Growing Pains: My Worst First Quarter Ever

How Giving Up Some Control Became the Best Thing for Me and the Financial Health of My Agency

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Jennifer Modarelli
Jennifer Modarelli
As someone running an independent agency, I am exceedingly confidential about our financial performance. I publicly disclose as little as possible, even though our financial stability is one of our greatest assets, but our goal for 2010 was to achieve a fifth year of double-digit growth. It is one thing to have a goal and another entirely to achieve it.

By the end of Q1, we were definitely not on our way. Actually, we were spending more money to make the same amount of revenue as we did in the first quarter of 2009. And our backlog of work was three times the prior year. Since losing money, especially when you have plenty of work in the house, is obviously not a recommended business model, it was essential that I figure out what was causing this particular trend and ultimately what was holding us back from our potential.

I looked at prior years and revisited job-scoping and execution. Then I listened long and hard to my advisors, my co-workers and my family, and the more I learned, the more obvious it became that the real issue was me. I saw clearly that I needed to radically change my role within the organization to let it flourish.

Perhaps some of you can relate. You know all about how to operate profitably. You know how to price projects and how to close sales. You're great at solving your client's problems. You can hire and fire with the best of them. No one else can balance the agency's workload better than you. You're the master juggler; you can do it all, right? Maybe. But, just because you can do it all doesn't mean you should.

I became so focused on juggling that I didn't see how it was slowing us down. My juggling expertise bottlenecked projects, bottlenecked people and left a lot of untapped growth on the table. So I summoned all my will, grit my teeth and threw some of the balls to a newly promoted operations manager and some of them to newly hired account managers. I stopped reviewing every SOW, reviewing every project update and stepping in when the inevitable triage was needed.

It's a classic case of letting go to allow growth. It was and is amazingly hard. Long-time advisors doubted I could do it. Lots of entrepreneurs cannot. I was told to expect feeling out of control, out of touch and frustrated, and to be ready for a period of financial adjustment. I was warned that I would need to exert significant restraint to break my addiction and change my habits. I broke out in cold sweats; I'd catch myself attending a meeting where I was no longer needed or going around my operations manager to direct a workflow. I'd do it without even being aware of doing it.

My intentions were good, but, as they say, the road to hell is paved with ... well, you know. Even harder on my psyche was that some days I felt like I didn't have enough to do, even though I was quite busy blogging, selling our agency services, planning for our strategic growth and getting to know our customers and their challenges (still keeping quite a few balls in the air).

Well, guess what? By March, things had begun to change. The processes being run by my operations manager and department heads settled in. Account and project managers were keeping projects flowing smoothly and our clients calm and happy. We began to earn more money than we were spending. When I stopped trying to juggle it all, my excellent, talented and patient co-workers skillfully took over. They are happier, our bottom line is looking a whole lot healthier, and I still have enough balls in the air to keep me happy. Of course, I can always find more.

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