hire and who to hire
We would love to run an agency that runs itself, right?
The less input we need to give into the day to day running, the more time we have to focus on the business as a whole, and the things we do best.
If you find that your agency is running without a huge amount of input, then the odds are you have an amazing team delivering amazing client work.
But even with the best team you will lose talent over time and as you grow you will need to hire new team members.
The question is, how do you know when to hire and what indicators are there that your current team at truly at capacity?
On top of these questions there’s the age-old, “Am I doing the right thing?,” conundrum. “Will making a change upset the balance of the team?” “Can I afford it right now?”
All of these factors combined can make it hard to make a decision and may lead to hesitation which in itself can result in more stress on the current team.
My advice is to understand the metrics that are important to your business. Have a clear plan of what to do when these numbers meet certain thresholds. Monitor them regularly with the rest of your management team and look for dips and peaks that need addressing.
Not only will this allow you to see when recruitment should take place, but it will also give you an idea of who you should hire.
For example, do you need more skills to deliver client work (e.g. a new designer) or do you need to hire a great project/account manager?
Your vision and the numbers should tell you which.
The Question of Freelance or In-house staff?
If you are at breaking point and you need to increase your capacity, the question you need to answer is whether it’s time to hire an in-house team member or work with a freelancer?
Hiring for the right period of time is important. You may be experiencing a short-term boom that could collapse at any point leaving you overstaffed with a high wage bill (again, look to your vision to help you make the right decision).
Freelancers are great when you have a short-term peak, such as this or capacity issues and/or when you need to have a specialist skill that you don’t want to have in-house.
But a generalised (and maybe cynical!) challenge with freelancers is that it is fundamentally incredibly difficult to build an agency solely using freelancers as it’s like building a house on quicksand.
Yes, a freelancer may be incredibly skilled, but they will have little in the way of loyalty to your business. Their motivation for working with you will be mostly financial, and understandably, they will have their own agenda and often just follow the money.
It is almost impossible to plan if your workforce is predominantly freelance as you can never be sure of who will be available at any given time. To stick with the quicksand metaphor, if you build your agency on the foundation of freelancers don’t be surprised if it sinks without a trace when the foundation wanders away to pastures new!
The other option is to hire a permanent in-house team member. In-house employees give you more stability but are a bigger commitment and risk.
Wages can skyrocket (and cannot be avoided) and hiring the wrong person is a problem that is difficult to rectify.
My tip (as mentioned briefly above) is to hire based on purpose. If you are looking to build a great team that you want to be with you for the long haul, look for an in-house solution. If you want a few specialist skills for a short period or want to temporarily increase your manpower, take a look at freelance.
Keep an eye on your freelancer costs and when they surpass the wage of an employee, consider bringing that role in-house.
Also consider some hybrid approaches such as a temp to perm role or a part time in-house team member.
Hiring your first employee
Hiring new employees can be incredibly stressful, especially if you are new to the game. At the beginning of any business enterprise, your time will be incredibly stretched as you perform many of the roles required to be successful.
As a result, your first staff hire is likely to be made to give you more time to take care of other business matters.
Hell, if you run a small agency, every hire you make will likely be to reduce the burden placed on your shoulders!
But how do you know you are hiring the right person?
The answer is simple (yet complex!), look for somebody who can perform a job that frees up the largest amount of time for you. Take a look at what consumes the most of your time and ask yourself, “Could somebody else do this for me?” If the answer is yes, this is the role you need to fill.
Define the skills required to complete this role and use this information when advertising and when interviewing. This way you are creating a clear set of roles & responsibilities that will help you identify exactly who you are looking for.
The interview process
Interviews can be a tricky part of the recruitment process. Cutting through the bullsh*t and nerves to hire the right person is never easy and can lead to hesitation and the loss of good candidates.
My tip is to define exactly what it is you want from your new recruit. Look at the skills required for the role and tailor your questions towards understanding if the candidate has them.
Now a really important point that if ignored can be a costly mistake. Of course, you need to make sure that any candidate you hire is technically competent, but you also need to make sure they are a good cultural fit for your company.
It’s easy to get swept up thinking things like, “I think we will really get on well with this person,” while ignoring gaps in their skillset. And, most important of all, listen to your gut instinct. It is what’s got you this far after all!
Induction and onboarding new staff
Hiring a new team member isn’t, unfortunately, the end of the “recruitment problem” but is the start of a long process. We mentioned earlier that saving time is often the main reason to hire new staff but it's important to understand that, at least in the short term, you ain't gonna save anything!
New staff take time to train, adjust and get up to speed. If you are a small agency, the burden of such settling in is likely to fall on your shoulders. This may mean that time you could spend doing other things, may have to be sacrificed in favour of training sessions and mentor periods.
This is a classic example of slowing down to speed up (my favourite expression).
Yes, new staff can be time-consuming in the short-term, but the benefits they bring long term, if embedded correctly, far outweigh the time you need to invest to get them up to speed.
So, my tip is to make sure you put the time in with new recruits. Don’t adopt a ‘sink or swim’ mentality. This often leads to employees developing more slowly or ‘drowning’ altogether and disappearing without a trace. Set up regular meetings with them in the first few months to understand how they are progressing. Set clear and measurable SMART objectives and empower the employee to deliver them. Give (and seek) feedback while being supportive in a calm environment that they feel comfortable in.
Dealing with staff performance issues can be incredibly tricky. Dips in performance can be a result of many factors and jumping in two-footed with a resolution can often make matters worse. That doesn’t mean you should allow issues to fester.
Quite the opposite.
If a member of your team is not performing, then nip the issue in the bud as soon as possible and do it the right way.
Sit down and discuss the problem. Give them feedback around the issues and make sure they acknowledge and own that feedback. Once the two of you have an understanding of what the problem is, you can set some short-term tangible goals for them to attain.
It may sound harsh, but the goal of performance management is to get them to step up or step out (another of my favourite expressions!).
Don’t let the poor performance go on for too long as it will seldom go away on its own and if not addressed, will become far worse in the long run. And a bigger headache that you ultimately have to solve.
Appraisals and objective setting
Performance management shouldn’t just take place when there is a problem. Things like appraisals and objective setting should be conducted regularly so you get a good understanding of how your staff are faring, as well as keeping them focused.
Make sure your agency has a documented process for regular appraisals.
During this process, you should discuss with your employees how they think they are doing as well as how the business sees their work. Use metrics to look for where they excel and areas where they can improve. Set realistic SMART objectives (between 3 and 5 is a good number) to help them improve and develop in their career. For best results, this process should take place, as a minimum, once a year (and every quarter is ideal).
Recruitment in any business is never easy but with a little effort and a good understanding of what you need, you can ensure that the recruits you hire always meet your needs and that you grow your agency in a controlled and sustainable way.
If you aspire to build a self-running agency as many of my clients do, then hiring a robust in-house team is vital and applying some of the tips outlined in this blog will help your journey be as smooth as possible.