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A new ‘chief’ in town: the strategic c-suite

C-suite – A corporation's principal senior executives. ‘C’ for Chief; as in Chief Executive Officer, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Investment Officer etc...

With our ear to the ground of the current UK market, we’ve recently seen a conspicuous increase in the volume of C-suite roles in the portfolio companies of the VC and lower cap PE world. This has also been coupled with increased interest from executive level candidates.  But what does it mean to be a ‘Chief’ and has this prolonged flurry of activity created a shift in the market-altering what it means to be a C-Suite individual altogether?

What has changed?

We should perhaps immediately caveat that this shift in the market is much more closely aligned to SMEs rather than the C level of the FTSE 100 / 250. Within the much bigger players, the C-Suite remains embedded amidst the iconic and well-known archetypes that have given this level its traditional allure.

The change seems more prevalent to the SME’s that have revenues in the millions or tens of millions. In these businesses, there is usually only one of each C-level individual rather than the multiples seen in bigger business. In some cases, these smaller companies have completely done away with some traditional C-suite roles altogether.

However, with the crowded low cap / VC market at the moment, we have seen a significant increase in these positions. The penchant for adding to, or indeed replacing, the executive level is an ever abiding trait in the PE world. Although, what has been interesting to see, is the relative similarity in the required skill set almost irrespective of the collection of letters that come after the ‘C’.

It would appear that there are some core elements that remain the same whether you are a CFO, COO, CMO, CIO and so forth. Experience is, of course, still highly valued at this level; but maybe not as much as in previous decades, or indeed markets. Demonstrable management and organisational skill set also remain a common theme as well as the gravitas and diplomacy necessary to communicate complex situations to boards and employees.

However, more interestingly, there seems to have been a slight, but noticeable, decrease in the average years of professional experience of this new C-Suite. Younger, hungry executive professionals who have the necessary aptitude and skills are becoming more the norm. With the abundance of start-ups and SME’s in the financial press, this is perhaps a logical result. 

A big trend in this space that we have witnessed is also the uptick in a need for a strategic skill set within this C-suite. When looking at low cap PE ‘bolt ons’ are king with a need to think outwards and forwards to grow businesses; thus, perhaps controversially, it is perhaps no longer enough for a C-level individual to just focus in on the microcosm of their given field.

The evidence:

Over the last few months the amount of roles we have seen that, in part, cast aside the need for the specific lettered skill to some extent is significant. When probing these often complex briefs, the same themes continue to arise:

Q. Why doesn’t the CFO need massively strong accountancy skills?

A. There is a fully fledged FD or Financial Controller in place already.

Q. How can you manage with a purely strategic COO with no hard-core ops experience?

A. Well, we have a Head of Supply chain, Head of Logistics, a Programme Manager and a PMO in place so they won’t need to do much actual day-to-day Ops!

Q. Does the CMO need a strong background in any specific core marketing areas?

A. There is a strong marketing and Digital team in place already; if they get ‘it’ and can talk the talk they don’t necessarily need the specifics.

Whilst admittedly these examples are a little exaggerated, you may be surprised to learn that they are not a million miles away from the reality of the job descriptions we have seen over the last few months.

Why is this?

It seems that these roles are often much more focussed on strategic oversight. They involve someone who can keep an eye on all the specific threads that define the day job as well as making sure the relevant structures and processes are in place for growth and scalability.

Similarly an ever increasing desire for a ‘completer-finisher’, simply someone who ‘can get stuff done’ and this at times trumps other specific skill sets. For someone who is strong in their given field, the real differentiator comes when you can simultaneously act as a champion for your given specialism and as a strategic and operational sense check, a strong communicator and a voice for the team, platform, sector etc.

As such, we are seeing more and more emphasis on communication skills, stakeholder management, and the ability to have opinions whilst being diplomatic and acting with humility. Cultural fit and enthusiasm for what the business actually does is also, rather obviously, still key.

This strategic/operational skill set is also incredibly transferable. Very broadly speaking, it often supersedes sector and function. It is more and more about people skills and the individual candidate’s enthusiasm for the challenge and complexity of a C-level role.

This ‘new’ breed of C-suite is an interesting one. It is a mindset that allows a much broader cross pollination of ideas, with people able to view these very traditional roles from a slightly different angle/lens. It also opens the door a little wider to allow a broader swathe of capable people, irrespective of age, with a passion for their respective fields into an exclusive community.

Further to this, it is beginning to have a positive impact on diversity in the upper echelons of businesses, which is all for the better and long may it continue.

If you are interested in finding out more about our Executive search offering whether as a client of prospective C-Suite candidate please do get in touch to find out more.