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Fractional CXOs (Executives): What They Are and What They Do

December 16, 2020

Bolster is all about helping high growth companies scale their leadership teams by matching them to highly qualified fractional executives across any and all functional areas – hence the term CXO. You may be wondering, what exactly is a fractional executive? A fractional executive is an up-and-coming type of executive gig role. This executive may actually be an employee, since the expectation is a long-term relationship, only on a fractional basis. For example, this could mean working 2 or 3 days per week, or a certain number of hours per week or month. The fractional executive is responsible for all the same functional areas as a full time executive in that role – reports to the CEO or President/COO, has direct reports, everything you would expect from a full time executive, but at less of a time commitment.

When is a Fractional CXO right for a company? The company may be too small to need (or afford) their level of expertise on a full time basis, but they do need more than just a mentor, advisor or project consultant. The fractional executive would generally remain with a company until the company needs more of their time than they are willing or able to provide, or until an existing full-time team leader is operating at a high enough capacity that they are no longer needed. The fractional executive may support more than one client at a time, and may also come with a team of more junior functional experts who can support them to take on more work.

There’s a real opportunity right now for companies to capitalize on the expertise of this talent pool without having to invest in a full time executive, and for executives who want to contribute their skills and expertise without the commitment of a 60-hour work week. Bolster is helping bring together fractional executives with companies who need their services the most. Bolster also provides services for members so they can focus on their consulting rather than their business, and for companies to evaluate their executive teams and boards.

What does a great Fractional CXO look like? Every CXO role is slightly different in how a fractional executive operates. A CRO is different than a CHRO or a CFO, but there are some attributes that span all roles, and certain skills that all successful fractional CXOs must possess. Our recommended best practices for fractional CXOs include:

  • Be all in. This is your role, and you are responsible for the full role, even though you only work part time. You are part of the executive team. Don’t say, “well, I’m only a consultant, so…..”. This is your job. Own it.
  • You need to be skilled at managing duality. You need strong communication with stakeholders to ensure you are meeting their needs, and also the ability to make decisions without guidance when needed. You need to be able to set strong boundaries on what is in and out of scope, and still be flexible enough to adjust when the business requirements change. You need to be highly strategic to ensure that you are prioritizing the right things, and also roll up your sleeves and get stuff done when you don’t have a team to support you.
  • You need to onboard quickly. You don’t have the luxury of 50 - 60 hours / week to get the lay of the land. You have a certain freedom to do this more quickly than normal, because there’s an expectation on both sides that you’ll take action quickly. Often the company may have needed your role for months, and there’s a backlog of tasks to get started. Make sure you prioritize the following:
  • Understanding how work gets done
  • Getting to know the company and industry
  • Analysis of your department and its strengths and opportunities
  • Building a relationship with the CEO and ensuring alignment on how you’ll work together
  • Relationships with the rest of the leadership team and your functional leaders (if any)
  • Relationships with any board members (if requested)
  • Once you’ve done your department assessment, it’s important to align with the CEO on top priorities of the role, and how you can best support their vision. Most of these priorities are the same as if you were full time, but you have the added pressure of a time limit every week, which requires you to be much more intentional about where you spend your time.
  • Finally, mentor and guide others to be self-sufficient without you. Be prepared for the company to either need more of your time than you are willing to give, or for your mentees to take on more responsibilities when you have the foundation in place. Have the confidence to work yourself out of a job if needed.

At Bolster, we strongly recommend to CEOs that a fractional role begin with a project or mentorship. This project is a type of “try before you buy” audition that works on both sides of the relationship. A common project is to develop an analysis of the current state of the department and recommendations of top priorities and how to manage. This project helps the fractional CXO get a handle on how things are working today, and gives them the opportunity to frame to the CEO what they would do if they were in the fractional position. Both sides gain something with this project. The Company gains insight into the functional area that they may not have had. They know what needs to be done to bolster the company’s growth in this area. The fractional CXO gains insight into the type of work required over the coming months. After this project, the CEO and CXO can each decide whether to pursue a longer term relationship.

We believe that on-demand executives will become more common as startups and scaleups realize that they can get functional expertise without paying full time salaries. And now that there is a marketplace for them to connect to clients who need them, more executives will choose this type of work to gain flexibility and focus on the work that plays to their strengths.

If you are an executive looking for on-demand work, sign up as a Bolster Member today. To qualify, you must have extensive leadership experience in a role that reports to the CEO or Founder, to a Board of Directors, or have deep experience running a functional department at a larger organization. If you are a CEO looking to scale your team by leveraging on-demand executive talent, sign up to be a Bolster Client.

- Cathy Hawley, December 16, 2020