I had a conversation with Max Newton yesterday in brief that’s been spurred on by my feelings of being tired of my agency.
And so Max mentioned ‘we need to do some succession planning’ and it struck me that this was probably what I’ve been doing unwittingly since the beginning of January.
So I want to walk through what’s happening on the ‘ground floor’ at Pearl Lemon so I hope it can be of inspiration to you as you use THIS blog post as a ‘succession planning model’ and ‘tool’ to put together your own strategy.
Now I’ve taken a look at what currently exists online – and it’s obvious to me that the main bulk of what’s been written is by someone who’s just ‘Googling’ ‘top tips’ on succession planning best practices which I find to be bogus.
I want to walk through where I’m at and what we’re planning to do in the hopes it gives you practical advice from someone whose midway through it – as to what you actually need to work through.
Let’s get into it:
What Is Succession Planning?
Succession planning is putting a plan of action in place when you lose an employee within your company – or in my case – when you decide you want to focus upon other things.
You obviously can’t just ‘up and leave’ – unless you want the agency to implode of course – which can easily happen.
So when you think about this – what is also important when you think of best practices – is the following:
The Importance Of Succession Planning
If this is something you’re really thinking about – i.e exiting your business. Then it’s (obviously) important to have a plan.
So for me let me walk through some of the areas that are important that really become the foundation to my plan:
- Where am I most HEAVILY involved in Pearl Lemon?
- Where are the biggest weaknesses in Pearl Lemon?
- Who are the strongest people that can step up to X task?
- Where do you need NEW people to step up to X task?
- What training do you have in place?
- What training is currently absent?
- Do you have a coach to help you work through it?
- Are you going to plan and execute in tranches?
- Have you mapped out a ‘worst case scenario’ for it not working?
- Have you psychologically prepped for the various nightmare situations?
For me – I find just beginning to think about these things is very powerful and also scary as f*ck.
Letting go more and more of the baby I’ve built REALLY since August of 2017 is scary – but also necessary as I seek to plot the next steps of my journey.
Why Are You Engaged In Succession Planning?
The idea of the inherent weaknesses within my business began maybe 18 months ago when I was visiting one of our clients (and a good friend Ofir) in Israel.
As he told me – it’s interesting to look at what happens to a business when you look at their two key stakeholders – and pluck them from the business for a week.
No involvement, no activity. No nothing.
If the business falls apart – then it’s not a real business – in fact, it’s a highly paid consulting gig.
At that time – this shook me to my core – because I realized that THIS was the business I was in – being a highly paid consultant (and not even that highly paid).
If I left Pearl Lemon for a week – the thing would fall apart.
This ultimately is what set me on the path to figuring out how to change that.
Alongside this, it was also because I want to do other things outside of Pearl Lemon.
Digital Marketing Agency life is satisfying to the degree it’s like doing business on the front lines’.
We’re (broadly speaking) seen as commodities in terms of what we deliver and the expectations are high and the focus is on continuous improvement and success.
Scaling is very complex all around.
The work we deliver is in constant flux as marketing is evolving so quickly.
No two clients’ projects are the same.
No two industries are the same.
No two client relationships are the same.
And the complexities continue.
Of course – I’m sure this is the case for many service-based businesses and my ‘experience’ is very relative to all I know.
So if you’re in the recruitment industry or insurance industry or financial consulting – it may well be very much the same to this degree.
But customer loyalty – as the number of marketing companies increases exponentially, and customer longevity – is also broadly decreasing.
The cost of change gets lower and lower as you can jump back onto the veritable ‘Tinder’ roll call of finding another firm to work with you.
With all of the whining aside – it’s also about my desire to do other things.
This blog and my blog ‘at large’ is an example of it.
I’m writing about all things unrelated to Pearl Lemon.
Anyway – my point is – your why needs to be big. Otherwise, the pains of succession planning models in agency land are so big that you may well find yourself back in the same place that you started to begin with (I know because this is what has happened to me over the last calendar year!)
It’s as Tony Robbins said – ‘true change comes when the cost of staying the same is greater than the cost of change’.
So this is the box that I’m ticking – and I’m now taking actions to accelerate this journey to ensure that whatever the outcome – Pearl Lemon will be in a better place than when I started this journey.
How Can You Actively Commit To The Process?
Talking is not doing. And boy I talked for a long-time
So you need to start taking action in this space.
And actually – it DOES begin by talking about it.
For me, it’s been a 6-month journey of dancing around with this idea in my head.
I made some broad comments about it to several people that I spoke with – but as our revenue grew I also got carried away with the revenue.
So of late, I took some specific actions that made it a ‘bigger issue’ in my mind.
Mindspace (i.e the things you think about) – is where actions begin.
- I spoke about it with my accountability coach and decided it would be my focus for Jan 2021
Here’s Valentina cheering me on as I show her the progress I make!
- I searched aggressively for my new head of lead generation in Dec/Jan 2021
- I spoke about this with Ross Tavendale (agency owner)
- I spoke about this with Craig Campbell (former agency owner)
- I spoke about this with Kent Anvil (agency owner)
- I spoke about this with Max Newton (agency owner)
The reason for this was my need to really ‘ratchet up’ this process.
And this comes from forcing it into the top of my mind
Make Space To Work On The Business Not In The Business
This is an obvious one – but I want to be specific about how I actually did this.
I blocked out 430am – 11 am from being on calls with anyone.
I.e if you tried to book a call with me – you can’t before 11 am.
Furthermore, I don’t check EMAIL until 11 am either, and I don’t check it after 6 pm.
And I AIM to check it 2x per day.
This shift (which happened around 30 days ago) was a huge signal change for the team.
- They had to get things done without me.
- They had to realize I mostly wasn’t around to answer stuff.
- They became more self-reliant.
Here are the things I can tell you from experience – that you need to SHUT a lot of things out to ALLOW new recognitions/realizations to occur.
As much as I ‘wanted’ to get into the space of succession planning best practices, I was really too busy and too scared to give it the time it deserved.
And that’s why the space thing is so important. I have ultimately 6 hours each morning (430am – 1030am to focus on the things I enjoy AS WELL as to be able to work ON the business instead of IN the business) –
The reason this much time (for me anyway) is needed – because the biggest challenge to this process is you stall!
You develop 1001 ‘logical’ reasons to not get into the weeds of the importance of succession planning and how to build a business that can run by itself.
In planning – you are forced to focus on the weaknesses within your business. To focus upon the numbers, the team, what’s no good, what’s really good, and more.
I can tell you – it’s horrible to think about ALL of these things and to realize ‘OMFG I’ve pretty much got a sh*tty business’
Start Putting A Training Programme In Place
So a big misnomer is to just focus on 1-2-1 training with the person who you’re hoping to appoint as your replacement.
But I think that’s extremely short-sighted – and here’s why:
The average employee lifetime in the media industry is probably a couple of years at best. When you’re a small agency with an entirely remote team like Pearl Lemon is I’d potentially wager it’s less.
Certainly in the early days anyway as you try and find your key people.
For me (currently) that’s:
- Ion, Semil, Lydia, Federica, Prishani, Adam, and Tenny
There are others whom should they stay the path – could come into this circle – but that’s where it’s at right now.
And all of these people – well they need to:
- Be as good or ideally MUCH MUCH better than you
- Show loyalty
And this is the key point:
- Have the ability to train others around them
So what this means practically is that you need to create training videos/documentation to support them
This is what I specifically did for Pearl Lemon:
- I have created two leadership training videos
- I have created two client management training videos
- I have a wealth of technical training videos
- I am going to create two project management videos
If you build all of these out – you’ll be in a MUCH better place to be able to deal in succession planning
These videos are fundamentally the ‘fall back’ for any person in the team or ANY person coming in.
I.e to ramp up and onboard someone, they can storm through your training videos FIRST and then be in a position to do 1-to-1 training – and THIS is the approach that I think is most logical.
Identify Your Key Team Members
Now I’ve already made mention of this – but hiring from within is key to having people step into a leadership role as you plan for succession.
Of course, you can hire people to come in and ‘do a job’ – but they cost more, you don’t know about loyalty/skillset and all of the issues that come with it.
I think in hindsight – I didn’t feel like I had the right people to be in a place to successfully cope with any kind of transition.
You’ll read stuff about ‘you need this specific role and that specific role’ – but when you’re small you’ll find the best people do that and much more.
Regardless – in Prishani I found someone that WASN’T involved in the company until recently – and I’ve hard to work hard to understand if her loyalty will be there for the long term
I think it will be – but I have (and you all must have) a system in place with recruitment and training should she have other ideas.
Map Key Responsibilities To Key People and Identify Your Gaps
So for me – as an example – the key things are:
- Having a continual pipeline of new business via PPC & Cold Outreach
- Having someone heading up all outbound activity
- Having someone manage all the accounting
- Having someone manage all of the SEO clients
This is the 20% of tasks (and if I’m being honest it’s REALLY the SEO client management and accounting that are the current BIG timesucks for me) that would solve 80% of my problems as I plan for succession.
Once you know what these are (and intuitively you will) – work on solving these problems will be the most important thing to focus on figuring out as quickly as you can
And it may also make you realize that you are MISSING key people within your business – and where you are….well, you need to find someone to step up OR you need to look at hiring in to get that spot filled.
Success Planning And Any Best Practice Is Redundant Absent The Right Team
I needed to put this into here – because one of the key issues (and it’s still one I continue to have) is that for all of the tools and frameworks that relate to succession…
Do you need to identify your rockstar people who’ll be those that will fly the flag in your absence?
Until you have those people and 8 will absolutely help with this…it’s going to be pretty hard to really get through the other steps.
You can definitely make a start on this all – but true progress has come for me now I’ve got some good people in the team that can follow in my footsteps and do better than I’ve done.
So figure out who’s missing – and go find them!
Prime Your Leadership Team
This is probably obvious to you – but it wasn’t to me lol.
Basically, if you’re getting ready to do this stuff – it’s important to let your team know so they can make the relevant preparations.
Here’s what I sent over yesterday for our Friday call.
Give Everyone Due Notice
Naturally, if this is something that you are planning to ‘do’ in 6 months then it’s important you let the team know a few months in advance so everyone can begin making the necessary preparations.
Dropping it on folks last minute, of course, doesn’t make sense.
For me – I only told people about it yesterday because I knew I was already making several critical steps in the planning process
Focus On The Big Wins And Quick Wins In Parallel
So hopefully you can see from all of the above that quick wins are:
- Talking about it to several people
- Setting up calls
- Recording the training
The bigger issues are:
- Getting folks ready
- The scariness of it all
So do a combination of all of the above whilst making sure that you:
Don’t Sweat The Detail – Deal With It Step By Step
There’s always going to be the minutiae when it comes to every little bit of the business you or your key people are involved in that you’ll maybe not even realize until well….you’re not doing it.
This could be the way you respond to conflict, the way you deal with X/Y/Z.
So I’d deal with these problems as they come up instead of planning to the “Nth degree”
This will be a good way to think about it – and with enough of a timeline – you can give yourself time to see how it plays out and fix all of these problems one by one.
But as succession planning models go – the detail can come to last IMHO.
It’ll Take Much Longer Than You Think
I’ve probably been thinking about this for over a year. And it’s only now I’m writing this blog – which I hope gives you an insight into how much is involved.
The process itself is equally messy and will also be filled with issues and mishaps and the like – or at least it is in my case
Transition – and proper transition – fundamentally takes time and in my instance – I originally set a March timeline – which I’d STILL like to go for.
That’s (from the date of writing this) – literally just down the road.
I hope to get there – and the ONLY way I’m thinking about this is that I MUST get there by then’.
Have Some Dry Runs
I’ve not YET done this – but it’s something that I really do need to do.
Try and get the business to run without my involvement for a week and just to see what happens.
It may be the case that everything falls apart.
It may be the case that nothing works and you have a client cancel.
How else are you going to figure out how your company performs if you KEEP being involved.
So dry runs are SAFE ways to test the mettle of your successors and the success of your plan turned into an action process 😛
If a week is too long….try a DAY…then a WEEK…etc
(Of course – this assumes you’ve already assembled the right team)
Why You Should Do This Even If You AREN’T Going Anywhere?
As Kent has reminded me – this is how you make your business more ‘saleable’.
A digital marketing agency that can run without its founder is an excellent business. And this is something that I’m really working hard towards.
What will be exciting is that I don’t want to sell the business at all – I want it to continue – I want it to flourish.
To make those things happen I need to minimize much of its weaknesses and its dependencies.
And in truth – I’m one of the biggest dependencies and weaknesses of the business.
This is why I’m working hard to remove myself from all day-to-day runnings so I can gently fade into the background 🙂
Well – nothing much beyond what I’ve said – I just hope that as you think about your own success planning – that this proves to be a powerful toolkit and methodology to plan out your journey to well….
If it’s anything like me – yourself!
I can promise you it’ll be scary, I can promise you you’ll fear much of it.
In my case, I’ve seen revenue drop, client satisfaction slightly reduce – but you DON’T discover what bases you’re unwittingly covering until you STOP covering them 😛
So stick to your guns, or grow some balls lol – and move forward.
If you do this properly I’ve got no doubt it’ll make you more money, help you scale faster and become the makings of a something special 🙂
Word Count check:
2 hours – as I figured it might end up being 🙂
Onto the next one!