BL&T No. 098: Getting Your Hands Dirty


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.


"Don’t sit still or rest on your laurels. Do the work—don’t just look on as others do it. My famous credo: get your hands dirty. If a young entrepreneur came to me today and asked how to start a company, I would say right off the bat: know what goes into making what you’re selling. If you sell from a place of total confidence in the quality down to the details, you will succeed.

From "Authentic: A Memoir by the Founder of Vans" by Paul Van Doren [Book]

Related: BL&T No. 050: Learning from Vans Founder, Paul Van Doren


At the start of the week, we agreed to take on a new, fast-moving request for a client to help them out. We understood the project's purpose but hadn't yet learned all the details. As we learned more, I'll admit — I was concerned. The client seemed unclear on their desired outcome. In addition, this would be only our second small project with the client, so I was worried about eroding trust if we couldn't deliver.

Early Wednesday, we were able to share the first draft with the client to get a gauge on the direction. Kudos to Dan, Director of Business Development, for leading the charge. There was a lot of feedback, but the path forward began revealing itself. I felt better, but I could tell I'd need to be more involved than planned.

For the rest of the week, I shifted the meetings I could and found time between the ones I couldn't so I could get the work done. There was no time to waste, so we took an iterative approach and sent the client one draft after the other starting Wednesday. With each round, the client got more clear on their vision, and as a result, the deck became more refined. Christine, Design Director, jumped in as we neared the end of the week and was instrumental in helping me take it home.

As I put the final touches on the deck on Friday, I kept thinking about how the project unfolded and my involvement. For context, I originally resourced two team members on this project just days before. However, once we better understood the ask on Wednesday, I paused to weigh the risks and outcomes of keeping them on board.

I knew the safest route would be if I took on the bulk of the work, but I asked myself if it was the best use of my time and if I was robbing these team members of a growth opportunity. Then, I thought about what might happen if we took a step in the wrong direction, given the ambiguity of the ask and the available team members' lack of experience with this type of work. The idea of asking them to work late on a project with so much uncertainty didn't sit well with me, nor did the potential drain on the team.

While I'm glad I chose to take on the work in the end, I share this story because this isn't the first time a situation like this has happened, and I know it won't be the last.

In my role, it isn't always clear when and where it makes sense to get my hands dirty, but I've realized there's no guidebook, no right or wrong. In essence, I know I can't make the decision once. Every situation warrants time to think or talk it through.

That said, I have noticed other benefits to jumping in to help out on projects:

  • Modeling how to approach the work for the team, especially recent hires
  • Getting firsthand experience with the current state of our process (what's working/not working)
  • Witnessing how clients experience Barrel
  • Facilitating a new project approach for future similar work
  • Helping improve collaboration between team members

I'm happy the week ended on a high note with the client without any strain on the team. I look forward to wrapping it up this week and looking at how we might take on similar projects down the line.

The client mentioned above hired us to replace their current agency. Getting acquainted with their team got me thinking about how we've been on both sides of similar situations and the contributing factors for a client to make a change. I'm currently writing a short essay about this topic. I plan to publish it this week. Stay tuned.

Update: Learning from Client and Employee Turnover

Thought Starter

Where am I reluctant to get my hands dirty without acknowledging how my involvement might benefit the situation and team?

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