This week, I sat (virtually) with our co-Managing Partner and Director of Operations, Sam Lawrence. After 9 months in the job, I asked Sam for tips to avoid feeling overwhelmed by our ever growing to-do list. As the company grows, the Operations team must ensure that it has all the right processes and strategies in place to support the Commercial team, and that also includes its wellbeing. Here, Sam shares an honest view on his coping mechanisms and lessons learned from launching our business development agency, Carbon Global, with Henry Regan 4 years ago.
Elodie: How do you best manage your time to avoid feeling overwhelmed? How has it been in the past and how have you improved your time management?
Sam: That is the golden question. I think that’s definitely something that I have struggled with in the past while building the company and being in charge of the B2B Lead Generation operations from day one. It’s actually interesting to see how it has evolved. When we first started out, we had to build everything from the ground up and had to try to figure out our systems and processes, and most of all, it was about making sure that Henry and myself followed them. It was much easier to manage our own time. When the company expanded, we started winning work and bringing in outside people, so it pulled up all sorts of challenges as it was no longer about what solely worked for us two. In terms of time management, it definitely became more challenging as we had more employees and more B2B clients.
Today, with our growing team, we inevitably have employees who are checking in, asking questions, seeking approval, and needing guidance which means that those things eat up your time as well as the day-to-day job. That was definitely something that I found tricky. Hiring you (Elodie) was a massive step forward in terms of releasing some of the weight off my shoulders to carry on driving the company forward whilst also having someone there who I knew I could trust and rely on to get all of the work done that needed to be done.
A few months ago, I very much felt that all the responsibility was on my shoulders and it meant that I wasn’t very in control of my time management. When stuff needed to be done, it didn’t matter what time of day it was, it needed to be done, and as a result, it sort of ate up my life. So my main tips would be to hire people that you trust and learn to delegate. I would say that delegation is still something I’m struggling with but is a key task that I’m trying to get better at, and hiring people that you trust to get the job done is very much the key to that.
Elodie: How do you deal with all the different channels of communication? At Carbon Global, we’ve got different ones so how do you prioritise or work without being disrupted by notifications here and there?
Sam: This was something that Henry and I changed about six months ago because it was becoming relentless, even if one of us would have a day off, we would be bombarded by notifications, emails and I felt like we were always on it because it was our company, our baby. We always wanted, and felt like we needed, to have our finger on the pulse to grow our business even on our days off as we thought that we were best placed to answer particular questions. It really started to take a toll on our ability to run the company, and also our mental health. So, we decided to install a rule that all of the channels could and should be muted when we weren’t working. It is hard to let go but both Henry and I mutually shut each other down when we don’t obey our rule. For operations, it was never in any way a reflection on you or the admin team not being able to handle things, but always a reflection on me not being able to release control.
I think the question about channels and how to best prioritise them is an interesting one because there are so many ways of interacting these days. Today, I’m accessible via email, LinkedIn, Whatsapp, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, and Teams. Occasionally, it becomes a little bit overwhelming as there are so many channels and they all have their different purposes. At Carbon Global, we have to slot into and adapt to our clients’ way of working because even though we are outsourced, we like to become an integral part of their team. That is key for us, to be fully involved in their B2B business development action plan. One of our main mantras is that the client always comes first, our lead generation activities are there to help them build their company and so nothing can be allowed to slip through the net. The client is always prioritised when notifications pop up and that, I think, is the key to our success, always being there for the client.
Amongst the team, we usually communicate via Whatsapp. It’s important that we are respectful of our employees’ time and that we don’t communicate outside of office hours, wherever possible, for their mental well-being and ours. We also enjoy sending a few gifs in the morning and welcoming everybody back to work and wishing people well for the weekend. It’s fun to do and it reminds us that we’re all people outside of work.
Elodie: Also, I think that one of the challenges with working from home is that we send texts to other team members without knowing if they’re busy. So sometimes someone will be wondering why we’re not responding to a text but that might be because we are in a client meeting or have an urgent task to complete. That’s something that we don’t know when we are not sitting in the same office.
Sam: I think that’s a very good point. We need to find a way that will allow people to understand why they’re not getting an immediate response and that will encourage them to seek help elsewhere if they need an immediate response.
Elodie: What do you believe are the signals alerting you of burnout?
Sam: I think there are so many stages of signals that let you know those things. There are the early signs that tell you to delegate more and there are the later signs warning that you need to relinquish control a bit more. There are even later signs when you start losing control over your mental health. I think I ignored pretty much all of them for about the first three and a half years of the company because I was so intent on doing the best job and building the best B2B business development and lead generation company. I think more than anything about serving the clients to the best of my ability because people put their trust in us to work hard by hitting targets and achieving results. And that feeling does not go away, this game, it’s not like after the third year you can just lay back and relax, it’s consistent.
So we had to find a solution for the long term because it got to the point where I was walking through a park on a day off and just had a cry next to a lake because I couldn’t think about anything else but work, it was just completely consuming me and I couldn’t cope with it anymore. So that was for me probably the final warning sign that I couldn’t avoid. That inability to switch off, mixed with lockdown became a stressful mix.
I think trying to listen to those early warning signs is important, struggling to finish on time every day is already a sign that there’s too much work for you to achieve, and therefore it needs to be spread out. Also, when you are starting to let the quality of your work slip which, fingers crossed, hopefully, I didn’t do. But if people are noticing slips in your work, again that is probably a sign that there’s too much to do in such a short time. So listen to those early signs rather than leaving it to the point where you’re having a breakdown in a park in public!
One other thing to add on that, with Henry, we’ve started trying to block off time where we say to the whole team that either myself or he is unavailable for a day. That allows us to have a whole day to just do the jobs that need to be done without having to deal with the things that always come up during the day. It’s about putting trust in the other to handle everything that day. For the operations side of things, this gives me a whole day where I can just be in the headspace to tick all these things off of my to-do list without any other distractions and I think that’s important.
Elodie: The Commercial team and Operations team have different priorities. How do you reconcile both or what do you think the Commercial team is not aware of about operations?
Sam: That’s interesting. I think the Commercial and Operations teams definitely have the same goal but different priorities which sometimes makes them feel like they are working in different ways. Henry and I have worked really hard to make sure that they align and are heading in the right direction. In operations, our job is to ensure the smooth running of the company and the lead generation strategy to ensure that the Commercial team has everything it needs to get the meetings and win the work for our clients. So we have to optimise our systems and processes to make that easier and better in the long run. This has a direct impact on better servicing our clients and for them to continue with our services and recommend us. So ultimately, we all work towards the same goal which is driving more business into the company and to grow it.
I know there have definitely been times when my to-do list does not look long in appearance but the reality of it is that within those tasks there are huge amounts of technical detail that needs to be ironed out before the task can be completed properly. I think also one of the other things is that operations tasks take a long time, compared to some of the commercial tasks which can be really quickly ticked off, like making a call or sending an email. Whereas overhauling an operations system can take weeks or months so you need full amounts of time to dedicate to it. When you’re being pulled in other directions, it always gets pushed to the bottom of the list because it’s not something that can be achieved and finalised quickly. Our tasks take a little bit more time and I think that’s something that our Commercial team is getting to grips with and understanding.
Elodie: Last question, what is your favorite activity to unwind and avoid burnout?
Sam: I had a lovely walk the other day listening to some music, which I haven’t done for so long. I just went for a walk and listened to music and it was reviving as it allowed my brain to think creatively for the first time in a long time. I think that’s really important to get some headspace where you’re thinking creatively again because that’s when the best decisions are made. When I really need to just switch off, I love watching movies because that sort of commands your attention, and you get transported somewhere else for two hours. I find it very difficult to think about anything else when I’m watching a film.
Speaking openly about feelings and points of view with Sam was very insightful. Having this conversation for the purposes of the blog has even led us to decide to look into adapting and improving our internal communication. Ultimately, any measures taken to improve everyone’s wellbeing at work will have a positive impact on our clients and the company’s ambitions to grow. Exciting!
Strategic Operations Manager