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Untangling the 7 threads of service leadership


We all have the choice of whether to lead or follow, whatever our title, whatever the situation. In IT Service Management (ITSM), we often see providing support as following. However, evidence suggests that we considerably enhance our reputation and delivery if we take the lead. What does that look like exactly? Is it our remit? How will we bring others with us? Philippa Hale and Jean Gamester offer some suggestions.


Look more closely at service management teams working on projects or making improvements to operations. Authentic and effective leadership is happening at all levels. The person who inspires others to act quickly in an emergency, who admits a mistake promptly, understanding how this minimises wider organisational impact; the person who speaks out when something has been bothering the team or great service isn’t being delivered; the person who mends fences between teams. This person has leadership qualities, and their behaviour and attitude add value to the business, reduce costs and risks, and improve credibility and relationships.

In our work with many hundreds of IT departments, we have identified seven threads of leadership activity that anyone can do, in any service management role, at any point when delivering services, designing products or making improvements. 

Why ‘threads’? Because we want to get away from the idea of steps or stages where one finishes and another starts. Leadership activity and the use of emotional intelligence (Goleman 2000) need to flow continuously through all our activities. If these are used well – right time, right situation – they can prevent projects, products, processes and relationships from becoming entangled.


Thread 1

Spotting and validating needs

This first thread of activity involves observing and evaluating what is happening now with an open mind, avoiding ‘habit blindness’ and ‘group think’. All projects, product development and change initiatives begin with someone being curious, hearing stories, noticing needs or opportunities inside or outside the organisation. That focus on careful observation, listening, creativity and ideas generation needs to be sustained throughout, often combining gut feel with hard facts. Is it still working? What are the costs, benefits and risks of changing or starting something? What else could we do?

Are you passionate about an idea? Get a ‘reality check’ with others. If you are unsure, get more information from close colleagues, then from people with different perspectives; and listen, don’t just defend your ideas.

Think about your processes and projects. Are they still delivering value? For whom in the business? Based on what criteria? Could you save your organisation and your team’s precious resources, effort and time by stopping, refocusing or re-prioritising any part of your work?

Thread 2

Making the pitch

This thread involves presenting ideas and making them sound clear, practical and compelling, to get the support of a wide variety of audiences. An idea is pitched to senior management to get funding and approval. A project or process is pitched to new team members, partners, customers and suppliers, all with different opinions, needs, motivations and levels of understanding. Changes are pitched to the people not actively involved but personally affected, through changes to roles, relationships, processes or even job security.

Ensure your pitches are presented in your audience’s language, so that they have the right emotional resonance and credibility. This means that you will need to know your audience well – real engagement is needed.

Also, you may need to repeat information many times. People are busy, miss meetings and emails, or just don’t have your level of technical knowledge and experience. You will need to explain changes, progress and decisions made, in your audience’s language, to manage expectations and perceptions.

Next time you prepare an important message, stand in your audience’s shoes, think how your message will land and what you want them to think, feel and do. What jargon and technical elements do/don’t they need to understand? You may need to ‘reframe’ – show people a different angle they hadn’t thought of, which might address their concerns. A few extra minutes planning a message can significantly increase engagement and collaboration, reduce delays and improve decision making.

Thread 3

Getting going

This is the thread for practical planning and thinking through the detail. Not ‘in at the deep end’ and not ‘analysis paralysis’, but the sweet spot in between. “Never plan alone” is the true Service Management leader’s motto at all stages.

Make planning activities fun and engaging – for example, a well-planned kick-off session including high-energy brainstorming and knowledge exchange activities. Involve others with diverse specialist knowledge to open up ‘black boxes’. This helps with estimating, sequencing, highlighting interdependencies and workload management, and makes the road ahead clear to all.

Find out who needs what information on progress, when, in what format so that you can manage expectations and agree who will be consulted or informed over changes. Ensure everyone knows the checkpoints that will show progress and if there is something that can’t not be done, then just do it (being sure to tell/involve the necessary people!).

Put a simple graphical image of your plan (one A4 page in a font size you can read) on a real or virtual whiteboard that all can see, and use a dashboard to highlight main achievements, risks and opportunities, goals and deliverables. Lastly, highlight the updates so that you have a living, evolving picture of the project.

Thread 4

Building the team

For this thread we focus on creating and sustaining a bond between people who may not have worked together before, who come from different backgrounds and functions. They may also be working remotely.

Building relationships of trust and respect is an actual job and needs constant work. It doesn’t happen by itself. Especially when working remotely, a simple word or action misunderstood and not clarified can be the thin end of the wedge that creates the split between ‘us and them’.

Make effective team and cross-team working everyone’s responsibility. State very clearly what you would like the team dynamic to be and role model it. If you want enthusiasm, a team who are keen to engage and to support each other, you need to reward these behaviours when you see them and say if you don’t. Encourage the whole team to do the same.

Don’t avoid the ‘storming’ stage. Trigger it by reviewing regularly, openly and without blame. Then the stakes of raising issues aren’t too high. Be realistic about the team’s skills and knowledge – allow for the learning curve and different learning styles – yours and theirs. Some like being thrown in at the deep end. Others want support.

Add an item to your team meeting agenda: ‘What’s working well and what needs attention in our team working?’ Demonstrate constructive discussion and discuss sensitive issues one to one.

Thread 5

Getting engaged

This is where we track the wider impact of our project or change initiative on the organisation, navigate the politics, and mitigate disruption and resistance to change, rather than being too internally and technically focused. Even small changes to IT services, products and processes need to do be done with our colleagues and customers, not to them. It is a myth that everyone resists change. What people don’t like is the unknown, the ambiguous, the arrogant or aggressive. No-one is obliged to collaborate so we need to understand what would make them want to. The strongest human motivators at work are 1) enjoying a sense of safety and belonging, 2) seeing we are making an effective contribution, and 3) feeling appreciated/recognised.

Find ways to involve people in ways that genuinely meet these universal needs. You can’t reach everyone so build a strong network of local, reliable advocates who know each specialist community affected by your work and will involve them and give support.

Are your stakeholder needs being met? Could they help you succeed if you worked more closely with them? Consider who could act as advocates and get them on board. Create a ‘stakeholder map’ to better understand who you need to engage with, and work out a plan to build those relationships and get support.


Thread 6

Making it Happen

This thread focuses on action, personal resilience and emotional intelligence – how we handle the interpersonal interactions. Skilful use of different leadership styles in different situations is key: when to push for action and when to open up the debate; when to set the pace yourself and when to coach others to lead; when to focus on the task or relationships to get the job done.

We need to look after ourselves, manage stress levels and workload, as well as being there for others. Authentic leadership is all about making sure we are able to be ‘mindful’ or present in the moment. We need to understand what is reasonable pressure – which can be very energising and bring out the best in us and our teams – and what is actually overload. Under stress we can get tunnel vision which affects our judgement, relationships and decision making, even our health. Keep taking the pulse: yours, the team’s, and that of the organisation around you.

Take a step back and make sure you are leading your projects or initiatives and they aren’t driving you. We are all human, so ask for help if you need it. A good tip is to notice how you are feeling physically. Are you noticing any tension, such as a tight knot in your stomach or chest, a sensation of head spinning or an overall sense of tiredness over and beyond the work itself. This will be clear to others if it isn’t to you. Just a single minute to stop-breathe-think can significantly clear your head and improve your performance.

Thread 7

Reviewing, learning, celebrating

This is the thread of being open to learning and ensuring the team and others involved are too. You need to build in actual forums and mechanisms for this. Forget the ‘tools’ – this is a purely human experience. Have I/they been influenced to improve, or to do things differently?

Try informal on-the-job coaching, for individuals or teams, constructive team reviews and knowledge sharing at meetings. It can also include feedback on the job, e.g. making sure activities are properly finished and to the necessary standard. Take time to ensure each new tool or process or change is embedded in day-to-day practice and has actually been an improvement for the people involved. Talk to them directly, don’t send out a survey, because you will learn much more. Innovation is fuelled by continual iterative cycles of improvement, developing the practice stories, building on the successes and lessons of the previous cycles of activity.

Manage expectations by dividing a large piece of work into manageable chunks or cycles, then visibly signalling completion of each chunk. Regularly recognise effort, remind everyone of what the changes have contributed to the organisation and agree what still needs fixing, without blame. Summarise those achievements for your different audiences in language that will engage and inspire them, give you credibility and consolidate your relationship.

Consider how often you have reviews, what they feel like and what they deliver. Don’t accept long, dull and unproductive meetings. Make them short, inspiring and productive!

Also think about who you involve, how you prepare, how much care you take when you document or present information about progress, problems handled, issues resolved and opportunities seized. This should not be ‘boring documentation’. If it is, do it differently. It should be your legacy and track record of adding value to the business, and yet another opportunity for leading and influencing.



Philippa Hale and Jean Gamester are senior consultants at Open Limits and on the Associate Faculty at Henley Business School. They work with many organisations including Harrods, FT, British Transport Police and regional police and local government IT departments, Hearst UK, Orient Express (now Belmond), BG Group, NHS Trusts, HR Wallingford, Pincent Mason, Punter Southall, Royal London Asset Management, Which? Vodafone and CIPD.


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