Five Dimensions of Leadership

Leading from the front is critical
by Jeanne Urich and Dave Hofferberth, SPI Research

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What are the five dimensions of professional services leadership? How can you apply them to create and lead a great services organization? How does the importance of each dimension change based on organization size and company lifecycle stage?

The role of Professional services (PS) is changing, and consequently, the talents PS leaders need to be successful are changing. As PS has become a more significant differentiator and revenue source, the role of PS leaders is becoming more strategic. The software as a service (SaaS) model places the company’s entire revenue stream on the shoulders of PS executives since leaders and their team must convert bookings to revenue by successfully deploying new users.

Today’s PS executives have to have superior leadership, sales and operations skills. Technical competency and domain knowledge are important, especially in smaller companies, but the ability to “lead from the front” — to identify, recruit and motivate top performers is crucial.

Professional service leaders must excel in five critical dimensions:

  1. Strategy, vision and creativity: The ability to forge partnerships, to motivate and inspire peers, employees, partners and customers. The ability to create new ideas and methods in response to changing requirements.
  2. Finance and operations: The ability to manage profit and loss. The ability to generate revenue and profit while developing repeatable processes.
  3. Human resources: The ability to attract, retain and motivate employees.
  4. Technical and domain knowledge: The ability to provide product and domain knowledge and feedback to clients and the company. The ability to develop a “trusted advisor” relationship with clients and develop this capability within the consulting organization.
  5. Sales, marketing and communications: The ability to effectively communicate with peers, employees, partners and customers to generate and close business and win deals.

PS leaders develop a playbook, a set of orchestrated moves guaranteed to put points on the scoreboard. Here are two “sure-fire” moves for your playbook.

1.    Strategy, vision, and creativity — Ensure alignment between corporate and services strategy.

PS leaders must have a thorough knowledge and understanding of how to play the game, and the ability to envision how to play the game in the future to win. They must also have a vision of building the program to meet the demands of stakeholders. That vision must be in sync with their goals and realistic achievements in the short and long-term.

So where do you start? Start at the beginning! The most important and probably the hardest professional service leadership challenge is developing a compelling vision and strategy and then ensuring the executive team aligns with it. An annual strategy “tune-up” and business plan is a critical first step along the road to performance excellence.

Answer the following key questions.

Service positioning:

  • Who are our target customers?
  • What is the business problem they want to solve?
  • How does our solution solve their business problem?
  • Why do they buy our products and services?
  • Why do they buy from us instead of our competition?
  • How are we different (and better)?

Now rank the importance of the following service roles.

Service roles:

  • Building referenceable clients.
  • Assisting the sales organization in new client acquisition.
  • Providing service revenue and margin.
  • Supporting and training partners.
  • Providing product feedback.
  • Selling additional products and services to the installed base.

If disconnects exist, now is the time to facilitate a dialogue and come to closure on the service charter and strategy. The strategy may change over time as products and markets mature, so an annual “strategy alignment check-up” is essential to keep the organization focused on the “right” priorities.

2.    Sales, marketing and communication — Communicate clearly corporate and services strategy.

Successful leaders must communicate effectively with their team and clients to persuade them that their approach will be successful and beneficial to all. The team has to win as often as possible, minimize losses and learn from mistakes. Successful leaders know their competition and develop winning strategies to defeat them.

Effective sales, marketing and communication never go out of style. Effective sales skills can overcome a host of weaker dimensions. The most important sales and marketing skills required at all lifecycle stages are the ability to effectively articulate the service value proposition, to showcase marquee accounts through customer testimonials and to demonstrate thought leadership through presentations and white papers.

Creating loyal, referenceable customers is one of the most important elements for any company’s future success. Making every client “wildly satisfied” should be a top priority. Client satisfaction is based on setting proper expectations during the sales, proposal and contract process and delivering high-quality solutions that meet or exceed those expectations. Do what you say you will do and always let your client know what to expect — how you will conduct the project, the roles of the project team, timelines, deliverables and the escalation path. Clear and open communication — for good and bad news — is essential.

Another key ingredient is the proper handoff from all customer-facing personnel. Finally, customer satisfaction that results in clients you can reference must be a primary goal for all employees. It is important to consistently and effectively measure customer satisfaction and make it an essential part of client engagements and employee measurements.

Do you know who your best clients are and why they buy? Do you know what it takes to ensure they will continue to buy from your company? Do you make client meetings a priority? Do you solicit feedback and proactively respond?

Create a “top client” program to gain their feedback and commitment. Top client executive advisory boards are a great way to provide connection with your best clients. Each cross-functional executive team member should become an executive sponsor for up to five key accounts and plan to meet with his or her client counterparts at least twice a year. Annual or semi-annual top client executive advisory board meetings provide invaluable feedback. Create a “premier” account program with special benefits — access to engineering, beta programs and premium account management to build client loyalty.

Required leadership traits

There are many other ways for PS leaders to excel. They don’t need to have superior skills in every dimension, but they must be clear, deliberate, fair and consistent. Their most important job is to ensure PS professionals  align with the overall strategy, direction and goals, and performance measurements support that vision. Services is a game of nickels and dimes so the effective leader must constantly monitor and improve every facet of the operation.

Great service leaders must be multi-dimensional — able to drive strategy and execution at the same time — but they cannot do it alone. Leaders are only as good as their teams. Their singular focus is always on the improvement and enrichment of their team. They must convey their message to their top performers and hold those persons accountable to deliver. They must rely on sound practices and measurements to improve and document their performance, and to allow them to focus on the problems and issues only they can solve.