"The market is not the limiting factor. It's how you approach that market..." one MSP leader said.

James Anderson, Senior News Editor

October 31, 2023

5 Min Read
MSP Leadership panel at Channel Futures Leadership Summit 2023

CHANNEL LEADERSHIP SUMMIT — Forming a strategy and casting a vision for your MSP business is good. However, successful MSP leadership means ensuring that the vision spreads all the way through the org chart.

A panel on MSP leadership at the Channel Futures Leadership Summit in Miami Beach Tuesday highlighted the importance of communication within a channel partner business. Namely, the panelists argued that some leaders fail to truly get their message across to their front-line employees.

"You can have all great ideas in your head as an executive leader. If you can't articulate that clearly and get the organization to buy in and follow you, you're just not going to get very far," Ensono senior vice president and managing director Paola Doebel said.

Doebel joined three executives from decorated MSPs, who shared their insights in the keynote panel, "Lessons in Channel Leadership: Mastering Managed Services."  Expedient CEO Bryan Smith, CDW vice president of managed services Tom DeCoster, and Cloud Carib senior vice president of sales and marketing Tamara Hossack also participated (pictured above). Channel Futures senior news editor Jeff O'Heir moderated the conversation.

MSP Leadership: Reaching the Front Lines

Smith described what he called a "two-level barrier" in leadership. Namely, people in a most businesses rarely talk with other coworkers more than two levels separated from their position.

That can lead to a game of telephone that gives leaders a distorted view of ground-level reality.

"If you're a C-suite you're talking maybe to a director, but you're not talking to the manager, a supervisor or a line employee. And if you don't do that, you're getting filtered information," he said. "To be a good leader and look further out, you have to have that intuition of what's going on. If you take all the filtering information and you're not hearing from the field directly, you're likely to go off course."

How does a partner address that gap?

And sometimes, as Amplix president Dan Gill said in earlier keynote, leaders may need to keep a foot in ground-level activities, like joining a customer call or a QBR.

Smith emphasized the role of middle management as front-line communicators.

"The most effective part of that communication is that we turn over those talking points to the frontline managers, who can then take that information and personalize the information for all the co-workers who need to understand, 'OK, I've received the message. I'm not necessarily sure how it responds how it relates to me.' The managers will help personalize that so people understand exactly how the issue relates to what they're getting every day," he said.

In addition, partner leaders need to take account of the evolving mediums for communication, from IM'ing to texting to video calls. Smith said leaders need to slow down to ensure that they're properly delivering their message over the various channels.

"Making sure that you've explained the 'why' and you actually hear them repeat it back and that they're interpreting it so they can put it into action," Smith said.

Focus Focus

Hossack said she has worked at many small companies that scaled. She pointed to focus as a key takeaway from those tenures. As many partners are widening their tech portolios to own the customer, Hossack said the expansion must occur methodically and carefully.

"When we go to market, a lot of clients are asking us for things outside of what our focus is. And you think, 'Hey, this is easy. They want to give me money; they want to pay for something,'" Hossack said. "Instead, stay focused. Stay doing what you do best until you have it down and you have competitive advantage. Then start looking at where you want to expand and offer other services."

Smith encouraged partners to think about where they want to be five years from now and the strategic shifts associated with that goal.

"Are they going to move to a full recurring revenue business? Are they going to focus on one-time consulting and equipment sales?" he said.

Moreover, partner leaders need to figure out if they're building a lifestyle business or one they'd like to sell in the next five years.

"Making that decision early and actually communicating with your employees and putting in the incentives in your management structure and the compensation plans for your sellers, is really going to help accelerate you getting to that end point," Smith said.

Doebel encouraged partners to play to their strengths.

"You can pivot from that strength as an organization, really leaning on that to get you to the next place as you think about expansion of services or diving deeper," she said.

She encouraged MSP leadership to "fail fast," pivot and give their teams autonomy to respond quickly.

"The market is not the limiting factor. It's how you approach that market, how you got to that market and how you carve out value," she said.

Strategy Shapes Leadership Hiring

Tom DeCoster offered an example from his experiences leading CDW's managed services practice. When he stepped into the position about a year ago, he fielded feedback from various stakeholders about the strategy for the business going forward. Moreover, people were suggesting who should implement the strategy as leaders.

"People came to me and said, 'Look, this person should be on your leadership team because frankly, they put in the put in the work, they paid their dues, and they deserve it.' And so I listened to what they had to say," he said.

DeCoster said he then put a strategy into effect, and leadership changes followed. And not everyone was happy about it, he said.

"You might imagine their excitement when I responded with rolling up a strategy, pushing out the KPIs and then dismantling the entire leadership team as a result," he said. "They came back to me and they said, 'You're creating disruption. Am I not good enough for you on the leadership team anymore?' That was tough to listen to and to really stand my ground."

DeCoster said it's "absolutely necessary" to wait for the right leaders to come into the business.

"Don't settle. Even though it's going to be very tempting to settle on leaders that are right in front of you, don't settle. It may feel like you're wrong, but you're not wrong," he said. "Once you've established the strategy, it makes it really easy to pick the right leader. Don't pick the leader that has credentials. Pick the leader that is absolutely going to help you drive the strategy."

About the Author(s)

James Anderson

Senior News Editor, Channel Futures

James Anderson is a news editor for Channel Futures. He interned with Informa while working toward his degree in journalism from Arizona State University, then joined the company after graduating. He writes about SD-WAN, telecom and cablecos, technology services distributors and carriers. He has served as a moderator for multiple panels at Channel Partners events.

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