How interim executives can be a surprising benefit to your company

By Mark Thacker

Companies bring on fractional leaders rather than long-term executives for many reasons, but the leading reason is that to these organizations it makes financial sense. You get the benefits of an executive without the hefty annual salary and comprehensive benefits package they command.

So who and what is a “fractional leader?” Essentially, it’s an executive who assists a company and shares their expertise for a fraction of the time. Fractional leaders have been serving in back-office roles—human resources, finance departments, etc.—for years, but they are now common throughout the C-suite.

Fractional executives can also focus narrowly on key initiatives instead of getting sucked into day-to-day distractions or office politics. Fractional executives are there to get the job done, providing the benefits of specialization at a fraction of the cost.

I expect this type of leadership to become far more common when the pandemic finally subsides. As people take stock of their lives and leave their jobs in droves, seasoned leaders will be looking for new opportunities to use their expertise and acumen but might not want to sign up for a decade of service. As an alternative, companies that need to populate the C-Suite and plan strategic shifts can rely on fractional leadership to bring in fresh perspectives into the organization, while avoiding the headache of traditional executive recruiting.

For these reasons, I believe fractional leadership will likely continue and popularity and play a role in the changing face of work. However, for companies and executives alike to use fractional leadership strategies to their fullest potential, it’s important to clear up some misunderstandings around the style. Here are a few common misconceptions.

Myth 1: Fractional leaders can’t understand a company

You might assume that someone parachuting into a company wouldn’t have an in-depth understanding of the product or service your business offers or the industry it operates in, but fractional leaders aren’t supposed to. They offer expertise in something like sales, marketing, leadership, or transformation. In other words, it comes down to the difference in generalists versus specialists. Companies already have in-house experts who know the product or service. What they lack are executives who can turn existing company assets into something bigger and better.

This sort of learned experience as a leader matters. Research shows that learning from failure is a key part of becoming an effective leader. People who haven’t steered a company through a crisis will face a steep learning curve when they must leap into action for the first time. Therefore, it makes more sense to hire someone who’s been there before, compared to bringing on someone who is new to your industry. To that end, look to hire fractional leaders who have demonstrable leadership experience rather than just technical know-how.

Myth 2: Fractional leaders can’t make the same impact

Another major misconception is that someone who joins a company temporarily can’t make the same impact as someone who stays for years. But we all know that time on the job doesn’t equate to success. Experience, expertise, and initiative do—all of which fractional leaders possess. Hiring a fractional leader also takes far less time than recruiting a full-time executive, so they can step in almost immediately and quickly start making an impact.

Remember that a leader’s impact is just as likely to be negative as it is to be positive; studies show that more than 50% of leaders are failing. Experience in leadership positions makes fractional leaders less likely to fail, meaning they spare a company the negative effects of relying on the wrong executive. They also help small and midsize companies compete on the same level as their larger competition. It might be difficult to quantify the impact of evening the playing field in this way, but it’s not insignificant.

Myth 3: Fractional leaders continue broken strategies

You might assume that short-term leaders will be more inclined to continue with broken strategies because they aren’t personally invested enough to make major changes. Perhaps you may believe they’ll let short-lived momentum guide them instead of doing the hard work to change organizations they will no longer be part of soon. On the contrary, fractional leaders are brought on specifically because they know how to make transformations work. Positive change is the KPI they live by.

Unlike in-house leaders who suffer from burnout—and might be planning their departure more than planning the company’s strategy—fractional leaders arrive refreshed and ready to leave a lasting mark. Having worked within multiple organizations, they know how to plan, execute, and create change. Fractional executives are ready to shake things up and push performance in a positive direction with the new challenges each role presents. It doesn’t make sense to expect the same old team to achieve different results, which is why it pays to bring in outsiders.

The new way to work will be here sooner than we think. COVID-19 spurred changes that were already in progress and rewrote certain fundamental expectations about how we work. Fractional leadership can help companies navigate this period of change and thrive in whatever comes after. It’s an option that far more companies and talented leaders should embrace.

Mark Thacker is the president of Sales Xceleration, a firm specializing in sales strategy, process, and execution.

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