Navigating the four faces of a functional C-level executive

As a C-level executive, you will generally have to assemble a team that ensures the operator and functional stewardship activities are taken care of, freeing your time for the strategist and catalyst faces.

Crossing the chasm

When you are recruited as a C-level hire, it is very rare that you are hired just to maintain the status quo. Instead, you are typically recruited to help your function and your company achieve the next level of performance. This will generally require choices on how you will allocate your time and face your new job.

In our work with C-level executives across various functional roles, we have developed a generalized “four faces of the executive” model to help clarify what is expected of them and set expectations for their focus with peer executives.

Four faces of the CFO framework

The strategist, catalyst, and operator faces are quite similar in description and orientation. For different functional executives, the fourth role differs in orientation and is closer to their specialized functions and statutory requirements. In some ways, the fourth role is a functional stewardship role, preserving current and future value of key company assets.

When we interview CEOs and board members on how they would like the new executive to allocate their time, as a general rule of thumb, we hear that they want the new executive to spend 60–70 percent in the top two faces (the strategist and catalyst), and 30–40 percent of their time in the lower two faces. What we observe in our transition labs is that most executives in the transition period allocate time in the opposite way: 60–70 percent below the line and 30–40 percent above it. The key to a successful transition is to cross the chasm that divides the operator and functional stewardship roles from the higher-value strategist and catalyst faces that drive future business performance, and new executives need to accomplish this within their first year. Indeed, not crossing the chasm can make for a short tenure. In cases where the previous executive served a short time, CEOs and board members often note that the executive simply did not prioritize and elevate their game sufficiently into the strategist and catalyst roles.

Four considerations

So why do so many executives get trapped below the line? Generally, we observe four things in our labs:

  1. The new executive’s team is not capable enough to effectively deliver the operator and stewardship responsibilities, so the senior executive gets trapped into spending too much time assuring the baseline delivery of these roles.
  2. As a corollary to the first reason, incoming executives do not believe their offices have garnered the credibility to be a strategist or a catalyst.
  3. The incoming executive’s training and mindset is more operational than it is strategic.
  4. The boss says the right things but does not allow you play above the line.

The lack of an ample team is the primary reason we find executives trapped below the line. As in our earlier article, there is a time-talent trade-off; the wrong people on your team waste your time and can prevent you from delivering on the key faces required of you. It is essential to quickly diagnose the capabilities and skills of your staff and either upgrade their skills or get the right people with the right skills in place within 180 days. Otherwise, subpar performance by your staff will simply reflect on you, and you won’t be able to deliver against the strategist and catalyst expectations.

The corollary reason for not crossing the chasm is “waiting for credibility.” For example, perhaps the finance or IT organization you have inherited has not previously delivered, and you are waiting for some significant, quick wins to establish credibility. The risk with this strategy is that in the first year, there may be a lot to repair, and executives can constantly feel that they have not earned the right to be strategic as the core team, systems, and processes are repaired. Here, you will need to set expectations of realistic times to repair while taking on a voice of the strategist and catalyst in key leadership meetings. Not doing so may send a message that you are not capable of these faces. Again, having the right team in place to deliver results is vital to quickly earning credibility.

A third reason is that newly promoted executives were great in their previous functional roles, but they do not have a strategic mindset for their new roles (for example, a controller who does not elevate to a strategic CFO).

Finally, we sometimes encounter the awkward situation where a CEO is exceptionally controlling and does not permit their C-level executives to fulfill the strategic and catalyst aspects of their roles.

The takeaway: As a C-level executive, you are generally hired to play above the line. To do this, you will generally have to assemble an “A team” of direct reports that quickly ensures the operator and functional stewardship activities are taken care of. This will free up your time to bring the strategist and catalyst faces at the right level to your company.