BL&T No. 056: Managing Setbacks With Barrel Maxims

Agency Leadership

This post originally appeared in my newsletter, Borrowed, Learned, & Thought. BL&T is sent weekly on Mondays. In every edition, I share lessons learned in agency leadership, life, and e-commerce. This post does not include all the details shared in the newsletter sent via email. Subscribe here.


"[M]indset drives and shapes all that we do—how we engage with others and how we behave in every moment and situation."

From "Leadership and Self-Deception" by The Arbinger Institute [Book]


This past July, we introduced a framework called The Barrel Way to the Barrel team. The framework came on the heels of Barrel's 15th anniversary in June when we shared our evolved Mission, Vision, and Core Values to better capture our growth and trajectory.

In conjunction with The Barrel Way, we also established five Barrel Maxims. Our maxims were inspired by an earlier exploration around team meeting "norms" and created with input from the team.

To understand the Barrel Maxims, let's take a look at The Barrel Way:

At its core, our Mission and Vision give us meaning and direction. Our Core Values, known as The Four C's, keep us connected and aligned as we work together toward our goals. Finally, our Barrel Maxims represent the beliefs and behaviors that help us live into the Four C's every day.

I share all of this with you because lately, I find myself reflecting on the power of our maxims in persevering through difficult times.

Maxims As A Guide

On paper, the last couple of weeks would not be cause for celebration. An exciting potential hire took an offer elsewhere, two valuable employees gave notice, and new business is hitting a slump.

In the past, I'm guilty of handling times like this in a few ways: wallowing in self-pity, acting reactively under stress, or brushing off the negative emotions, pretending like everything is fine. And well... none of them have brought peace or progress.

Since working with a coach, I've noticed that I tend to take the latter approach more often than I thought. Refusing to acknowledge what's weighing on me doesn't do me or anyone around me any good. I may be able to brush things off for a few days but eventually, it negatively impacts my way of being. It becomes harder and harder to show up like I want to. Sometimes, I get quiet. Other times, I have a short fuse and overreact to insignificant events. If my wife Dana is lucky, I do both.

During coaching sessions, I've learned a lot by bringing what's bothering me to light and addressing it head on. To give myself a framework to do this on my own, I've enjoyed turning to the Barrel Maxims. Given the recent state of affairs, I thought I'd share how the maxims have helped me remain positive and hopeful.

#1. We turn setbacks into growth opportunities.

Since rolling out the maxims, this has become a bit of a mantra among the team. As I shared in Edition #51 of this newsletter, we've actually dedicated an entire section of our monthly team meetings to discussing setbacks as a group.

For me, "we turn setbacks into growth opportunities" is the first place I go when something doesn't work out as planned, I make a mistake, or I'm faced with a new hurdle. Instead of becoming consumed by how unfortunate the situation might be, I'm encouraged to find the lesson for future growth.

When a member of the Creative Team told me they were moving on a week ago, my stomach sank. This happened again less than one week later. While I'm happy for both of them as they take the next step in their careers, it never gets any easier to lose talented folks.

I'm always amazed at how fast thoughts race through my mind in times of distress. In the seconds after hearing the news, memories of past conversations and meetings flashed in front of me as I tried to make sense of what I was told. If this was a movie, you can probably picture the montage.

Once I returned to reality, I was on a mission to understand. What can we take away from this experience for the future? Instead of battling with assumptions, I sought out feedback. Since then, we've gained a full picture on each employee's motivation and have identified a couple of growth opportunities for how we can better collaborate and communicate.

#2. We believe all feedback is information.

In the search for understanding, feedback is critical. However, feedback is only worthwhile if we're willing to take it. Feedback is not a matter of fact or fiction. Feedback is an interpretation of an experience or person by another person. We can ignore it or dispute it but neither changes the fact that it exists. "We believe all feedback is information" is a reminder that feedback is just that, nothing more than information we can use to create positive change.

Whether managing employee departures or a slump in new business, this maxim inspires a fearlessness in me to seek out context rather than react with assumptions or feel defeated.

In the case of new business, we saw we could be doing a better job bringing strategic recommendations to our clients. In a discussion with the team, I was feeling some hesitancy from them about bringing ideas to our clients on how we could help them drive stronger results. I felt energized around this opportunity but wasn't getting the same energy in return.

Instead of feeling frustrated or confused, I solicited feedback. In the end, it wasn't that the team wasn't excited, they just had a lot on their plates and could use help with the messaging to clients. If I hadn't surfaced this, we'd be much further behind.

#3. We start with outcomes in mind.

While feedback is critical to take steps forward, outcomes keep us focused on what we hope to achieve. In a company setting, the impact of a setback is often felt differently across the team. I've learned that it's not only important to remind myself of where we're going but to also take the time to realign with the team. This might mean getting input and in some cases, shifting gears.

In soliciting feedback this week, we noticed a gap. Teams were working on outcomes impacting the larger group but they hadn't been articulated, leaving some folks wondering if certain challenges were being addressed. This led to a team-wide memo and conversations to calibrate on outcomes and see what actions we could take now to get closer to our goals.

If we're not clear on our vision for the future, setbacks can hit that much harder. It can be hard to see an opportunity for growth when we're not sure how we want to grow.

#4. We put ourselves in the shoes of others.

I've learned that putting myself in the shoes of others is a helpful way to find calm in a sea of chaos and remember that we're all human. We all have our own perspectives and unique experiences. It forces me to slow down and get clear on how I'm feeling. From there, I try to see the situation from new points of view. What do others see that I may not? When I don't know, I ask.

Through this lens, I found joy in saying farewell to an employee leaving last Friday. We reflected on their growth over the years and all we've accomplished. Without our journey together, this new opportunity may not have existed. I'm excited to see them take what they've learned at Barrel and apply it in a new industry.

I can say the same for missing out on an exciting candidate. As much as we think they'd be a great fit, it's not our choice to make. Instead of feeling defeated, we can ask for feedback, wish them the best, and keep moving.

#5. We take the long-term view.

I end this with one because I think it underscores the importance of all the maxims. When faced with setbacks, it's easy to look for a quick fix. What can I do right now to get immediate satisfaction? Unfortunately, it's rarely that simple.

In our journey to find a path forward, it's not about taking shortcuts or jumping to solutions. No, we're not going to immediately hire employees to replace the recent departures. No, we're not going to take on poor-fit projects to hit our targets.

Taking the long-term view invites us to pause when an employee moves on and ask questions like: Is there another role to better support our vision? If we were to replace this person, how could we ensure they are set-up for success?

Taking the long-term view invites us to innovate when we're not winning new work. If we truly want to help our clients succeed, where are we falling short? We've learned the hard way that the poor-fit project route only leads to stress on the team due to low budget work and distraction from our vision. Neither help us in the long run.

Taking the long-term view prompts us to examine the underlying issue and remember why we're on this journey in the first place. It's about taking the time to improve the system at play and sometimes, acknowledge there's no system at all.

Lesson? Setbacks are never easy, so it's not worth pretending otherwise. By shifting our mindset, we can find peace and keep our eyes on the future, taking lessons learned and creating a better tomorrow. For me, the Barrel Maxims are the guide to finding that path forward.

Thought Starter

Am I letting setbacks hold me back or propel me forward?

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