7 Behaviours of Underperforming Agencies: #3 - Over-Reliance On Trust

articles people and culture sales and business development Nov 03, 2022
Under-performing agencies

Whilst an over-reliance on trust in your digital agency might not bring an Enron-scale collapse, do not assume that trust is an asset you can rely on - and do not assume it’s a value others share. 

To trust is human. Displays of trust define social rituals across the globe for thousands of years. Take that most business-like of greetings: the handshake. Its intent is clear: to indicate mutual trust. 

Unfortunately, we need more than symbolic gestures when it comes to agency growth, and an over-reliance on trust can lead to sloppy decision-making, a lack of systemic rigour and stalled growth and profit. 

As the third behaviour, we see in under-performing agencies read on for what to do about potential trust issues in your agency. 

 

Don’t build an agency on trust alone 

 

 Whilst mutual respect is typically evident in the agencies we work with, it’s too far a leap to assume that deeper and unspoken values always align. 

One of the mistakes agency owners make is to apply and assume their own values of loyalty to those around them. And then, inevitably, you will get let down. This is unlikely to collapse your agency, but could still lead to severe consequences for the business. 

An agency built on trust alone is as structurally sound as a house of cards. Creating more solid foundations will not only enable you to weather changes but actually cultivate more trust from those around you. 

We’re not saying that displays of trust are all bad! Take this example of the gesture made by most agencies.

Team members are allowed to take equipment home whenever they need to. It is, of course, returned - validating and cementing trust and, most likely, breeding it between the team member and the leaders. We NEED trust in an agency.  We trust that experienced people will do great work, we trust that people will turn up on a daily basis, and that people's perspectives and opinions will be heard and listened to, without personal attack.

But this act of trust involves minimal risk and is, fundamentally, limited in scope. 

Trust as a business-wide management strategy, or simply a default, is naive at best, ego-driven at worst. And leaves the business exposed. 

 

An over-reliance on trust typically looks like:

 

  • ‘Expectation’ used as the language of management 
    • I expected that the report would be delivered before the close of play…’ (Though I never communicated this to you in advance.)
  • No inherent management framework to communicate and deliver work
  • Knowledge existing only in the heads of leaders: client information, contract information and scopes of work aren't shared
  • No business rigour: no processes, no regular meetings and certainly no agendas
  • An imbalance between juniors/grads and seniors /experience 
  • Heavy reliance on the two or three people who are trusted to deliver
  • Business-as-usual decisions made by leaders - again, they’re called into the day-to-day as there’s no overarching system or process in place: meaning strategic decisions are forever bumped. 

 

The impact:

 

After a distraction, it takes 23 minutes to regain focus. Being focused is the key element of being productive. 

It takes little imagination to conjure the communication chaos in a workplace like the one described above: information requests filling the airtime or slack channels with key players constantly being interrupted to enable work to progress. 

Everyone is busy and everyone is at risk of burnout - yet workflows are bumpy and unpredictable. The CEO works crazy hours to mop up unfinished work from those who fail to deliver, and yet more hours on reciprocating the expected and unspoken contract of loyalty. 

And losing that guy or gal who holds the keys to the agency’s IP (in his head)? Catastrophic. Removing or losing the card that supports the house can lead to its collapse. 

Ultimately, if there is no tangible business system or process, then the agency’s value exists only in the people who manage the chaos. In essence then, it’s a business worthless to potential buyers. 

The Plan: People

 

Systematise everything. 

Then use the systems you create to spot the roles needed to work the systems that are not currently filled, and recruit A players who fit them - NOT who you come across who you ‘feel I can trust’. 

Fact: we frequently see 80% of a high earner’s time being taken up in work that a lower paid VA or junior could be doing. 

A head chef does not prepare the veg, nor wipe down the kitchen: but uses systems and training to enable their sous team to cover the basics. 

Define the steps in your system which are TASK-BASED and take these off your ‘head chef’s’ table. Hire virtual assistants or juniors to run these tasks with trust, not in the people, but in your systems’ consistency and the skill of the team to deliver the outcomes. 

An agency GYDA worked with operated without any processes. They sat down and defined them, painstakingly, listing the methods for their service provision. The discovery?  They were losing two days a month for each of six fee-earners on task-based steps within their processes. 

That’s a loss of 12 days per month - almost 30 working weeks a year. 

Systemisation took five days and resulted in the employment of two VAs. 

Those 12 days were gifted back to the staff who could utilise them: enabling the agency to onboard 14 new clients… AND create more fulfilled staff, more loyal to the agency. 

All in Agreement 

 

Expectation, particularly as a result of woolly communication, leads to disappointment. It’s built on a mis-placed foundation of trust, which we’ve seen is unstable. 

Effective management is in part about effective communication: and that happens at regular, effective, purposeful meetings. 

And we don’t see ‘stand-up’ or ‘scrum’ meetings defining communication in our high-performing clients. Whilst they might use them, they also use timed and regular weekly meetings, monthly meetings, quarterly meetings (with agendas, structure and focus).  

This creates:

  • Team and personal accountability towards KPIs
  • A systemised work pattern that generates pace and sustains momentum: a heart-beat within the agency 
  • The environment where decisions are made and next steps are clear to see. 

 

Remove the ambiguity: strive for agreement in meeting outcomes. What are the actions or next steps: Who, What, Where, Why, When, How…? Articulate, record and share this. Work as a team with clear goals. 

This transparency, in turn, breeds trust.