BL&T No. 077: Facing Tough Decisions

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.

Borrowed, Learned, & Thought

For some time now, I have been toying with a question in my mind. What is it about a crisis that forces us to get real about what we want? How can we unlock the same level of clarity before our situation becomes so dire?

In our lives, this may look like a family member or friend who survives a health scare, so they prioritize eating healthier and make time to exercise weekly. Soon, they lose 40 lbs and are more happy and energetic than ever before, unlocking a version of themselves that they never knew existed.

I also think of employee and manager relationships. The manager knows the employee has put in late nights, but the manager takes no action until the employee expresses feeling burned out. They immediately shift the workload and set up regular check-ins. Eventually, the employee becomes an invaluable mentor for the team, inspiring and training junior talent.

It is frightening to think about how poorly these situations may have gone without a sudden scare.

I recently started reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. At the start of the book, Covey touches on a similar concept: “Many people experience a [fundamental] shift in thinking when they face a life-threatening crisis and suddenly see their priorities in a different light, or when they suddenly step into a new role, such as that of husband or wife, parent or grandparent, manager or leader. We could spend weeks, months, even years [trying] to change our attitudes and behaviors and not even begin to approach the phenomenon of change that occurs spontaneously when we see things differently.”

What I appreciate about Covey’s take is his focus on prioritization. While a crisis will often create fear, what is important is how it forces us to shift our viewpoint, which often results in coming to terms with what we want. For many, the COVID-19 pandemic did just that. Whether it was a loss, spending more time with family, no longer commuting, or being laid off, a change in experience led people to see life through a new lens and re-prioritize.

I chose to explore this phenomenon with you because of a decision myself and the other Barrel partners faced last week. Maybe the toughest in our nearly 16 years as an agency, but certainly the most challenging of my career. On Friday, we announced we were downsizing our team by six employees, or nearly 15% of our full-time team. This choice meant eliminating a department and consolidating another.

It took me a few days to decide whether or not to share this news here. Part of me wanted to take the easy way out and write about how wonderful it was to spend Friday afternoon with my 93-year-old Mom-Mom (aka Grandmom). But too often, we only show the wins or the parts of our lives worth celebrating. We give others an inaccurate view, leaving them thinking, am I the only one dealing with issues? Having to sit with this decision in writing is helpful for me, and if sharing it can help someone else out there, that is even better.

In my last few newsletters, I shared updates to how we track team utilization and monitor project health. Since rolling these out, we have highlighted some serious issues across many of our accounts: over-budget projects (due to delays or changes in scope), or over-serviced retainers. In either case, much of our core team was stretched thin on non-billable work. To kick off new projects and increase our pipeline, we relied on freelancers to finish projects, further increasing costs and diminishing profits.

The realization that our business performance was suffering was not new, but we were hopeful that landing new deals would turn things around. However, uncovering the state of projects made it clear that our issues went deeper. Without addressing what we offer clients, how we work, manage project scope, and set expectations with clients, landing new work would only take us so far. All in all, it was not a good place to be in as a business, and we could not afford to continue without making a change.

For most of the weekend, I found myself floating in and out of being present and reflecting on the week, caught between a feeling of failure and optimism. Failure for allowing our situation to get to this point. Optimism because facing these challenges forced us to be decisive and prioritize what we wanted for Barrel.

Two scenarios played through my mind. In the first scenario, we land a slew of new business. Our numbers look amazing overnight. Six months later, we are back in the same position.

When we first recognized that our business performance was suffering, you might say that we doubled down on our vision. We inspired hope among the team, offered more context for our goals, continued seeking out talent, and innovated on what we offer clients. I cannot say I regret these decisions because we have learned so much in the process and ended up with a stellar team. But in many ways, we were chasing scenario one.

In the other scenario, Barrel assumes new leadership. They take one look at our numbers and do what we did last week. Six months later, business is booming, and the team is working together more effectively than ever before. If you ask me what it takes to unlock the level of clarity we experience in a crisis without the crisis, I could not agree more with Covey — perspective is key.

The second scenario shows us the power of a perspective with no attachments. Deep down inside, we knew what we needed to do, but we did not want to let the team down. Whether conscious or not, I am sure that fear of failure and shame also played a role. We let that clout our decision-making and get in the way of what we want for Barrel. Digging into our team utilization and project health helped us see our priorities in a new light.

When I set out to write on Sunday, I had no idea where it would take me. It is Monday evening now, almost Tuesday. I have written and re-written this one too many times to count.

Now, I'm searching for the perfect conclusion, but it seems fitting to simply close with the facts. We have our work cut out for us, but I could not be more hopeful about the future and what we can achieve together. We are actively addressing challenges across the board. The layoffs have resulted in structural changes that we believe will make a positive and lasting impact on how we collaborate. We have narrowed our positioning to focus on what we do well and do it better. We have a committed team that wants us to succeed and help us do so.

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