BL&T No. 057: Reconnecting With The Employee & Client Experience

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.


"When I ran the production at Randy's East, I never hid out in an office. I was out on the floor getting my hands dirty. Now in California, my Randy's team and I had been trying to tell the employees how we had to do things the right way if we wanted to improve production. I realized that talking about the right way to do things just isn’t enough—I was going to have to show them. ... People listened to me because I wasn’t just telling them to do the work. I’d gone in and done it with them."

From "Authentic" by Paul Van Doren [Book]


Last Thursday, I joined the partners in our NYC office for our all-day quarterly planning meeting. We were grateful to have Wes, CTO, fly in for the day from Atlanta. It was the first time we were all together since the pandemic sent us home in February 2020.

We also got to catch up with employees we hadn't seen for awhile and even meet a few that were hired since going remote. Nothing better than swinging around the corner for a soup dumpling lunch in Chinatown. It was like old times and it felt great.

A Year of Progress

One year ago, I reflected on the evolution of the partners's quarterly plannings meeting in the fifth edition of this newsletter (read: BL&T No. 005: Rising Above the Action of the Day). Here's an excerpt:

"When looking back on previous meetings, we've found that we don't always see the big picture. When it feels like there's a lot that isn't working, it's hard not to be reactive. In time, we've found that these types of issues are better tackled in collaboration with those closest to the day-to-day processes. We can't expect to make them vanish on our own and truthfully, many of them will always be a challenge.

In our meeting last week, we didn't get hung up on these "pressing" issues; we gave them their space and moved on. Our focus for Q4 is not a bunch of band-aids to fix what feels like it isn't working right now. Instead, we defined the opportunities that we believe will take the business into uncharted territory. That's exciting."

I'm proud of all of our progress since writing this. At this moment, I believe this is the best iteration of Barrel and our roles as leadership yet. We still have a lot to learn but I attribute much of our personal growth so far to executive coaching, the books we've read together, and our willingness to be vulnerable and have difficult conversations.

One of our favorite sayings when navigating challenges is "point the finger inward." I'm not sure we really understood how to fully embody these words until this past year. We realized that to create lasting change within an organization, it was important to constantly question how we show up for the team (and our loved ones!) - not just in moments of conflict.

We learned the value of bringing our "whole selves" to work. Even when we try to compartmentalize work life and home life, there's no denying how one impacts the other. By breaking down these barriers, we discovered more about our ways of being and grew together in the process.

Losing Touch

Reading through my newsletter from last October, I see it as a turning point. On one hand, it was a positive shift to taking a step back and embracing a long-term view, not getting caught up in the day-to-day challenges. This gave us space to chart vision and inspire the team toward a new and exciting future. On the other hand, did we take one too many steps away? Over the last couple of weeks, I got the sense I had.

In various interactions, I worried I was losing touch with the team and their project experiences. Over time, I worried that I might lose trust with the team, attempting to lead them toward a vision without real insight into what might be holding us back.

There were two defining moments that confirmed my fears.

Moment #1: Upward Feedback

This month, I'll be doing my Semi-Annual Upward Feedback session with the team (related: Conducting My First Upward Feedback Survey). I've had a chance to review some of the feedback as it comes in. In one employee's review, they commented on my concerns as if they could read my mind. Here's an excerpt:

"I think due to [Lucas] taking a step back from the hands on, day-to-day overseeing that used to be a primary focus, there will occasionally be moments of slight disconnect from the internal team that Lucas will have surrounding certain events."

Moment #2: Client Call

One of our clients recently ended their contract with us. While we knew they had plans to scale down website work, we were eager for more explicit feedback. We got insight from our day-to-day contact and reached out to the key client stakeholder. I met with this person a couple of times early on in our relationship but we hadn't spoken in months.

On our call, the stakeholder provided additional context and clear areas for improvement. I couldn't help but wonder if we had surfaced these points earlier, we might still be working with the client. The call ended in good spirits, but the notes from upward feedback echoed in my mind. I felt the same fear of losing touch with the client experience that I did with employees.

Going Forward

Reflecting on these moments reminded me of a book I read with the design team a number of years ago called Naked Sales by Justin Jones and Ashley Welch.

The book begins with a story about a Salesforce account executive, Sachin Rai, trying to land Greyhound as a client. He ends up boarding a bus from LA to San Francisco to better understand a rider's experience then taking a competitor's bus back to LA. After sharing his findings with the Greyhound C-Suite team, he wins the account. The C-Suite team was amazed by what Sachin discovered. Despite their role leading the company, some of them had never taken a trip like Sachin's.

I realized that if I wanted to make a change, I needed to find a way back on the bus from the time to time. This doesn't mean I'll get back to designing websites or running client workshops. It means creating space to engage with the team in their work and gain insights from clients and employees alike. There are two initiatives I'll be experimenting with to make progress.

Skip-Level Meetings

This week, I'm introducing skip-level meetings. With the permission of the managers on my team, I will be meeting with each of their direct reports on a regular basis. In the meetings, I'll ask questions about how clear they are on our vision for the future, what they're excited about / not feeling great about, and give them room to ask questions on their mind. My hope is to strengthen my connection with the team and:

  • Gather feedback
  • Create greater alignment on our vision
  • Hear their thoughts on higher level leadership topics

Executive Sponsors

Like our employee experience, I'm also looking to keep a better pulse on how a client experiences Barrel. After a debrief with Kate, Director of Client Services, and a conversation with the partners, we decided to roll out the concept of executive sponsors for every account.

An executive sponsor can be a partner, Dan (Director of Business Development), Kate, or someone else in leadership that is close to a key stakeholder. They'll act almost like a third-party rep who can periodically touch base with clients and check-in on how Barrel is supporting their business objectives.

Like the client conversation mentioned earlier, the hope is that these discussions can uncover opportunities to to improve our work, process, and value-add to clients. In addition to the executive sponsors, the partners and I will be looking for other opportunities to connect with new clients.

All in all, I'm enthusiastic about these initiatives and look forward to seeing how they unfold. As I explored in last week's newsletter, it's not about the setbacks, it's about how we internalize them and use them to take action on the future.

Lesson? You can attempt to improve an experience without being a participant, but that will only get you so far. When we participate, we learn so much more. We'll not only have a stronger vision but a clearer path to improving the experience for everyone involved.

Thought Starter

Where might I gain more insight by becoming a participant in an experience I'm working to improve?

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