What It Takes to Grow From Functional Head to CEO

During our coaching session, a client positioning for an Executive role asked how she was to reflect Executive level competencies and experience on her CV when she felt she didn’t have them yet.

My reply was, “You do have them. What you will need to do is highlight what is relevant, and mute what is not, to prove it.”

If you currently hold a functional leadership position such as Head of Department, Director, even Chief, you have the qualifications for the Executive Director, or Chief Executive Officer (CEO) position.

So what is so special about the CEO position, if Functional Heads have the same qualifications as the ultimate head?

The answer is not in the "what", but in "how much".

The CEO position includes the Functional Head position requirements but carries greater depth, breadth, speed, and sensitivity.

Here are the top 6 differences between the Functional Head and CEO position requirements.

1. Vision

A Functional Head's vision is their unit's successful delivery as one part of the greater business vision.

The CEO sets the entire organization's vision, and therefore, must have the business acumen to understand how every single unit of the business, in every single sphere in which it interacts externally, must thrive in its greater ecosystem, to be able to fulfill its vision.

2. 360 Strategic Thinking

A Functional Head is expected to develop strategies to deliver business goals in as far as they relate to their function.

The CEO must have 360 strategic thinking that foresees, plans and orchestrates the internal and external relationships and interdependencies between business units, stakeholders, and the political, economic, social, technological, legal, and environmental factors that influence the successful execution of business strategy.

3. Executive Leadership

A Functional Head’s focus is leading their managers, managing upwards to the CEO, and at the request of the CEO, submitting to the Board.

The CEO must practice Stakeholder Leadership.

Stakeholder Leadership, is one of the 5 leadership qualities the qualify a leader for Organizational Leadership, under the Purpose-Driven Leadership Framework.

It requires the CEO to acknowledge, embrace, and successfully channel the power the stakeholders around the CEO have on the success of the CEO’s leadership and business.

The examples below show Stakeholder Leadership in action:

1. The CEO must lead a number of equally capable and powerful Functional Heads.

2. The CEO must lead yet also follow the lead of a diverse Board that although not involved in the details of day to day business, does make decisions that affect them.

3. The CEO must appreciate shareholder investment.

4. It is now expected of CEOs to sensitively steer relations with other internal and external stakeholders. These are big and small, directly or indirectly connected, on and offline, and their decisions can have far reaching implications for the reputational, regulatory, financial, environmental, and ultimately profitability of the business.

4. Decision-Making

The Functional Head’s decision-making is limited to the scope of their job description. Even when under the guidance and regulation of industry standards, Functional Heads work within the parameters delineated by the CEO.

The CEO, as captain of the ship, is responsible for their own decisions, and is also accountable for the decisions of all stakeholders around their leadership and business.

Although not the Functional Head with technical know-how, the CEO must have superb business management competencies as to be able to make sound judgement and decisions over any and every aspect of their business, internal and external.

This requires the CEO to have deep and broad insights for decision-making, and the ability to make a judgement call, even when they have less than satisfactory information.

5. Risk Taking

Functional Heads are not required to take risks outside of the carefully structure limits of their job descriptions. Even when they see a direction another unit, or the organization as a whole can take, due process requires them to first run it by the CEO, and often colleagues, and the Board. For organizations that are not agile, this can slow down creativity and innovation, and the Functional Head's exposure and contribution, to wider business decision-making and risk-taking.

The CEO position is inherently a risk-taking position.

To caste a vision, set goals, choose strategies, and deploy resources in the hope that the entire business machinery and the context it is in will yield opportunities that bring greater returns on investment than the cost incurred to pursue them, is a great, albeit calculated risk.

As such, CEOs are given greater autonomy, and larger budgets to work and risk with.

CEOs are in charge of the combined budgets of all Functional Heads, as well as their own, bear the weight of all business risk exposure, must have the ability to foresee or instinctively deduce trends and changes in the business landscape to make a decision in a specific direction. These are markers of the difference between Functional Head and CEO level risk-taking.

6. Communication Mastery

Depending on their role, Functional Heads communicate with direct reports, the CEO, occasionally, the Board, and their reports’ reports.

Some Functional Heads also communicate with suppliers and customers and other stakeholders in the market, including the press, and regulatory authorities.

This is often at a high level business engagement that consists of formal, company formatted presentations.

The CEO is the face and therefore embodiment of the organization.

Even when they have capable colleagues that take on different communication roles, they must be all around masterful communicators.

With every opportunity, the CEO’s agenda is to persuasively sell the vision and the path to its fulfillment to secure ownership and commitment from everyone they engage with, every time.

To do so, CEOs must be particularly sensitive to communicate at the level of their target audience to effectively influence them.

Rather than focus on their information or technique, CEOs ground their communication in empathy, emotion, story telling, and increasingly so humility, and vulnerability to move stakeholders towards their common objective.

Whether communicating with individuals, groups, communities, or even markets, CEOs convince shareholders to invest more, compel the Board to pass a resolution for, prompt the C-Suite to pivot strategy, motivate the workforce to adopt change, influence customers to buy more (even when it’s more expensive), and impact the community to vote for expansion.

Tactics, tools, and techniques aside, the CEO is expected to believe in, be impassioned by, and so invested in the business that when they communicate, their audience can feel their commitment to stand or fall by what they say, and choose to trust them to lead them and the business as they have promised.

What It Takes to Grow From Functional Head to CEO

In Summary, if you are a Functional Head, you have the makings of a CEO.

Here is a simple exercise to assess your ability and readiness to take on the CEO position:

1. Find a CEO position job description for your organization, or one such as yours

2. Look at the position requirements

3. Rate your proficiency for that knowledge, skill, attitude, experience list on a scale of 1-5 (1 being the lowest, and 5 the highest)

4. For those you score less than 5, write in bullet-form, 1-3 things you can do to bring it up to a 5

5. Look at your bullet lists for each area you score less than 5 and decide when of the 1-3 is something you can do right now

6. Of the actions you have committed to take, choose 1 -3 only that you will start with

7. Write a 1-5 step action plan on how you will consistently do so for each

8. Think of and contact a mentor or coach and engage them to help you and hold you accountable to increase your proficiency from whatever level you had scored yourself to be, to a level 5

9. Go back and do the same for the other areas until you are confident you have what it takes to successfully take on the position of CEO

Remember, you don't have to work on every area of perceived weakness. Many areas of proficiency are learnt through training, mentoring, coaching and experience on the job.

Above all else, what distinguishes the CEO from many other positions is a tenacious mindset, fearlessness pursuit, and undefeatable will to get up and go at it, again, and again, no matter how many times they may fall. Start with that, and you can grow into the rest. Don't have that, and no amount of support will convince you you are good enough for the job.


Recent Posts

See All