Charting the rise of the part-time CCO

A new option for growing organizations.

Anthony Steel is founder of Steel Communications, a strategic consultancy that helps companies tell their stories to the stakeholders that matter. He is an inaugural member of Fortune Connect and a guest lecturer at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.

In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards the use of fractional executives. These are experienced professionals who work on a part-time or project basis rather than as full-time employees. They can work remotely or on-site, depending on the needs of the company, and can be brought in for specific projects or on an ongoing basis.

The communications industry has seen a noticeable surge as companies increasingly turn to fractional chief communications officers (CCOs) to help manage their post-COVID-19 PR and communications strategies, navigate short-term challenges and optimize for efficiency. These leaders bring a wealth of experience and knowledge to the table, often having worked with a range of companies across different industries. This enables them to provide an objective perspective on a company’s communications strategy, identify areas for improvement and suggest potential new approaches.

SVB’s comms crisis

Post-pandemic, businesses as a whole are (finally) recognizing the importance of having a robust communications strategy in place during good times and bad. For example, the role comms — or lack thereof — played in Silicon Valley Bank’s (SVB) downfall was widely reported. Axios wrote that “SVB did not have a communications professional on their leadership team, and it showed,” with CNBC reporting that “what likely contributed to SVB’s collapse was a lack of effective leadership, communication and management practices.”

Another key element of SVB’s collapse was the rapid spread of rumors online. With the continued growth of social media and other digital channels, it is essential to have a strong online presence and to communicate effectively amongst that audience, particularly during a crisis. SVB again missed an opportunity by not taking control of the narrative across their digital spaces. What price a calm and confident comms pro in times like these?

Evolving needs

Another factor driving the rise of fractional CCOs is the changing nature of the communications landscape. Traditional PR agencies are no longer the only players in the field, with companies now opting to partner with freelance consultants or bring their comms functions in-house versus hiring an outsider. Additionally, these roles are often sought when a company is in rapid growth phase, looking to scale quickly and gain traction. A fractional exec’s expertise can prove invaluable in plugging the gap right away whilst not forcing the company to invest in a full-time employee just yet.

As such, many businesses — particularly start-ups or smaller companies — are keen to bypass the tediously long search process that hiring a permanent executive typically involves. And of course, they are attracted to accessing executive expertise that may not otherwise be affordable at a full-time rate. By working on a part-time basis, a fractional CCO can provide companies the expertise required to achieve short-to-mid-term strategic goals without the often prohibitive cost of a full-time hire inclusive of benefits, equity, etc.

Shared synergies

The fractional leadership model is beneficial for both the leader and the company. The leader is able to set clear parameters, primarily that they will focus solely on strategic matters that utilize their specific skills (ideally resulting in demonstrably quicker added value), whilst the company knows the leader will bring a fresh perspective, unencumbered by office politics and “the way things have always been done around here,” at a more affordable price.

As the fractional leader’s time is finite, the best outcomes often materialize when both parties align on their shared overarching goals and don’t sweat the smaller stuff.  Fractional CCOs can then dial in directly on the “how” versus the more protracted “why” objectives, free of historical baggage.

By providing companies with the expertise they need on a part-time or project basis, fractional CCOs offer a flexible and cost-effective solution to hiring a full-time communications officer. As the business world continues to evolve, we can expect to see more and more companies turning to fractional CCOs to help meet their communications needs.

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