Does Fractional Leadership work?

Fractional leadership is the practice of leveraging external experienced C-level executives to fill leadership gaps in your business in a part time capacity. The fractional executive works on a contract basis and usually with more than one company at a time. The concept is gaining popularity as an effective way to grow and scale your business without the commitment and risk associated with bringing on a full time C-level person. The nagging question for many CEOs, however, is how can this seemingly counterintuitive approach really work? “I need leaders who are 100% committed to my business and wake up everyday thinking about how to make us succeed – right?” This article will outline how this fast-growing approach can and does work – and not just as a “plan B” to fill a short-term need until I find a full-time leader, but as a strategic approach to scaling your business, preserving your equity, and driving superior performance.

So, let’s take a look at what makes the model work.

Ruthless Focus

Think about how much of your time is actually spent on things that only you can do? Similarly, think about how that applies to your leadership team – how much of their time is actually spent on tasks or strategic activities that only they are capable of doing? In my experience as a full-time C-level leader, I can’t count how many times I would think back at the end of the day and wonder what I actually accomplished that really moved the company goals forward. All the meetings I would get pulled into, all the customer issues that I “had” to deal with, all the little interruptions for for “urgent but not important” things – when you add it all up, there really isn’t much time left for the real “C-level” stuff you need to be focused on. Paradoxically, this is the key to how the fractional model works. As a fractional leader, there is simply no time for little stuff. If you are working with a company for just a couple of hours per day, you are forced to ruthlessly prioritize only the very most important items on your list. If your day-to-day task list doesn’t align precisely with the most important strategic initiatives for the company, you will fail – there is simply no time for anything else. Similarly, in order to accomplish 8 hours of tasks in a fraction of that time, you are forced to relentlessly delegate and leverage the typically under-utilized talents of the team under your direction (which isn’t that what we are supposed to be doing as leaders anyway?).

So…. when you actually compare progress on the “big rocks”, on the things that really matter, between the fractional and full-time leader, the fractional model doesn’t seem so improbable.  Not coincidentally, these principles of focus and delegation are the same principles behind the concept of the “4-hour work week” and how great leaders can still be very successful in far less time than what is traditionally expected.

Expertise

Hand in hand with that deep experience, and more specifically, the experience working with a large number of similar stage companies, comes the ability to get up to speed very quickly. The time to become effective for a fractional leader is dramatically shorter which means that less of your money is going towards ramp up and that results can be achieved much faster.

Objectivity and Ego

The fractional leader comes into an engagement with one goal in mind – success. The consulting world is unforgiving and any engagement that is anything less than success will have a negative impact on future business. The fractional leader is not looking for titles, promotions, or stature within your company. They are objective and unencumbered by the typical dynamics that surround traditional leadership teams. The result is an ability to do what needs to be done and to say what needs to be said. All too often, the problems holding back a team are rooted in personalities and behaviors of the people involved – there is great benefit in having a leader in the mix who can identify and address the real problem – even if that problem is you.

So, When Does a Fractional Leader Make Sense

As effective as a fractional leader can be, it is not always the right solution and to be honest, is not typically the right long-term solution. The scenarios where this approach is especially effective include:

  • Too early for full-time – your company is starting to get traction and you need the expertise of a C-level leader but you don’t have the money or the need for a full-time person.
  • Coaching / Mentoring – your current full-time leader is not delivering. They need the help of an experienced leader to come alongside and help get them to where they need to be.
  • Unexpected departure – someone just left (or was terminated) and you need someone on the ground tomorrow to keep the team together and moving forward.
  • Assessment – You are not sure what you need. The gut feel is that the leader in place is not working but you need someone with the relevant experience and skills to come in and give you an objective assessment.
  • Critical inflection point – whether the company is experiencing significant growth or looking to raise money (or any number of other critical transition points), you know that it is going to take some different skills to help get you to that “next level”.

The value proposition of a fractional leader in scenarios such as these is unparalleled. The take-away here is that you don’t have to solve these challenges on your own and there is another option besides finding and hiring the perfect full-time leader. Know that there is a network of very experienced fractional “operating partners” who can come alongside for a period of time to help expertly solve the challenges in any aspect of your business. Help you get things going in the right direction and get the right team and processes in place to sustain that. And then help you find the right full-time leader to carry it forward.


Greg Smith is TechCXO’s Managing Partner for the Product & Technology Practice. See his full bio here. Or, learn more about interim CTOs and CiSO-as-a-Service.