Fractional Leadership is Hot… and that’s a problem

Single-shingle freelancers, staffing firms, and online marketplaces are trying to repackage themselves as Executives on Demand

How to Quickly Evaluate the Quality of Fractional Executive Firms

A business blog recently declared, “The Future is Fractional,” and fractional leadership is “in”. 

Startups and growth companies are embracing the concept of leveraging interim, part-time, and project-based leadership. Companies understand that they can upgrade the experience and talent level of key executives and functions while paying less than the loaded salary of a full-time executive. Better to have a fast-moving superstar as your CFO, CTO, COO, CMO, or CHRO for 10 or 20 hours per week, the thinking goes.

The problem is that with an uncertain business climate in 2024, the market is being flooded with freelancers, single-shingle consultants, staffing firms, struggling life coaches, and unemployed middle managers repackaging themselves as fractional executives. 

Here are four ways to quickly evaluate the quality of the fractional executive you’re considering for your business.

1. Define the “Executive” – A manager, director, or vice president is not a c-suite executive. The experience, decision-making, leadership, and skills of successfully guiding multiple organizations through big strategic decisions are very different than being a middle manager or lower-level executive. Unfortunately, a rash of corporate layoffs is pushing many directors and VP-level employees into the consulting ranks. Dig in on bio pages, LinkedIn profiles, and CVs to evaluate the depth of executive experience being presented.

Consultants are notorious for overstating their abilities. Many consultants at prestigious firms will present themselves as serving in an executive capacity; however, many of these people were plucked off the “MBA farm” without ever working inside companies, let alone leading in a C-suite capacity. TechCXO, for example, requires that every one of its partners has demonstrated success as a C-suite executive at multiple organizations. 

Freelancers who may be fine implementers might also present themselves as executives. While good fractional executives are “doers” and solid execution people, they also understand strategy and how initiatives fit into overall objectives, positioning in a competitive landscape, and support a unique value proposition. If you suspect your resource is a freelancer, ask a series of broad-based questions about customer segments, pricing strategies, and delivery channels. Then, listen closely. 

2. Define “Success” – Executives generally agree that the objective of a business is to eventually sell it. When evaluating a fractional executive, look to see if they were integral to a team that had several successful exits, IPOs, capital raises, and other M&A activities. 

The contributions of marketing, sales, product, tech, and HR people may be a bit harder to quantify than an exit, but seek out hard numbers for product launches, customer/revenue increases, profitability, and ways the entire organization was impacted by an executive’s efforts. 

Client quotes and testimonials are great, but they don’t necessarily communicate the scale of the work provided. Instead, look for true use cases and success stories with some level of complexity that took place over a number of quarters. Try to spot truly transformational work that scaled an organization, turned around a stubborn problem, or opened up new markets. Ask if you can speak directly with those clients, too. 

3. Define the “Team” – Small teams or single-shingle consultants may try to hide the scope of their organizations by not publishing team bios. Be on guard for that on the firm’s website. Some unscrupulous marketplace traders who talk about only 2% of their applicants make the cut, use fake bios to present a false sense of scale. They quite literally reuse photos and bios to present a “team.”

Check bios and the breadth of an organization. A level of scale demonstrates success. You don’t want to get caught in a situation where you are relying on a single company founder or one or two principals. They may be a startup organization themselves and all the dangers of time constraints, inadequate bandwidth, cash flow, or other disruptions.

Search and staffing firms may talk about their extensive “networks,” but they are in the business of plugging one or two resources into a hole. That approach does not constitute a team with a bench. Also, executive search and staffing firms are marketplace-brokered resources (found online) vs. referred, vetted, collaborative partner-quality professionals. Many specialty consulting firms are owned by exec search firms offering fractional and interim work, but do not have cross-discipline teams and resources. That can get expensive and blow up the cost-efficiencies you are anticipating.

For example, you don’t want a CFO-level executive handling your Accounts Receivables and Payables. You’re overpaying for that resource. You want to see a mix of talent at different levels and rates that might include a VP of Finance, Controller, Accounting Managers, and AR/AP coordinators.

Similarly, you wouldn’t want a CTO to be doing all your security, development, coding and project management work or your CHRO to directly do your recruiting and compliance work. A team with a blend of talent and rates is a good indicator of a well-established and high-functioning firm that can provide real-time and cost efficiencies.

4. Look for a Variety of Delivery Models – The classic monthly retainer arrangement or project-based pricing is familiar, but they also show a great deal of limitations. Freelancing, staffing, and firms with limited resources and delivery people are often locked into those models. 

A true executive on-demand firm has greater flexibility. It may discount rates up front for warrants and equity on the back end. It may offer a mentoring and coaching model. It may also offer specific, time-constrained training options. 

In a company’s lifecycle, they may need to push hard on recruiting talent but then may need to pivot to lead generation, sales and growth, or perhaps to raise capital. A multi-discipline executive on-demand firm can provide those resources and shift priorities and spending to the client’s needs. 

Fractional leadership may well be “in” for 2024, but for those firms who have been providing this unique model and approach, it’s been in style for decades.