BL&T No. 184: Thinking On Standards

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.


"This is characteristic of how great people think. It’s not that they find failure in every success. They just hold themselves to a standard that exceeds what society might consider to be objective success. Because of that, they don’t much care what other people think; they care whether they meet their own standards. And these standards are much, much higher than everyone else’s."

From "Ego Is the Enemy" by Ryan Holiday [Book]


Lately, I've been thinking about standards, particularly how they fit into our company culture and agency growth journey. Creating and maintaining standards is always more involved in practice than it seems at the outset. It requires a conscious effort to recognize the current standards in place, identify where the gaps lie, define new ones, and then, the real challenge begins – ensuring we maintain them.

Over the past couple of years, we dedicated time to setting and creating standards across different aspects of the agency. Some efforts have paid off better than others. I'll share some examples.

SOPs. We recognized recurring questions without answers or a clear point of view, so we introduced a curated set of SOPs to make decisions and document them as a resource. We designated a team member as lead and tasked them with drafting each SOP, informed by team insights, followed by a feedback loop before finalizing it in our team's Notion. Although these SOPs have become valuable resources, we're currently lacking a means for their regular application and keeping them up-to-date.

Team Performance. On the team performance front, we revamped our feedback and performance management system to create more frequent check-ins. The goal was to better keep everyone in the loop about where they stand, from both their manager and peers. We started with monthly feedback, realized it was too much, moved bi-monthly, and finally settled on a system where managers and the team alternate feedback every other month. This shift made annual reviews obsolete and eliminated Performance Improvement Plans. While we've received positive feedback about the process and seen its impact, we've also learned that sticking to these standards can mean making tough calls, like letting someone go, with decisiveness and without delay.

Account Check-Ins. Our Weekly Account Status system has become a cornerstone for keeping our projects and client relationships on track since rolling it out. It's a weekly checkpoint for leadership to catch up on each client account. Client Services updates their account status in Notion every Tuesday, which then gets reviewed in multiple meetings, including one on project financials. This process, while simple, uncovers new questions and helps ensure early flags don't go unnoticed. Though it's not foolproof, and some warning signs have slipped through, the system has been valuable in maintaining account health, preempting problems, and ensuring happy clients.

New Business. We've had a standing new business meeting every Tuesday for ages, but the agenda and attendees have continually evolved. As we've refined agency financial models over the last year, we've noticed an opportunity to better plan for new projects within existing client accounts, not just new clients. It only makes sense if we're setting revenue targets and expect a certain percentage to come from existing clients. At the same time, we've learned that simply capturing potential future opportunities in Hubspot is only part of the equation. Creating a standard around adding value and growing our existing client relationships begins with ongoing planning and collaboration with our Client Services team. Starting tomorrow, Account Managers will join these meetings. Our aim is a more integrated view of new opportunities, ensuring we're not just updated but we're working together on how we can help turn potential projects into reality.

Client Performance Dashboards. Speaking of account growth and value creation, we rolled out a Client Performance Dashboard initiative last year; we started proactively tracking our client's e-commerce metrics. The thought was that the mere act of capturing these metrics would inspire ideas, and a monthly meeting for review would be enough to discuss them as a team before raising them to the client. It hasn't quite come to life as planned but qualitatively, I would say the proactive "data-driven" mindset is more ubiquitous among the team than prior. The main benefits of this initiative have been the team having a better handle on our clients's e-commerce performance and a reference point for questions and client planning sessions.

So, how do you establish standards and make them stick? Broadly, much of it comes down to the types of folks you bring on and how they contribute to the company culture. The other part of it, well, I'm sure my perspective on this will continue to evolve, but for now, I'd say it's:

  • Have a vision: Know what you're aiming for.
  • Identify standards: Identify the gap and what's missing between today and the vision.
  • Team alignment: Ensure everyone is on board with these standards.
  • System: Align on a system that will create the behavior for upholding the standards.
  • Commitment to act: Be prepared to make hard decisions when standards are at risk.

In many ways, this a blueprint that could apply beyond agency life. The essence of standards is core to how we navigate our lives. Whether it's pursuing a new passion, training for a competition, or saving for a dream purchase, raising and evolving your standards are the pathway to meaningful change. It's setting a new bar for our lifestyle choices and having the systems and discipline in place to stay on track. In that way, they embody the habits and rituals that define who we are today and who we become tomorrow.

"The most practical way to change who you are is to change what you do." (James Clear, Atomic Habits)


Where am I spending time documenting standards without any plan to embed, maintain, and grow them within the team?

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