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Logan Lyles, Head of Partnerships at, and Susan Fennema, CEO of Beyond the Chaos, discuss hiring the right Director of Operations for your agency or client service firm.

This video focuses on hiring the right Director of Operations, which is a critical role for business success. They touch on the following:

  • Operations touch every department in the company from admin to client delivery to marketing
  • What kind of impact a Director of Operations can have on a business
  • When to hire a fractional or employee operations lead
  • How operations become your brand
  • How to find the right candidate
  • The skills and qualities to look for
  • The right tools in the business
  • Plus more!

Please find the full video transcription below:

Logan Lyles: Welcome. My name is Logan Lyles. I’m head of Partnerships at I’m joined today by Susan Fennema. She’s the CEO, known as the Chaos Eradicating Officer at Beyond the Chaos. We are very excited if you’re joining us live or if you’re watching this on-demand later. Thank you for spending time with us. This is part one in our five-part series, Mid-Day Margin. We want to allow you to take some margin to work on your business so you can give your team a margin that will ultimately lead to the profit margins you are trying to accomplish with your agency and your business. Today we will discuss how to hire the right Director of Operations for your agency or your client service firm. Susan, I just wanted to welcome you before we get into it. Thank you. It’s snowing in Colorado. It may be flooding in Texas, but we’re here and live, so thank you for making time.

Susan Fennema: Absolutely. It’s gonna be fun to do this live. I should also warn everyone, I have a plumber in the house, so if you hear sawing or something like that, that’s what happens when you’re live.

Logan: Hey, we’re gonna roll with the punches. Yeah. When I say flooding, it’s not raining. Torrential downpours in Texas.

Susan: Not yet.

Logan: You know, hopefully, not yet. No flooding inside the house. So, as we talked about, we’ve discussed it a good bit. Recently, as you are scaling your business and your agency, there are some pivotal moments when you need your first Project Manager, when you need that Director of Operations. Susan and her team at Beyond the Chaos do a lot of consulting around operations for their business, and they’ve seen hires go wrong. They’ve seen people try to fill this role and make some common mistakes. So we’re gonna talk about how to avoid some of those and some options you might not be thinking about when you recognize, at this point of scale that you’re talking about, I need a Director of Operations. What are the options that are out there? But Susan, before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about an agency or a client service firm of any type. How do you define operations and where does it overlap with the delivery of the client work?

Defining Operations

Susan: There’s a lot of overlap there. Operations make everything happen. That’s how I define it. To me, it is the path from the first time a client connects with you. However, that might be whether that’s outreach on your part or its intake from them. All the way to the end, you get this glowing Yelp review, Google Review, testimonial, case study, or whatever you want out of that for future clients, right? Because that is your circle that keeps your marketing going too. So operations are how you make all of those. What is the flow? What are the processes? What are the tools? Who are the people? How does it move along? Especially when you make a sale, how do you get it to a project? You finish the project, so how do you loop that back around to another sale? It’s really that whole flow of how things move throughout the organization. If, as an agency, it is fulfillment, it is the delivery of those things. If you were in a manufacturing plant, it might also include the logistics of how you make the thing. We are really talking in an agency, making the thing is delivering your product and your service (as far as what is that deliverable) to get out there.

Logan: Yeah. One layer up from the account managers and the Project Managers who are doing the thing but really looking. How are we delivering that? How are we building it right in a service firm? We’re not building anything, but we are creating things. I like what you said there too. Obviously, in the SaaS space, people talk about Sales Operations, Revenue Operations, Marketing Ops, and Customer Success Ops, but not usually, but I was talking with another partner the other day. We discussed that no, we actually do need ops for every department. And you explained it well there. How do we get done what we need to, and how do we look at it from that higher level in each department as well? As how do the information, the processes, and the communication happen between those departments? I think that’s a part that not many people think about in operations. Is that flow between departments? Would you say that’s kind of a neglected area sometimes?

Susan: It’s definitely a neglected area. It’s one of the red flags for us when we’re working with someone. If it’s not being addressed or there’s no process for it, we say, “Okay, you got the money now. What do you do? How do you start the project?” All of that has to flow. In a small agency, what you’re talking about, these departments, they’re probably a person that does all of that, right? And so in a smaller agency, that ops can look much more holistically. Now, as you grow, you’ll need leaders in each team that somehow come together to an Operations lead so that you can flow up and down. In a smaller agency, a single person can probably handle the operations part from start to finish.

How To Know When To Hire a Director of Operations

Logan: Yeah. So let’s dive into the roles a little bit more. How do you look at an organization when they’re hitting the “We need a Director of Operations” point? Kind of a two-part question. What are some of the indicators that they now need a Director of Operations, because it’s not the first hire that you make when you’re just starting out? But what are some of those indicators, and what gaps will a Director of Operations step in and fill? What kind of roles and responsibilities will it fill? If you’re looking at the gaps we have and then matching that with the roles and the responsibilities, they’re kind of one and the same, right?

Susan: To a degree, yes. The biggest symptom is the owner being overwhelmed if the owner feels like they have to talk to everybody to keep things moving or if the owner has somebody who feels like they have to talk to everybody all the time to keep things moving. If there are no written processes or software tools in place to help that flow. Or if there are software tools in place, but they’ve just been thrown in, will solve it. Let’s just buy it. You know? There’s no thought process around how that’s gonna flow. Everything seems chaotic. Everything seems jumbled, and there is a limit to how many people one person can talk to daily. So there’s no structure, and there’s no scalability. You’re repeating the same things. Over and over. Forgive my redundancy there. You’re reinventing the wheel every time to get to a final product. And you get to a point where I can only talk to seven people daily. I can’t grow this business. You might even have another step where you get to 12 or 15 people, and you’re stuck again until you put that structure in place. It’s not gonna go by itself. One of the things I loved when I first put that was when I ate my own dog food and put that structure in place for my business. It was the first time something happened, and I didn’t know it was going on. It just happened because the process was so clear. Everybody followed the steps. It was successful, and I love that. I didn’t get involved, and the whole thing just happened, and that’s what you need it to be for it to be scalable and for your team also to have some accountability in place because that’s the other thing that often happens. Owners start to feel like “I have to do everything”, “My team is messing it up”, or “Nobody’s good at their job”. They also might start complaining about the clients. You know, “The clients are making me mad” and “The clients have unrealistic expectations”. All those things are symptoms that your operational process is not smooth, and you need somebody to help you.

Logan: Yeah, that’s a good call out, those symptoms. All of a sudden, you’re mad at all your clients. Or you find yourself complaining about them all the time. Maybe part of that is true. What was it like for you, Susan? As you mentioned, when you ate your own dog food, you hit that point of owner overwhelm within the business at Beyond The Chaos. What did you try first? Was there anything, thinking back to that time when you went through that, that maybe you would’ve done differently? Or what was it like, in those moments when you started to recognize these symptoms yourself?

Susan: So I had two big revelations there. The first one was when I was on my own. I’m gonna be a solopreneur. I’m gonna do all of it. Right? Until you start figuring out what we offer, which is operations and project management, means that now I’m doing project management all day. And that is detailed. It requires you to be in front of the computer. It requires quick response time, and now I’m getting sucked away from being able to grow my business, from being able to make those sales, from being able to focus on marketing. And so, it was obvious that I needed a Project Manager on my staff to work for our clients. Not necessarily to work for me but to work for our clients and take that off my plate. So that was the first step we took. The second step came when the two of us became busy. So we need to grow more people. But how do I take 30-plus years of knowledge out of my head and teach somebody else how to do it so that we can scale? And that’s when we say, “Well, this is what we tell our clients to do. Why are we not doing the same thing?” You have to pull that information out of your head. You have to record yourself having some of those conversations with a client to know the questions you ask. Then you can start to itemize a flow that another consultant can come behind and repeat. Once you do that, now you’re off to the races. You have it set up, and you’re able to go from “Okay, let’s try two more”, “Okay, this is working”, “Let’s go now”, to “We are up to 11 right now and looking at bringing on two more”. It really is how you are able to think through getting those things out of your head.

Logan: Mm-hmm.

Susan: And as the owner, if it’s in your head, it’s not a process.

Logan: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Absolutely. That’s what leads to one of those symptoms you were talking about: you have to talk to everyone to keep things moving. And when you have 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 clients, sure. It’s okay. You’re not noticing it. But then, once you start to realize that I’m repeating this a lot, I’m writing this same email, right? I think getting it out of your head means documenting the processes. It’s recording the calls. Sometimes it’s just recording a screen share of what you’re doing. What do I do next? Right? I’ve heard it in sales, and I think it’s also true in business ownership. You start out unconsciously incompetent or maybe just partially competent, right? And then you go to unconsciously competent, you’re getting better, but you’re not quite sure why it’s working or what’s working. And it’s that third step to get to consciously competent where you must stop. You have to think about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how you’re doing it so that you can translate it. And I think it’s the third step. That’s often tough. So if a business owner is hitting this wall, they’re seeing some of these symptoms, they’re unable to focus on growing the business, and they’re mad at all their clients. They have to talk to everyone and are tired of repeating themselves. What are some of the things they should start documenting in preparation for what a Director of Operations is actually going to do? What should they be focused on tasking them with?

What To Document in Preparation for Onboarding a Director of Operations

Susan: The first is identifying that you have the right tools to do the job for your team. So, ensure you have a CRM and a project management tool. How are you delivering your proposals? That’s something a Director of Operations person can absolutely lead with. If you’re not putting out great proposals that set a great budget, scope, and timeline, then you’re already starting your team off with an inability to meet the client’s goals, and the client’s gonna get upset. So that person can be in charge of that process. They can also be in charge of documenting all of the processes. Operations people are great at saying, “Okay, and then what do you do? Okay, and then what do you do to make sure?”

Logan: It’s like that old movie with John Candy, and was it Macauley Caulkin? Uncle Buck. Asking the “Why?” and the “Then what?”

Susan: Yes, but then what? We ask “Why?” a lot, too, because when something sounds convoluted, we usually ask quite enough times to get to it because we always did it that way. That usually ends up being the answer, and that answer means we have to find out: why have you always done it that way? And is that something that needs to continue? Or did you do it because you didn’t have a tool or you didn’t have a team? Is it part of your brand and what your clients expect? Because all of this goes together, you’re serving your clients consistently as part of your brand. So that can be something that you’re looking for that Director of Operations to lead to. They can bridge the gap between the different departments or between the different phases. If you’re too small to have departments, they can help streamline your project management function. So that it is repeatable, think of templates and checklists. We always wanna go to the written process first. If we can get checklists, it’s much easier for people to go down and check off a list. And then, how do you maintain that? How do you continue to use those processes on a regular basis so that when a team member says, “How do you do this?” You have somebody that can say, “Did you read that? Go here and look there.” Now you’re helping your team self-serve. And the goal also is that those processes improve when somebody says, “Yeah, I did, and I still don’t understand,” or “It still got messed up,” or “This happened instead.” Now, you have an opportunity to update those processes. So that goes on the list, too. Update and maintain that process so that your business is process-driven long-term.

Logan: Yeah. I think what I’m hearing you say there, Susan, and what you want to have before you start looking for this Director of Operations is that you want to look at your tools. Do you have some basics down? Do you know what the departments are doing or at least the stages of the customer life cycle? Because, as you said, departments might not really exist yet. You might have one person who’s a department or who is serving in two or three different roles. Having been a part of an early-stage, fast-growing company, we all wore many hats, right? Not just my Broncos hat. So I know that firsthand. Then, you’re looking for someone who can build processes, checklists, and templates and be skilled at documentation. Also, you’re looking for someone who can handle internal communication because, to your point there, they need to improve and update based on the feedback on that internal documentation. They must strategically ask those “What?” and “Why?” questions.

How does this differ from the skillset you see with a Project Manager? Because this is one thing that you and I have often discussed before. We look at salespeople and say, “They’ll be great sales managers because they have these sales skills.” There’s a strong parallel between Project Managers and Directors of Operations. Where do you think they’re the same, and where are they different? I think that will lead us to, “Okay, based on those differences, how do we think about the right person or role for this, whether it’s full-time or fractional in the different ways?” We’ll talk about how you could solve this if you see these symptoms and get a clearer picture of the role. But let’s start with a clearer delineation of the Director of Ops versus the Project Manager.

Understanding the Difference Between a Director of Operations and a Project Manager

Susan: Absolutely. A Director of Operations is strategic. A Project Manager is tactical. That’s one way to identify the difference quickly. It doesn’t mean that a Project Manager can’t also stretch and be operational; it also doesn’t mean that an Operations Manager can’t do project management. But the roles are different. So a Project Manager is responsible for scope, budget, and timing. They’re facilitating and executing the work. That’s their job. An Operations Manager is looking at the process of doing that. So a Project Manager fulfills the process that a Director of Operations creates. An Operations Director is working across departments. They’re working directly with the owner, almost always, to execute that owner’s vision. They are making things happen in the agency where the Project Manager makes the deliverable, gets the information needed from the client, and completes it on time. That type of thing. They facilitate and communicate. The Director of Operations facilitates it at a higher level. You can have a Project Manager who has the skills to grow into an Operations person, but if you need those Operations now and as a small business, it’s probably not worth waiting for that person to grow into that role. Give them more structure. And then give them more. 

Logan: So you were saying, you know, if you need this skillset now, if you need someone to step in and do the things we talked about that a Director of Operations does versus a Project Manager writing new process, look at how we use our tools? Are we using the right tools, updating processes, or those sorts of things? If you need that now, it’s probably not best to try and just promote a Project Manager and hope that they’ll have those strategic skills right away.

Susan: They probably won’t, especially if you’re looking at budget constraints. A lot of people will say, “Well, I can get a project manager for $10 an hour from the Philippines,” or “$35 an hour here in the U.S.” That is true if they are inexperienced. The experienced ones are not going to be at that rate. So when you’re looking at that, you’re looking at an experienced Project Manager being upwards of $150 or more an hour. Those are the people who will save the day. Now, if you’re billing by the hour, you’re gonna cut into it because they’re gonna be faster? It depends on how you’re set up as to what you wanna do there. A lot of people will say, “I have a project manager that’s been with me for two years and I keep trying to get them to take the next step, but I can’t.” And then you dig into it and you find out they are not the right person to do it. They might be great at that thing, but that’s it. They don’t have the capacity to do more. They’re not strategic. They are tactical. That’s why they chose that job. They’re good at that.

Logan: So I think strategical versus tactical is one key thing for folks to remember when trying to find the right Director of Operations. Maybe not making the common pitfall we see in sales of promoting the salesperson to the sales manager and that PM to the Director of Ops. Not that that can’t be a path, but there are steps there. It’s not automatic. So if you’re thinking about someone for this role, whether you’re looking at your existing team, looking at someone outside fractionally, or recruiting for it, what are some of the things that should be on that hiring scorecard to suss out? Is this someone who is strategically minded and can do these things? We’ve been discussing deciding on the right tools, writing process, handling that internal communication-building process, and updating it. What are some of the things that you think should be high on that hiring scorecard? On the other side, Susan, what are some of the things that people over-index for? They’re looking for this, and they think it’s gonna be an indicator of success, it’s really not. So what are some of those? Look for this, not that, in hiring for this Director of Operations.

What To Look For When Hiring a Director of Operations

Susan: Look for strategy. That’s hard to ask for, right? But when you’re interviewing someone, you can ask situational questions, like, “What would you do in this situation?” And then notice how they answer. Is it incredibly tactical, or is it more around asking questions to get more information and discovery? Or, are they saying, I would just do X, Y, and Z. That’s one thing that might clue you in on that.

Another is to have them write something because they will do a lot of writing for you. Is it clear? Is it concise? Are we looking at bullet points, or are we looking at wordiness? You know, those types of things are important. Can they describe how to get to something systematically? That might be great. Question to ask, “Hey, describe how you start X,” and see the steps they put in place that’s gonna give you the idea of whether they can simplify it. Can they be clear? And can you work in your head through those things that we all do right now? That’s a great way to test that out.

Another thing you want to make sure of is that they are technologically sound. We cannot have people in this role, in this day and age, in these virtual environments, especially in an agency where you’re delivering a lot of digital solutions to your clients. They have to know the software. They have to be comfortable using it. One of the things I know all of my team would say is, “It doesn’t matter what tool you throw me into, I’m gonna figure it out quickly, and we’re gonna write process around it.” So you’re able to adapt in that way, and you’re able to get there.

You also want a structured mind. You don’t want somebody, personality-wise, that seems not buttoned up. You don’t want them to be rigid because they have to be flexible. They need to come across as, “We got this.” There’s confidence in them because a whole bunch of people will rely on them to ensure that all of this goes smoothly. So, look for someone that has that trust and confidence and makes you feel, “Oh yeah, they got it.” That’s something to look for.

Logan: Yeah. I think if we’re talking about hiring someone for a role like this, to me, the end of the interview is important. Someone who’s structurally minded will probably have questions prepared at the end. They’re going to say, “Well, what’s the timeline? When can I expect to hear back from you?” And if they don’t hear back from you by then, they will follow up. Listen for those things just in conversation. They will cue you into the fact that they are thinking in a structured way and with the process in mind.

I like what you said about asking questions to suss out that strategic thinking. Again, to return to the sales analogy a bit, as those are my roots. You know, the old overused “Sell me this pen” in a sales interview. Well, why do you need a pen? Why would you need a pen? As opposed to, “Look at this pen, it’s so great, da da da.” I think the correlation here would be asking a question and seeing if they jump to why they would do this. Or, like you said, do they ask some more discovery questions? Do they ask some of those questions we discussed earlier: “Well, what do you do now?” Can you listen to hear some of that strategic mind versus just tactical? Obviously, there will be some of that. We’re still talking operations. There’s gonna be tactics involved. So look for someone who’s strategically minded, and have them write something. The third thing you said was to ask them to describe a process verbally. What would be maybe some of the things you would listen for there? What would you be listening for in some of their responses?

Susan: I’d be listening for clarity. I’d be listening for a continuation of steps so that there’s not a gap of where you’re like, “Oh, well, how’d you go from there to there?” So for the example of starting the car: we unlock the door, we open the door, we get in the seat, we put our foot on the brake, we hit the start button, we check our mirrors, we make sure the garage door is up before we back out. Those kinds of things are what you’re looking for, as opposed to, “Oh, well you just push the button, right?” The detail that you’re getting from a more operationally focused person is gonna be a clue for sure. And if you ask them a question about something that we all know how to do, they’re probably not going to ask you a bunch of questions back, instead they can fill in the gaps. That is a good way to measure those answers.

Logan: Yeah. Good stuff. Well, Susan, let’s return to the other part of the question I mentioned. What is maybe some of the false positives where people have said, you know, “I’m interviewing a person”, or “I’ve looked at their work because they’re internal, and we’re thinking about promoting them to a Director of Operations”, but what they think is going to lead to their success as a Director of Operations doesn’t actually translate? What are some of those things that maybe mislead people into thinking they’re making a great decision in this pivotal hire, but it doesn’t quite?

The False Positives To Look For When Hiring a Director of Operations

Susan: That’s a little bit harder if you’re looking for big things. The other important part is ensuring they can get along with all sorts of people because operations are necessarily structured. But in an agency especially, you’re working with creative people, and you’re working with account people who often, as we say, go rogue, right? You’re looking for creative people who don’t wanna be tied down to structure. So how are they gonna communicate with all of these people? That’s important. So that personality of being able to say, “I back it off for this person”, or “We’re not gonna tell the creative team how to create. We will ensure they know this is how you check in and out of a job. These are the requirements for doing things on time.” This is the next step for quality control, but you won’t tell them how to be creative. Those things are important so that a Director of Operations person understands that you can’t document everything. So if they’re trying to document all of the steps that a software developer would take to roll out a new website, you don’t need that. That’s why you hire professional software developers. They know how to do that, right? But make sure that they know there is quality control and we will proofread it. Those steps are the steps I’m talking about itemizing out so that they can be repeated and that you’re assuring the quality of your work. So that combination of structure and flexibility is hard to find. You will find inexperienced Project Managers who are very structured because they haven’t yet learned how to be flexible. And that is a good sign that they’re definitely not ready for that Director of Operations job yet. You have to be able to. Understand the rules and when it makes sense to break them and do it intentionally, not just let everyone break them all the time. It’s a hard line to walk.

The Best Practices for Integrating a Director of Operations Into Your Business

Logan: Yeah, it’s a balance for sure. I think some of the questions you might be able to ask there, as I’m just kind of thinking of the scenario, are situational questions. Let’s say we have a problem between the graphic designers we’re working with, their freelancers, and our full-time account managers. That never happens in an agency, right? Things are always late or whatever the situation is. Maybe you actually pull from what’s happening right now, but you pose it to them as, “Let’s just say, here’s a fictional scenario. What would you do? What would be your first step? Who would you speak with?” I think this would do two things. One, can they think about that in terms of a process? If they give you a bland answer of, “Well, I would talk to them and explain that we’re all trying to get things done and try to get everybody talking, etc.” That’s not really a process. That’s not really systematic. If they’re saying, “Well, I would talk, I would find, I would research the situation, this, these, this way, these are the data points I would look for to find out, how often is this happening? What are the common things that are happening when this occurs? Then I would talk to this person first. Then I would talk to this person. Then here’s what I would do with that information.” That does two things. It shows that they would be skilled at handling internal interpersonal communication. And two, it’s reiterating something we’ve mentioned several times for the last 35 minutes or so, which is that they’re thinking with a process in mind. Do you find that you’re advising a lot of your clients similarly to ask some of those situational questions and that’s helping them at this stage in the game?

Susan: When we get to that stage of handing off, we’re often the fractional in place. And we help our clients hire for full-time when they’re ready. And so, yes, those are the types of things we’re making sure that they understand the difference of. Usually, by having that fractional in place, you’ve already set up that structure for somebody to fit into, which is a nice way to do it. So you already know what you’re looking for and what you expect. The questions you’re asking are really important. I know as small business owners, we often just get a feel for somebody. You like them so much. I will tell you that, having been an Operations person for a long time, many people don’t like what you do because you’re constantly afflicting change. People don’t like change, they want to do what they want to do, and they don’t want to be held accountable. Making sure that everybody likes the person might not be what you’re going for. So, make sure everyone respects what the person’s trying to do because they can clearly define the great outcome that everybody will get if they follow this process instead of going off rogue. You have to have some of that. How do you bring people into a personality too?

Logan: Yeah, that’s a very good call out. And I think sometimes we get so focused on the parts we’ve been discussing that are still true. You need someone with a process mind and who has that balance of structure or flexibility. But you also need a communicator, right? I’ve seen many people saying lately that you have to market what you’re doing in marketing and talk about the impact. You have to show it. It’s the same for an agency, right? If you’re not delivering and showing what you’re delivering to the client, then the assumption is, “Man, what’s really going on over there?” or “Are they doing it?” It’s the same for an Operations person. “Oh, they’re in their cave tapping away, typing up these SOPs, and rolling out new templates.” But they need to have that internal marketing of here’s what we were doing before, and here’s what’s happening, right? Then they need to find those allies internally in the organization.

“Hey, I heard you say you love this, and it saved you two hours a week now. Can I talk about that in the next company meeting or something like that?” They have to have a little bit of that as well, just to be successful but also to maintain and maximize the impact of what they’re doing across the team. Right?

Susan: Well, and to your point of hearing something that went well, proactively figuring out: how do we repeat that? Does something in our process need to change so that is always the outcome? That’s a big thing that they should always be listening for. Being able to show that value is interesting, too, because no one should notice when everything’s running smoothly. In the end, it’s sometimes hard. After being there for ten years, I left my Director of Operations position at an ad agency, and I’m sure that for the first six months, people were like, “What did she do? I don’t understand what she did.” Six months later, they knew what I did because they did not replace me. It was during the 2008 to 2010 time period when they couldn’t replace people. But once it got to the point where nobody was taking care of this regularly, things started to crumble and fall apart. That’s what you want to get to – where you don’t even know they’re there. Everything’s just running so smoothly. They’re no problem. But once you get there, as the person in that role, you probably do have to come back and say, “Okay, yeah, but I’m still doing this. Don’t forget I’m still here.”

Logan: It’s very much like good design. When I was in journalism school, I knew just enough about graphic design to be dangerous. But one of the things that stuck with me is we were doing this design class, and then we had all these newspapers and magazines, and our professor said, “Pick up your top three really good designs and pick up your top three that are really bad”. Guess what? Finding the three really bad ones was way easier than the really good ones. Because, as they say, good design is invisible. It is meant to facilitate either the communication of information or the enjoyment of entertainment. Whatever it is, it doesn’t stand in the way, but if it does stand in the way, it’s very noticeable. It’s the same thing with operations, right? So you want to get to that point where your operational efficiency is almost invisible, but you still need to call it out so that it is a bit visible to continue on that good train. Otherwise, it gets neglected. “Oh, we don’t really need more in operations”.” We don’t need to keep investing here cuz it’s not really doing anything”. So it’s an interesting cycle there. Well, you’ve alluded to the work that you guys do at Beyond the Chaos in providing fractional help as a Director of Operations or COO. What do you see, Susan, as kind of the different scenarios where an agency or a client service firm might say, “Yeah, we’re ready to try and bring in a Director of Operations full-time or promote someone into that role or consider fractional for a time.” What are some of the elements that you look at in advising customers on which way to go for a certain season?

Should You Hire a Full-Time or Fractional Director of Operations?

Susan: I would say that unless you’re big enough that you’ve already had a Director of Operations and you’re trying to replace them, that going the fractional route, especially these days, there are many options to choose from. What you get with a fractional versus a full-time is this wealth of experience because they’re working with all these different clients and all these different setups all the time. You are bringing in this wealth of knowledge that can be applied to your business, and they can set up your structure for the longer term to maybe fill that role. Hiring somebody into the existing structure and handing it off to them is much smoother once a full-time person is needed. You don’t need a full-time person for an agency of under 25 people. You probably don’t need a full-time Project Manager if you have ten people or fewer.

That’s something that people think too, “I’ve got to hire a project manager.” Well, do you? Really good ones might be able to manage all your projects in five or six hours a week. So what’s an employee gonna do for the other 35? You can hire much more experienced people at a much more reasonable rate than hiring somebody with that much experience full-time. I mean that a very experienced, full-time COO could be $250K a year. How will you pay for that when you have 15 people in your company? It’s way too much overhead. So thinking about those processes of how you can get there helps you figure out if you need full-time or fractional. How do you decide when is it time to look at that? Are you trying to grow? Are things systematic? Just like some of those things we talked about at the beginning. Are you overwhelmed? Have you, as a business owner, lost your whole life? All you’re doing is working all the time. Maybe you skip out for dinner, and then you’re back. You know that that is not sustainable. That makes you burn out, and that makes you lose interest in your business. And it will. All of those effects will be that your business will stop growing. So those are all good signs to hire someone. Burnout is much more common after the Covid years than it was before.

Logan: Why do you think that is?

Burnout Within Agency Owners

Susan: I think that going through all that, as a business owner myself, everything just felt like, “Oh, what next? What next? What next?” It’s not just that we have to adapt to this; now we have to adapt that we can’t hire anybody because nobody wants to work or because they’re not even showing up. We tried to, but they didn’t show up the first day.

Logan: Stories like that.

Susan: Yeah, I’ve heard all sorts of horror stories like that. You’re just adapting so quickly, and the change has happened from 2000 to where we are here in 2023: change and adaption. Adoption, too, even political cycles and how the economy is up and down, and it’s a lot. So that pressure weighs on you, in combination with the fact you’re still trying to run a business and make a profit. That’s stressful in and of itself, on top of everything else. It’s exhausting, and that can really burn you out. Taking the time to build a structure in your business so that there are many things that you don’t have to think about anymore. They just happen. That really helps you save your life. It gets your time back so you can focus on the big things or maybe even just get some rest, which sometimes we all need a vacation.

Logan: Yeah, absolutely. Two things I’ll say there. I remember the, you know, especially the second half of 2020, I was just like, does this have to be an election year? 

Susan: Right? 

Your Business Is a Tool for You To Use (Not the Other Way Around)

Logan: Two, you know, at the same time. And so I felt some of that, oh, now something else we’ve got to deal with or adapt to—all sorts of things. So I think that’s a good call out. If you took nothing else away from this, whether you’re joining us live or watching on-demand, hopefully, you feel seen and heard. Susan and I have been through it similarly, and we’ve seen the clients that we’re working with feeling the weight of things. It reminded me of a conversation with an agency owner in Florida, a customer I was talking with. He said that many agency owners have a vision and goal of getting a million dollars of annual revenue. Then, they hit that and realize they’re working more, stressed, and have less time. All the reasons why they started their own business are the reasons they’re unhappy at this stage. So they feel stuck. They feel like they’ve hit this plateau, and it’s not even necessarily a plateau, but they’re not enjoying the view from the top. So I’ve heard that from agency owners, just like you’re saying.

Susan: Yeah. And sometimes you’re not even making more money, right? You’ve increased your revenue, but you personally are not seeing that reward from either time or money. I think that’s an important part of understanding that if you’re going to scale, understand why and how it will affect you. The business is a tool for the business owner to use. It’s not the other way around. The business shouldn’t be sapping the life out of you. It exists because you created it and wanted it to do these things. You didn’t want it to do those things to you.

Logan: Yeah, exactly. I was listening to a great podcast for any agency owner listening, Build a Better Agency from Drew McClellan at AMI (Agency Management Institute). Oftentimes, he’ll take this kind of chastising tone with, “Wait, why did you start an agency? Right? Why are you not making these decisions to make the agency work for yourself?” Sometimes it comes out of good intentions. Why do I want to do this for my employees, or do I want to do this for these clients? But at the end of the day, you started the business for it to provide something for you. Whether that’s a big exit or whether that’s the lifestyle that you want, or it’s just the money that you can make. There are a number of different reasons, and there’s validity to all of those. But losing sight of that and ending up doing it and not realizing, am I getting out of it? What did I set out to get? We gotta take a timeout and look at those things.

Susan: Hugely important. Hugely important. And it affects operations. If you don’t know what you want as a result, how on earth are we gonna help you figure out how to get there?

Logan: Absolutely. Well, Susan, let’s talk a little about resources you’ve got for folks on this note of continuing to build operational excellence within their organization, considering either a fractional or a full-time director of operations. What are some of the things you would call out that you guys have available to help folks dig deeper on this topic?

Susan: You can get my ebook about removing chaos from your business, and it talks about developing processes, project management, and interruption management, which is a huge ‘time suck’, right? So those three things.

If you are somebody who’s like, “Don’t give me an ebook. I’m so overwhelmed. No reading. Just help me.” Contact the information team so you can come straight to the source. We usually start with a 45-minute call and identify what’s happening in your world. That’s free! And then, we will work with you to help you get out of that. That’s our goal. We want you to be living the best life you can.

Logan: Yeah. Well, I think we’ve touched on many great things today, Susan. We talked about what a Director of Operations really does and some symptoms we recognize when their role is needed: if you’re frustrated with all your clients, if you’re having to talk to everyone to keep things moving, or if you’re not able to focus on growing the business. I just wanted to bring it back to calling out some of those things that, if that’s the case, then you can use some of this advice that you’ve shared today on how to identify the right person and how not to make the common misstep of promoting a Project Manager too soon to a Director of Operations role. I appreciate all of that advice. Connect with Susan and me on LinkedIn for anyone watching this that I’m not yet connected with. We’re very active here. There’s a link under my profile photo to an ebook we’ve put out from our CEO Peter Coppinger, The Ultimate Guide to Scaling Your Agency. It talks about these different stages of growth and what you should do at each stage to break it down and on this theme of taking something big like a process and breaking it down into systematic steps. But, as Susan said, you can just connect with me, with more of the team, and Susan and her team at Beyond the Chaos, which is continuing to grow. Very exciting. So Susan, thank you so much for spending time with me today. For everyone watching, thank you for joining live or checking this out on demand. I hate the sound of my voice at 1X, so hopefully, if you watch this on demand, you’re watching me at 1 and 1/2 or 2X. And Susan, thank you again. This was a great conversation.

Susan: Thanks so much. This was great.

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