Achieving Balance, or, How We Lost Andrea

3372646_thumbnailThis week, Andrea gave notice and left to join a competing agency.

Andrea had been with us for 3 years, and in that brief amount of time — since she was a rockstar — she climbed the ranks from quiet, mousy intern to Senior Account Executive.  She was unquestionably someone I looked to as a future VP, and I was sad to see her go.

How did we lose Andrea?

At all agencies, there tends to be a cycle of feast/famine.  When times are good, you can never seem to find enough great employees to meet demand.  When times are lean, you invariably strain the limits with the talented staff who remain after you’ve performed any “deadwood” headcount reductions.

You can add “the relentless nature of PR” to this equation and soon see where I’m headed… or rather, why Andrea headed toward the exits.  This is not unique to SHIFT, by the way: for every Andrea we lose, we’ve received a half-dozen resumes from the disgruntled stars at other agencies…

The fact is, most agencies care first & foremost about the bottom line.  (That’s OK, by the way, as, after all, they are for-profit businesses)  When the bottom line is the primary focus, however, you care less about “how Andrea’s doing” and more about “making the numbers,” because you know there are plenty of “Andrea’s” out there.

But SHIFT fancies itself to be a Talent Agency.  And if you believe in that philosophy, you care first about “Andrea” and cross your fingers that the profit will come, too.  Happy employees = happy clients, after all.

The “hard part” is finding the balance.

When we sensed that prospective new hires were expecting more money than we’d anticipated, we conducted extensive research and made the necessary adjustments to ensure we remained competitive.

When the staff suggested they’d like to add more Big Name clients to the roster (a goal I admittedly shared), we were able to add names like Sony, Quiznos, Canadian Club, etc.

And when times got tough and the staff started to creak from over-work, we deliberated over cutting ties with abusive clients, even though it sometimes meant sacrificing short-term profits.  Before you give me any credit, note the nuance: we deliberated. We didn’t always act fast enough.  Because we have a business to run, too, and even a Talent Agency needs profit, in order to employ (and adequately compensate) the talent!

Sometimes you stumble during the Balancing Act.  And it’s unfortunate to lose a cool, hard-working employee like Andrea.  But the hope is to get the balance right over time; to “Keep Calm and Carry On” and — always, always — have some fun along the way.

Good luck, Andrea.  Door’s open if you change your mind.

Posted on: August 17, 2010 at 6:54 pm By Todd Defren
24 Responses to “Achieving Balance, or, How We Lost Andrea”


  • Michelle says:

    As one of your clients who was privileged enough to work with Andrea (even for only a short time), I understand your loss of this very talented person. But like others who commented here, I applaud this post. Balance is a tough thing in this industry, whether you’re an up-and-coming star or a working mom who’s trying to “have it all.” I’ve learned (sometimes the hard way) that balance often starts by looking inward and making some personal choices. Perhaps this is what Andrea did. However, it’s refreshing and inspiring to see employers like yourself understand what a critical role you play in the balance game, and that you take that role seriously.

  • nicoleshoe says:

    It’s a story that many of us twenty-somethings are familiar with…wanderlust in the working world…however, it is wonderful to hear of an employer that truly promotes career development and ‘moving up the ladder!’ Too many employers take advantage of their hardworking employees nowadays, and give no feedback to their future.

  • Hi Todd,

    Yes, your post is rare, and it gives us a peek into a dilemma that most of us on the freelance side haven’t been privy to. Did Andrea know you saw her as a potential VP? I don’t expect you to get into HR details, but my experience is that when an employee sees what’s possible a few years down the road, it can lead to a very strong employer/employee bond. From the nature of your post, I sense that you are very open with staff, so perhaps my question is moot.

    That being said, I’m a bit troubled by your use of “deadwood” headcount reductions. Putting quotation marks around deadwood does not lesson its impact. If I were 30 years younger, I would be hard-pressed to show my portfolio to an agency that portrays extra hires no longer needed as “deadwood.”

    And as for those “other Andreas” out there, I’m afraid there aren’t any. You had a unique individual, obviously gifted enough to work for you, who decided to move on, for whatever reason. She was special enough to prompt your post. You might find another agency rep, but I’ll bet you won’t find another Andrea.

    Thanks and cheers,
    Richard Perry
    perrydigital podcasting
    Halifax, NS
    Twitter @richardgperry

  • An incredibly brave post.

  • An incredibly unique perspective in the employee/employer relationship we don’t always see—thank you for sharing!

    Yet of the whole article, the thing that sticks most in my mind is that an individual a) went from being an intern to a Senior Account Executive in just 3 years; b) no doubt enjoyed the perks/pay raises that went with the promotions; and c) still chose to leave your employ.

    Sorry but, while I obviously don’t understand Andrea’s exact reason for leaving, me thinks SHE is the one who may have lost out in the move.

    Basically, I believe your former employee will soon realize that you gave her opportunities few other companies will ever match.

    Good luck in finding “a new Andrea.” Maybe next time, though, you’ll find more of a partner than just an employee.

    Continued success,

    • Todd Defren says:

      Sometimes a faster than average rise thru the ranks is a mixed blessing. I certainly share some elements of your thinking (as an employer simply trying his best), but, if you read Jen Z’s comment about the “dead houseplants in the home of a young perfectionist,” you’ll probably get a sense for where Andrea was coming from.

  • Jon Buscall says:

    I think if I was Andrea I’d think long and hard again about making that move. It’s rare to see employers thinking through the events leading up to this kind of decision – or at least, openly.

    With so much pressure to deliver and deliver quickly in this industry – not to mention keeping up with all the changes – it’s easy for staff to feel bogged down. From an employers view, we need to find balance and retain focus. If you come up with the solution how to handle this, please share it!

  • Laycey says:

    I definitely feel your pain, but have you considered that this isn’t the first employee that you’ve “lost” due to similar circumstances recently? It may just be the nature of the business, but I suggest you act quickly now. It would be in your best interest to stop this trend of departures from continuing to grow.

  • I’m with Lori – your candor and openness to all the good, bad and ugly about PR and agency life is what makes your blog stand out in my mind.

    Sorry you had to lose a quality employee. I can’t imagine how difficult the balancing act is for any business owner. Keep pushing on. You know you and your team are doing amazing things.

  • Todd ~ What you so eloquently state here is what makes the difference between “doing a job” and having a “passion for excellence.”

    If all supervisors…at all levels…would read this and take serious note, I wouldn’t spend so much time talking my young troops “off the ledge.” Thanks for reaffirming my belief that there are some really good and caring managers out there!

    Thanks, as always, for sharing…and caring.

  • Josh Braaten says:

    What an amazingly introspective account of losing an employee from the employer’s perspective.

    This is the type of inner turmoil I’m sure we all wish our former employers felt when we left our previous jobs. The sad thing is that it seems that few companies do this type of soul searching. They simply stop at “There are a lot of Andrea’s out there.”

    For you to 1) think about losing Andrea, 2) feel bad about it and 3) tell us about it, I think it shows a lot of character. Great post.

  • Todd:

    Well said and honest. Perhaps if other companies took note and institutionalized your thinking, the industry would be more employee sensitive and responsive. Clients might rethink their neanderthal attitudes and abusive behaviors as well.

    All the best,

    Gerry Corbett

  • Mike Doyle says:

    This is the most honest, heartfelt business-related post to come through my Google Reader in a long, long time. Bravo to you guys for being brave enough to share the challenges in making profit vs. keeping talent, and for being kind to an outgoing team member. You don’t read stuff like this often.

  • Kelly Rusk says:

    I’m really impressed by the insight and reflection of this post! Something tells me you don’t lose people like Andrea regularly :)

  • Lori Russo says:

    Your candor is one of the things that has drawn me to your blog over the years (I’m pretty sure it’s been years, anyway). As a member of my agency’s leadership, I do understand the ongoing struggle to find balance between people and profits, and a solution to the supply and demand problem. We all experience it, and no doubt always will.

    In addition to the issues you mention, I do think there is another factor at work. In my experience, many younger folks do not see the value in sticking with a firm for more than 3 or 4 years. I was stunned to learn recently that two young people I know fairly well view my tenure as a weakness rather than a strength. Another young person I interviewed recently thought I was still here after 11 years because I hadn’t had any other opportunities. It didn’t dawn on this person that I am here because this firm has nurtured my growth and rewarded my hard work. I am striving to understand this point of view.

    Even in this difficult economy, when times are tough at work or employees are asked to stretch beyond their comfort zones or to work with difficult colleagues or clients, many are opting to bail rather than viewing it as a growth opportunity and sticking with it. Are you seeing the same?

    • Todd Defren says:

      Even in this difficult economy, when times are tough at work or employees are asked to stretch beyond their comfort zones or to work with difficult colleagues or clients, many are opting to bail rather than viewing it as a growth opportunity and sticking with it. Are you seeing the same?

      Umm, yea. Big time.

      • Viewing tough times at work as a growth opportunity can be difficult, depending on one’s current situation. I know that as I’ve gotten older, it’s been far easier for me to put things into perspective and take the 10,000 foot view that “this too, shall pass” and to glean the positives from a given situation.

        Contrast this to a younger self: you give it your all at work, go home, the houseplants are dead, your apartment needs cleaning, and you have to feed the cat tuna because you forgot to buy cat food (again) and all of a sudden you’re having an existential crisis asking what it all means and “I want off!” the roller coaster. You aren’t looking at it as a learning opportunity at that point.

        That isn’t to say that it’s just age that brings perspective. If there’s a lot going on in someone’s personal life, any additional stress brought on by a tough work environment can at times make things seem insurmountable.

        Add to that the fact that PR tends to attract: a) perfectionists who are also b) control freaks (in a good way!), and the resulting feeling that you aren’t doing anything adequately can be very tough to reconcile.

      • Todd Defren says:

        So, so true. Every word.

    • Lori,

      I am part of the younger generation that will have, according to research, more than 10 different jobs by the time I’m 35.

      I, and many of my peers, grew up seeing our parents tenure of 20-30+ years at a company squandered by the companies they worked for at every opportunity. Low/no raises, decreased benefits, poor structure for growth, etc. were all common sights for many of us as our parents approached retirement.

      Please try to gain an understanding on our perspective. It’s been very hard for us to get jobs. “Entry-level” jobs for us require 3-5 years experience, and we are finding that people expect us to intern for free for a couple of years, or push paper in an office for $8/an hour after graduating with, in some cases, masters degrees.

      This skews our thinking about our professional careers to ourselves. I do not expect, nor depend on, any company ever to look out for me and my career. That is on me. They can reward my hard work, and efforts, but if they are taking advantage of me in a bad economy, and I have the smarts, the network, and the ability to find something better, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

      I am guilty of looking at those with years and years at the same company as a weakness, but again, this is from my own frame of reference of growing up in a situation where tenure was not rewarded adequately, and the length of time at the job was really just to have a steady job. I think is something I need to work on, as everyone’s situation is unique. Please keep that in mind about us, too, as you go forward.

      Todd-I’ve never read anything like this from an employer before. Kudos.

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