When you grow with a fast-growing company your role tends to evolve considerably faster than within a normal business. This is no different for agency founders.
Since founding NOVOS, Antonio’s (my Business partners) role and mine have changed on an annual basis, sometimes more. As it’s a 50/50 ownership defining clear roles has been a challenge over the years.
When I look back over the last 3 years, I see these changes being driven by 2 core reasons:
- The Business: The two of us planning ahead and adapting for the needs of the business.
- Us as individuals: Discovering our own strengths, weaknesses, and general enjoyment.
You typically start an agency by evolving from a freelance or consultant business model – selling your time based on your experience within a set discipline (SEO, PPC, PR, Accounting, etc). The likelihood is you’re pretty hot at that discipline which gives you the self-confidence to take the big risk of going it alone and making your own way in the industry.
However, as your agency grows so should your role. I’m a big believer that if your role isn’t evolving with the agency then you are either:
- Being a blocker in terms of delivery (you are too focused on the business to focus on delivery).
- You are over-focused on delivery and neglecting the business aspect of the company and therefore won’t be growing as fast as your potential.
The only ‘thing’ suffering from the above is your business.
During this journey of growth and evolution, you will go from a manager to a head of a department to a director very quickly.
It’s when you get to the director level that imposter syndrome may kick in (it did for me but more on that another time). At this stage, you are out of day-to-day delivery and the business doesn’t need you for your discipline, skill, and experience anymore. You’re likely to have a large delivery team that should be delivering better and at a much larger scale than you ever could as an individual.
Below I’ll walk through the 5 stages of how mine and Antonio’s roles have evolved and the pro’s and con’s of each.
Before I dive into that, it’s important to highlight that, in order to achieve this evolution at your agency and to be confident and comfortable in a role that you excel at, you need to have a high level of self-awareness. It’s an essential skill for any leader, on a basic level you should be aware of your strengths and weaknesses and the impact you are having on individuals in your team (I’ll write about Self-awareness another time) .
The Evolution of our Roles
Stage 1: Disciplines and split based on delivery skillset
This was the first and most simple stage of our roles. We split the work based on our experience and discipline.
I’d take anything technical SEO focused, Antonio took anything content SEO focused.
The pro’s here were that we were able to offer both services simultaneously and deliver a good service to clients. This was such a good split to get the business off the ground and generate some income to scale.
Cons are obvious here where our time eventually became diluted between delivery and the business. We were aware of this very early on hence why we hired employees after around 6-7 months.
On top of this, we both naturally prefer the business side of the agency so were keen to focus on that aspect and get in better, more experienced individuals to deliver an even better service to our clients.
Stage 2: 50/50 discipline and business
Stage 2 came towards the start of year 2 and once we started to get a strong delivery team in place, we slowly transitioned ourselves out of client delivery and more on the business.
Antonio was able to do this much faster than me so there was a short period where he was 100% business and I was more 60-70%.
The advantage of this stage was that we were able to straddle both and we were still able to be involved in delivery so we could hand over the final accounts to the team.
The disadvantages of this stage are very similar to the previous where we are diluting our time across business and delivery and neither got the attention they deserved from either of us.
I talk to a lot of agency owners for general knowledge sharing and partnership opportunities. It’s incredible how many of them get stuck at this stage.
Personally, I think it’s for 1 or both of these reasons;
- They aren’t ready to let go and don’t have the full trust in their team to deliver how they want.
- They haven’t ‘downloaded’ their knowledge and way of working into a process and therefore the team doesn’t know how to deliver in line with their expectations.
To tackle point 1, I’d say test it on smaller clients first and transition to larger clients. Invest heavily in training for the individuals in your team. Also get in the mindset that just because the team may not be delivering exactly how you did, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. They may be delivering a much better service.
To tackle point 2, involves a big but one of the most important investments you’ll make to scale your business – processes. We store all of our processes in Notion and treat it as a mini Intranet. If you don’t document your knowledge for your team there’s no chance your agency will scale or innovate. You’ll become the bottle-neck on all important decisions and you’ll be dragged into all accounts when a client complains.
- Without a clear process there’s no foundation for growth and innovation.
- Without a clear process your delivery won’t be standardised and each person will be delivering what they think is best.
- Without a clear process you’ll become the bottleneck at the detriment of your business.
Stage 3: Departmental split
We spent the longest period of our time in this departmental stage. It was recommended to us by Waypoint who we took on briefly as growth advisors and makes perfect sense.
Simply list out each of the departments in a typical agency:
- HR + Legal
Then, divide up the departments into smaller groups and allocate one group to each of the founders.
This stage was great for us at the time. Each person owns the department and is responsible for pushing initiatives while the others support them.
Over time though, this setup ran its course. As mentioned, it worked well, in particular with the wider team as they knew who to message if they had any questions around specific departments.
The main con we discovered during this stage was that, as we both developed as Directors, we discovered our skill sets and, more importantly, what we enjoyed and what we didn’t enjoy.
Stage 4: Director Role Split
Stage 4 became a bit of a game changer for us to split our roles based on Strategy vs Execution. This is where the self-awareness comes in.
We outlined our own strengths and weaknesses and what we enjoyed doing and didn’t enjoy.
Our final outcome was a Strategy led role for myself and an Operations/execution role for Antonio.
I personally like visualising where we’re going, creating a plan and structure to achieve it. Antonio on the other hand is more action-focused, gets shit done, and has way better attention to detail than myself.
Stage 5: Strategy + Implementation
Our final stage is a smaller adaptation of the above. It’s led by Traction or Rocketfuel’s concept of a Visionary and Integrator. We refer to it as “Strategy + Implementation” but follows very similar principles.
Even though we’ve been through many stages of our roles, each stage was necessary. If we’d move straight from stage 1 to stage 5 we wouldn’t be confident in knowing where we excel as Directors.
Tactics or tools to use to help you define your roles are:
- 80/20 exercise: for 1 month write down the main tasks you’re doing, what’s driving the business forward, and what you hate doing/can delegate/outsource (shout out to Karl H for his support to us on this framework and rolling it out to the leadership team)
- Delegate to elevate: An adaption on the above, more information available here. In short, it’s a 4×4 matrix focused on love doing/good at it, like doing/good at, good at/don’t like doing, and don’t like/not good at doing.
If you’re in a similar position to us or are approaching similar stages we’ve been through, you’re in for quite a ride, just remember to stay self-aware and always aim to create a role that works for you (and other founders). If your roles aren’t what you want then the rest of your business will suffer. The roles at the top define the levels down the hierarchy.
We’re confident that stage 5 is the final stage of our role split – but you never know. We’re both very excited to see where the business takes us next!