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How to Grow an Agency by Becoming Optional, Leadership Training, and Building Personal Warmth (feat. Karl Sakas)

Jakub
Jakub "Kuba" Grajcar is the Content Marketing Manager at ZenPilot. His obsessions include interviewing smart people; productivity methods; project management; and playing bass in a progressive metal band.

“If you don't like managing people, one of the things to consider is: do you want to run an agency? The management portion will never go away. But it also doesn't have to be so hard.”

 

Karl Sakas, agency advisor and founder of Sakas & Company, has served as “agency therapist” for over 600 clients in 36 countries.

He was also our recent guest on Agency Journey. His fourth time on the show!

You can guess why we had Karl on so many times—his insights are always on point.

If you want to work less and earn more, and be a better leader for your agency through cultivating personal relationships and intentional leadership training, this episode will be well worth a listen.

 

Episode Insights:

💡 The four stages of day-to-day involvement agency owners progress through on the way to becoming optional

💡 Managing expectations as you plan your agency succession

💡 Karl’s process and challenges narrating the audio version of his book, “Work Less, Earn More”

💡 The importance of warmth vs. competence as a manager

💡 Practical tips for building personal relationships with team members and network contacts

💡 Karl’s personal investment in leadership development, including his own coaching and participation in intensive leadership programs

💡 The importance of 360 evaluation as a leader

💡 The leadership development programs Karl recommends

 

Resourced Mentioned:

📚 Sakas & Company website

📚 Follow Karl on LinkedIn

📚 Karl’s book, “Work Less, Earn More” (plus companion workbook)

📚 The Manager Tools training program Karl recommends

📚 Karl’s Agency Leadership Intensive (sign-ups open until end of February)

 

Check out the video recording of the conversation here:
 
 

You can also scroll below for a collection of Karl's insights from the show!

 

On How to Work Less, Earn More, and Become Optional as an Agency Owner

Karl's book, Work Less and Earn More, is all about reclaiming your time as an agency owner, while also leaving your business more, not less financially sound than before.

Karl talked about what you need to ask yourself as you embark on this journey:

"One of the key things here is that you want to start by getting clear on where you want to go.

What does success look like for you?

Do you want an exit? If so, what's your target timeline?

Do you want to sell for $5 million or $3 million or $100 million?

Those are all very different.

And also, do you want to do that in two years, 10 years, 'to be determined'?

If you're seeking to run a lifestyle agency, don't pay attention to the SaaS startup articles saying you should grow this mega-scaled business and have an enormous exit if that's what you don't want.

Some of my clients who lean toward lifestyle have said things like: 'Why would I sell? I would just go off and start a new agency.'"

Karl then outlined the four stages of making yourself optional at your agency:

"The next step is to understand where you fall on what I would call the day-to-day involvement meter.

So imagine a fuel gauge where you've got from empty to full.

There are four stages of day-to-day involvement.

And you can be in more than one at once. You might be more optional, for instance, in your sales process, less optional in other ways.

Initially, stage one, you're Mandatory. You can never get away.

You couldn't go out to lunch without something blowing up along the way.

You can get to stage two. That's where you are Necessary.

Things are somewhat better. You can be away for a day or two and your team's handling more.

Sometimes, they're making choices that you have to fix later that create problems.

But it's getting better at stage two.

Stage three is a lot better.

That's when you are now Needed, not necessary.

You could go on vacation for a week or two and things generally are running fine.

You're focused on things you generally like doing, for the most part.

And [some] people choose to stay there, [at] stage three, Needed.

But if you want—and this is especially important if you want to have an exit, but it works if you're committed to running a lifestyle agency—you go from stage three, from Needed, to stage four, which I call Optional.

And at that point, you are just that. You are optional.

You don't need to be there all the time. And you're doing things that you enjoy doing.

Again, you can be in more than one stage at once. For instance, you might be mandatory as the sales closer, but optional for doing the initial screening.

Or maybe you've delegated your subject matter expert work and your project management, but maybe you're still doing account management and client strategy.

And maybe your goal is to get out of doing account management, but keep doing high-end client strategy.

You could do whatever you want.

The key is to understand where you are now and where you want to go. Are you pursuing Optional, stage four? Or are you happy with stage three, becoming Needed?

And there are certain things you can do to move up each of those steps, but that's the important next step: understand where you are and where you want to go."

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On What to Expect When Training Your Leaders to Replace You

All this prompted Gray to ask about leadership:

"I would imagine a big piece of becoming optional is your own leadership skills—growing leaders internally to be able to step up and replace you?"

 

Karl responded with an anti-example:

"Here's something not to do.

I've spoken at agency conference four years ago, and I shared the concept of Work Less, Earn More and the four stages.

And an agency editor said:

'This sounds great. I'm currently Mandatory, stage one. I want to get to Optional.'

She said, 'I want to get there in a year.'

She didn't really have a full-time team.

She said, 'I want to hire someone who's a rising star, and I want to pay them only $75,000 a year, and I only want to hear from them three times a year.'

I said, 'That probably is not going to work. If they're a rising star, they're certainly going to expect more than $75,000 a year, especially if you're expecting them to contact you only once every four months. That's unlikely. And to get there in a year, probably not.'

I never heard from her again."

 

He then proceeded to explain how you can actually build your way towards training your team to replace you:

"But the good news is you can make progress.

And a lot of that is about building up your team.

For instance, if you don't currently have a strong number two, that would be an important place to start.

And it's going to take time to develop them. If you don't have a number two in place already, or you don't have a candidate who's on your team already, it could take a year and a half to find them and take them through a process to get them ready to handle things.

On the other hand, if you have someone who's high potential, it could certainly go faster.

Some of it depends on the individual.

And you want to build a ramp-up plan for them.

So for instance, maybe someone is in a manager role, and you know they have potential. You've talked with them about their potential future path.

Maybe they'll go to a director role, and then to a VP role.

And after VP, maybe they'll go COO, maybe they'll be Managing Director.

After that, depending on the path you're looking for, maybe President, maybe eventually becoming CEO if you want to become the Chair of your agency.

The key with that though is to have a phased process.

Don't just desperately take someone who has high potential and make them the CEO or the president or the COO if that's not where they are now. Because you're throwing them into the deep end of the pool without giving them the support they need.

Good team members can deal with a lot of challenges, but it is unfair to them and to yourself to not have a phased ramp-up plan.

Because you need to see: do people succeed as they grow?"

 

Karl also shared that different people feel comfortable at different levels of that progression ladder:

"I saw this in volunteering through the American Marketing Association.

(...)

Sometimes people found that they liked being at a lower level in the hierarchy.

Maybe they liked being a director and focusing on one area rather than being a VP where they had to oversee lots of areas, things like that."

 

Karl's Specific Recommendations for Leadership Training

Karl dug deeper into how to train your leaders to grow their skills fast and prepare them for upcoming challenges:

"Consider the right approach for your agency around training, coaching, and on-the-job experience.

My recommended entry-level manager training is from manager-tools.com.

They have an eight hour Effective Manager Training.

I've done their in person version years ago.

I sent my Operations Manager to do their virtual version.

It covers things like coaching, doing one-on-ones, sharing feedback, things like that. Core things that are really helpful.

And even if you have a lot of experience as a manager, but have never had formal training, I would recommend it.

That's a good starting point.

Then you have to decide what to do from there.

Is it more about leadership than management training?

In that case, doing something like my Agency Leadership Intensive, which is an eight week virtual leadership development program for agency owners and executives, that's an option.

You may choose to do training that's more technical in nature, depending on the work they're doing.

For instance, if someone is going to become the VP of Account Services, maybe you want to do specific training about account management. 

Then the question is, what do you do after that training-wise?

And this gets into coaching—you need to coach people.

Just because people have the potential and they have the training doesn't mean they're still not going to struggle in the moment as things go.

And that's where coaching comes in.

You know, if you are not meeting with each of your direct reports every week for at least a 30 minute one-on-one (O3) meeting, you're missing a lot of opportunities.

And you might say, 'Well, I've got five people reporting to me. That's two and a half hours a week.'

And I'm like, those are a great investment of two and a half hours a week!

And if you have 20 people reporting to you, you have too many people reporting to you. So fix that as well."

 

On 360 Evaluations and Karl's Wake-Up Call

Karl then talked about 360 evaluations, his own leadership training, and the feedback he received that helped him recognize his shortcomings as a leader.

"Another powerful thing is doing a 360 evaluation.

Getting feedback from people that you work with today who report to you...

...or peers potentially, if you're in an agency executive role, if you have a business partner...

...as well as past bosses and past colleagues from before you joined or started your agency—that can be really helpful.

And if you want to do the really all-in approach to leadership development, that could include doing ongoing executive coaching,

I've worked with my own coach for eight years. And it's great.

You could also do a more bootcamp, in-person type program.

I did one of those over a decade ago from Grinnell Leadership, their Leadership Jumpstart.

So you're basically at the beach in North Carolina for a week, but it is not a vacation.

It's not therapy, but I would describe it as similar to two years of therapy in a week.

You know, you [do] assessments ahead of time, you do the 360...

It's intense, but for me, it was life changing.

The feedback I got... I completed it when I was 30. I thought I was a pretty good manager. You know, I'd been in different roles and so on.

The feedback effectively from the 360s, was that I was good at getting things done, but not at making it fun for the people around me. And that was sobering.

Whereas one of the other participants said, 'You can't be a leader if no one wants to follow you.'

And that was a wake-up call.

I could have chosen to ignore that feedback and to sort of proceed it as is. But I realized there was going to be a limit on how far I could go if I didn't fix that.

And so I made a number of changes. One of those was reading the book, The Human Brand by Chris Malone and Susan Fisk.

They talked about the idea of warmth and competence.

Competence is getting the job done, which I was good at doing. Warmth was—do you make people around you feel special? That you care about them.

And so I've adopted that, and it has been transformative.

So if you haven't done a 360 eval, I would recommend it."

 

On Introducing More Warmth Into Your Leadership

Gray then asked for tips Karl could share that have worked well to "raise that warmth score" for him as a leader and manager.

"Some of it is just taking time to ask how people are doing, and to follow up.

Maybe you've got a team member and they have kids and they're involved in sports or dance or scouting or things like that. And maybe they mentioned their child had a recital.

Ask: how did it go?

Or they had a big game. How did that go?

You're showing that you care about them as a person, not just as a worker, which is a long-time challenge.

One of my grandfathers was a business professor and consultant for 40-some years.

I read some of his research from the 1950s. His focus was what we now call organizational behavior.

And he found that employees at large corporations said they wished their manager would treat them as a person rather than just a worker.

So if you feel like, 'Oh, asking how's your day going, or how's your week going—is it a waste of time?'

It is not a waste of time to the person you ask."

 

Karl also explained how you should make it a point to give team members space on the one-on-one agenda to discuss the topics that they want to cover.

"I got a comment from a team member several years ago who at that point was in her mid-30s.

And after the first O3, she said, 'This is the first time a manager has ever asked what she wanted to talk about.'"

 

Karl then shared about the origins of why he invests more than the average person in postage each year...

"In my volunteering, I would send thank you notes to people and notes in general about appreciating what they were doing.

And one of the volunteers on my team had helped me on an event. So I sent her a note.

(It's my usual routine. I spend about $1,500 a year on postage.)

I heard from her a few days later.

And she was like, 'Thank you for sending that. I've worked in marketing for 20 years and I've never gotten a thank you note from a boss before.'

Small things add up.

You still need to create a good environment for team members and make sure it's not a roller coaster.

Part of Work Less, Earn More is making your agency more stable, more sustainable, and less of the wild swings, which is going to help with your retention.

But small things matter."

 

On Why You Must Be Investing in Your Management Skills as an Agency Owner

Karl finished by sharing how much he personally invested in his own leadership growth, and why it is truly that important for agency owners.

"You need to apply what you've learned and keep learning for the rest of your life.

In my case, I've invested, in terms of investing in my own leadership development, something like tens of thousands of dollars and thousands of hours, if we include some of my volunteer leadership development, work with my own coach, therapist, doing the leadership development programs and things like that.

It never ends.

But it is worth considering that if you are the owner of an agency, you are a manager. You are managing people.

Even if you delegate a lot of it, maybe you are the CEO and you have a COO or president who's overseeing everyone or almost everyone. Or maybe you manage the COO and the sales and marketing team and your own assistant, but everyone else is in the structure there.

You're still managing people.

And if you don't like managing people, one of the things to consider is...

...do you want to run an agency?

The management portion will never go away.

But it also doesn't have to be so hard.

If all of your approach to management and leadership is based on past, perhaps, dysfunctional bosses—they were doing the best they could with what they had, probably—that doesn't mean you have to keep doing it the same way.

But it's a choice.

(...)

If you choose to put your head in the sand and not listen, you're not going to grow.

And if you want to grow, you can. But it'll take choosing a commitment to do it, and then implementing."

 

There's More You Can Do to Lead Your Agency to Success

Both Karl and our crew here at ZenPilot have the same goal:

To help agencies win.

In our experience providing operations consulting for 2,700+ agencies, we've found there are a few specific areas you need to take care of to stabilize, grow, and—if preferred—exit the agency.

We call them the 3 keys to gold-standard operations:

  • Processes
  • Tools
  • Habits

If you want to dial in all three, the key is to have a rock-solid work management system.

We recommend building one on top of ClickUp, which is flexible enough to meet the needs of any agency.

It's also flexible enough that there are multiple ways to reflect each of your workflows...

...which can lead to some really suboptimal setups.

But since you found us, you can just use ZenPilot's Guide to ClickUp for Agencies to implement our battle-tested system to track agency work in ClickUp.

By implementing ClickUp effectively, you'll have the power to not just gain visibility into all the ongoing and upcoming tasks within a well-organized platform...

...but you'll also have the ability to extract data on utilization and profitability, allowing you to create a comprehensive dashboard that highlights exactly where your agency is thriving (or struggling) financially.

Have a look at our Profitability & Utilization Reporting tool (built on top of ClickUp) to make this data visible for your agency.

Don't forget to subscribe to Agency Journey for more agency insights.

See you in the next one!

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