Balancing Act

This is a stressful business. We love it (or, one presumes, we wouldn’t be doing it), but it is definitely stressful. We frequently speak with agency principals who are tearing their hair out over the host of frustrating issues they must deal with every day—indecisive clients, encroaching vendors, employees with “issues” that cannot wait, phone messages to be returned, email out the wazoo… And to make matters worse, your wife is bitchin’ because you’re never around, your kids don’t recognize you when you walk in the door, and your best friend has given up inviting you to play golf. Some days, it just seems like too much, doesn’t it?

If there is one thing we have learned in this business, it is not to take it all too seriously. We can get so involved in the mundane, arcane and intimate details of daily operations, we have no time to step back and take in the big picture. So allow me to sketch it out for you.


The trick is to find balance.

Walking the Tightrope
The daily juggling act is one that you have learned and embraced over time. But now that the agency has grown, and you have many more balls in the air than in the old days, it isn’t nearly as much fun, is it? That is because you are probably still too “hands-on” in the daily activities of the agency. You are, in essence, juggling on a tightrope, where the least breeze from any of a dozen sources can send you tumbling. At least, that is how many of you have told me that you feel.

As a principal, you need to step away from the detail-oriented business of agency operations. You have to let go and delegate to your valuable managers and mid-level employees much of what once required all of your energy and focus. Only when you learn to do that—and give employees permission and authority to make some decisions without constantly coming to you for approval or guidance—can you gain breathing space to oversee the “bigger picture.”

When you have some distance from the mundane, you will also find space to take a day off now and then, make plans for the agency’s future, and conduct some all-important assessments of staffing, assets and new business efforts.

Recovering Your Balance
To begin the process of backing out of the juggling act, you must hand off many responsibilities to other managers and employees. This calls for a series of adjustments within the agency.

1.   Know your own strengths and weaknesses. What roles do you want to continue playing? Where are your skills and abilities most valuable? In what functions do your partners or senior managers do better than you? A carefully considered self-assessment is a must in determining where and how to step back from daily operations.

2.   Delegate to the right people. If you have partners or fellow principals who have many of the skills you possess, sharing your duties among them becomes relatively easier. If you are sole principal, assess the capabilities of senior employees to see to whom you can reliably assign new responsibilities. Look also at promising candidates for promotion among lower-level employees, and begin to think about training and mentoring to help them grow to where they, too, can assume heavier duties.

3.   Think about the agency’s size. How big are you? How quickly has the agency been growing? How big do you want to be? Sit with your partners and senior staff people, and talk about the agency as it is today, and where it should try to go from here. You may find they are looking in different, potentially more profitable directions than you have considered. This is another benefit of stepping back and taking a big-picture view of the agency. You will see aspects of the view that were previously hidden by the barrage of work you were plowing through.

4.   Grow your employees to grow your agency. Discuss which employees are good manager-material, and what steps you should pursue to advance those employees to help the agency grow. Train—not just for lower-level employee skills, but for upper level managers as well. Assess where potential new hires may be needed, and what needs to be done to make those hires affordable and possible.

5.   Use regular evaluations to assess the agency’s overall balance. To establish and maintain balance at the top, where you are, it is critical to establish a similar balance among the ranks. If the base of the pyramid is unstable, the person at the top is bound to lose his or her balance. Keep an eye out for departments or individuals with too much workload, and spread out the work; for places where technology upgrades can help smooth out processes; and for employees who are uncomfortable with assigned roles. Keep shuffling and tweaking until a balance is established, and continue to make necessary adjustments to maintain agency balance.

6.   Recognize that the agency’s new decision-makers may have different personal styles than your own. Give them room to work out their own way of doing things. You cannot truly achieve balance until you let go of the old habit of holding on to the supports. It is no longer your responsibility to run the daily operations of the agency. You are now a manager, with a focus on long-term planning and growth.

7. Trust the agency culture. If you have built a culture of strong values, ethical behavior, and internal collaboration and support, the culture and your employees will carry your designated next leaders forward. Let it happen.

Put down the balls and back away slowly…
Now you are ready to relinquish those many functions that once required all of your time and mental agility to “keep in the air.” Take a long-delayed vacation. Get away for some long weekends. Enjoy a long lunch with friends each week, or take an afternoon off to play and mentally refresh your head space. Give yourself—and your new managers—the benefit of your distance from the daily operations. They need time to find their feet, and you need to physically let go of old responsibilities.

This adjustment may take some time. Ask for regular progress reports from the people now in charge of agency operations. As a team, tweak the new arrangements to make sure they are working and the agency does not suffer from the changes. Do a regular gut check to assess whether you have truly released control, or if you are sliding back into the habit of micro-managing.

Letting go can be very liberating. You have entered an exciting and rewarding new phase in your growth as an agency principal. Maintaining balance will become second nature. Relax and enjoy your new perspective.