From Doing to Leading: 4 Steps I Take When I Lead PS Teams

I've had my share of professional services responsibilities over years: I've mined for pain. I've implemented software systems. I've integrated clients systems with our software. I've consulted with our clients to come up with new products and new solutions. After building a reputation as the "go-to" PS guy, I decided to do something a little different. 

I took the leap from doing to leading. 

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I was very fortunate to be promoted to a leadership position at one of my previous organizations. I didn't get a manual when I got promoted, so I did what a lot of new leaders do: I looked for mentors and asked for advice. 

In all honesty, my first foray into professional services leadership wasn't entirely successful. I felt I should have done a lot more, but I just couldn't put my finger as to *what* I should be doing. That level of strategic thinking was what I was missing, and I was fortunate to have some really good mentors who gave me the foundations to develop my own path. When an opportunity came up to jump to a leadership role at a new company, I took the highs and lows of my first leadership experience and came up with 4 things that I needed to strategically plan for to be a decent leader to my new team. The four steps are summarized as:

  1. Listen for (and care about) Team Pain
  2. Define the Team "Why"
  3. Prioritize Team Pains
  4. Learn and Repeat

Listen for Team Pain - don't lead blindly

Those who enter into a leadership role can do one of two things when they take the reins of a services team: They can:

  • Break down team and reconstitute it based on his or her experiences and preferences, or
  • Assess the situation, understand issues around inputs and outputs, and make changes with full context of how those changes will affect the team and clients

I ended up reporting to a handful of managers and coaches at one of my professional services role. There were times I felt dread, and others when I felt empowered and positive. What did the coaches do that made my team and I felt at ease and excited for the future?

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They took time to listen, assess, and care.

Focusing on clients is the most important thing for a PS team, but focusing on the team is the most important thing for a services leader. The mentors who had the most impact on my life and career all have one trait in common: they listen (and care) to everything I say (and I tend to talk... a lot).

A PS team should be investing their time and effort in diagnosing and solving client pain rather than fixing their own internal problems. Diagnosing team problems is the primary responsibility of the services leader, and similar to being a good trusted advisor to our clients, services leaders need to start the process by listening for (and caring about) team pains.

Define a Team "Why" - A "Why" that focuses on Clients

I'm a proponent of Simon Sinek's "Start With Why" philosophy. Successful companies start by asking why they are doing something rather than what they are doing. By focusing on how effort affects people rather than the effort itself, it forces teams to continuously assess if they are making a positive impact. 

Having a goal focused on "effect" rather than blindingly delivering things gives teams a daily "raison d'etre" to go above and beyond instead of just doing just enough to deliver a product. By happenstance, by defining a team "Why", it also helps with making sure our work is given relevance, measurement, and credit within the organization. 

We often see organizations nitpick and argue when we deviate from our original plan, but if we clearly define out "why" and strive for it, then why would anyone care how we got there? 

Prioritize The Biggest pains - Grow and Scale Right

Growing isn't always about hiring into your team. Hiring isn't a silver bullet that solves every problem. In fact, what is holding back your team from growing could be: 

  • Foundational, like if your team isn't deployed in the most effective way
  • Resource-related, like if your team is too small and your queue is too long
  • Knowledge-related, like if your team is lacking the training to level up and grow
  • Communication-related, like if your team isn't working well with adjacent teams 
  • Or something else!
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If you've done step 1 right, you should have a pretty good idea what is holding your team back from reaching that next level. Prioritize the problems that are actively hurting your team, then start planning to tackle the problems so your team can focus on helping their clients rather than fixing internal problems. 

To give an example: after my first week as a new services leader, I realized that everyone was experiencing burnout. We could have taken burnout as a problem and just hired more people, but we kept digging for the root pain. We realized that the problem was we were serving all clients the exact same way regardless of client segment. There are more efficient and low-touch ways to serve less complex clients, but because the team never had the time to catch their breath, they never pursued a solution for that problem. Priority was given to a new project to automate more straight-forward deployments, and then we hired on additional members into the team knowing that we're carving out an totally new role to serve a less complex client segment. Jumping into hiring straight away would be akin to putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg: sure it may help with the external scrapes, but without checking deeper, it wouldn't have solved the real problem under the surface.

Learn and Repeat - The cycle never ends

Organizational strategies change. New team members join and existing ones leave for other opportunities. Client requirements constantly shift. If the variables that affect our work aren't static, then why would we think that our team dynamics wouldn't have to evolve with the times?

I find it incredibly important to have regular touchpoints with my team to find out what is working and what isn't. Continuously mining for team pain will allow me to discover:

  • Whether or not we had our priorities right. If we got it wrong, we should adjust our approach and try again to solve team pains. 
  • If new pains have surfaced, we'll need to go back and diagnose the root pains and develop a new plan of attack

The Bottom Line

There's no manual on what to do when taking on a new leadership role, but I've found the approach of listening for pain, defining a team "why", prioritizing team pain, and learn & repeat works for me to help the team grow and stay proactive. 

Do you have your own approach? Have you tried something similar? Let me know! Drop me a line at