Thought Leadership

The Signs of Fractional Leadership

When companies don’t play at their best, organization structures, processes or strategy are often blamed. Efforts and resources are then redirected and legions of consultants are hired to rejuvenate the organization. After the dust has settled, little has changed. Why?

You can change the structures, the processes and even the strategy, but if people don’t change, you will always have more of the same. If you always do what you’ve always done, you will always get what you always got, regardless of cosmetic shifting.

If you want to change your business, leaders must change themselves. You can only improve and grow your business when leaders improve and grow.

I’ve been working with leaders for 20 years and the hardest work that any leader or team of leaders does is work that involves them personally. This is true for any of us. Yet to excel, at an individual, team or organizational level, it is work we must do.

Developing people, specifically developing leaders is commonly neglected or left in the hands of human resources. More often than not, leadership development is addressed from the “bottom up”, because senior leaders are too busy with other issues, think they are already good enough, or are reluctant to address their challenges publicly. When a leader does own up to his or her shortcomings, they do it in a confessional sort of way, with a coach, so nobody else knows about it.

What’s more, HR can’t give the executive leadership team much help. While they can support first time leaders and middle management, rarely does human resources have the standing to challenge senior leadership’s capability or performance. They are part of the system that reports into senior leadership.

Most organizations focus on leadership as an individual endeavor. Companies create talent programs for individuals and one on one coaching sessions for executives. This is not the best use of time and resources because a company’s success depends on the effective teamwork and collaboration of leaders, not their individual talents.

I work with leadership teams because this is where profound results are created. I helped leadership teams play at their best through a transformational growth process called Executive Ownershift®. I am convinced that if you really want to get ahead, this is the only place you can start. Everything starts with the leadership team. Anything else is a distraction.

The senior leadership team is the moral and performance barometer of the organization. Everything senior leaders say and do (or don’t say and don’t do) impacts the entire company. When senior leadership teams don’t own up to their executive leadership agenda, we see and feel their fractional leadership practices.

Fractional leadership is leadership that is not playing at its best. The consequences for the company can be devastating. During my work with over 100 senior leadership teams on three continents, I’ve identified patterns that lead to fractional leadership. These patterns prevent people, teams and functions from playing at peak performance; this puts your company at risk.

High performance leadership isn’t always about starting some new; often it’s about stopping or changing a destructive pattern. As you move to higher and higher leadership levels in your company, you are less likely to get feedback about behaviors, habits or communication patterns that you practice, particularly negative ones.

Take this “top ten list” into your next senior leadership team meetings. Which ones relate to your leadership team and which ones relate to you? What kind of improvements and renewed results would result from cleaning up and cleaning out your fractional leadership patterns?

  1. My job over our business. Do you defend your job, putting your interests over the interests of your overall business? As a member of an executive team, you’ve got to be prepared to put tough issues on the table, even when they may impact your livelihood negatively.
  2. Passive Acceptance. Do you see and hear things that go on within your leadership team that aren’t consistent with the standards of excellence or code of conduct that you’ve set, but you don’t speak up, thinking that it’s someone else’s job or it will go away? You’ve become a passive acceptor and now are a role model for others to do the same.
  3. You promote your business as a numbers game. Have the numbers become the ultimate “end game” for you and your leadership team? Do you rise and fall on your daily and weekly numbers, losing sight of your company’s mission and purpose?
  4. One off strategizer. Is your leadership team struggling with a strategy that’s failing to deliver breakthrough results? Annual strategy exercises where the finished product ends up in everyone’s bottom drawer won’t lead your company to success. Fractional leaders have replaced real strategy work with a planning process that rarely delivers expected results.
  5. Dutifully distracted. Does your leadership team resemble a firefighting unit? Is your leadership team reacting instead of actively driving strategic initiatives? Survey the implications this has for people and projects that look to your team for strategic guidance and clarity. Distractions are addictive for fractional leaders.
  6. Sailing in your silo and failing to ask others departments and functions how your business unit could work better with them. When was the last time you and your business function invited another function to a working lunch to discuss ideas of how you could collaborate for effectively? Start the example you expect of others.
  7. Heady but not Hearty. Are white elephants left to roam throughout your executive team? Are there unwritten rules or hidden agendas that leaders must navigate around in your senior leadership team? Fractional leaders concentrate on material reality issues (hard facts) and neglect non-material realities (those things under the iceberg). What you tolerate at the senior leadership level becomes the operating practice for the rest of your organization.
  8. No appetite for risk taking. Are you careful not to hurt your current position? Do you and your leadership colleagues steer clear of wicked problems? When you spend energy trying not to lose instead of struggling to win, you kill competitiveness in your business.
  9. Soloing instead of choiring. To what degree do you and your senior leadership team members “sing from the same song sheet”? Are you a group of leaders that communicate purposeful and aligned messages back into your organization, or is there static in your leadership signals, caused by mixed messaging?
  10. Uncertain Ownership. Who owns your executive agenda? More importantly, to what degree have you and your senior leadership team colleagues clarified what your executive team agenda is? If there is uncertainty related to your team of leaders’ agenda, it’s impossible to have unified joint ownership of this agenda at the senior level. You can easily see how unclarity can cascade down through the organization.

How many fractional leadership patterns did you find in your leadership team? While it’s not uncommon to find such patterns (even in good leadership teams); what puts growth at risk is not addressing fractional leadership practices at the executive level with focus and urgency. It’s this focus and urgency that helps senior leaders reown their executive agenda, and by doing so, set new standards of excellence for everyone in the company.

You don’t need legions of consultants improve your business. I believe that leaders (when given the space, time and creative frameworks) can transform their own business. We shouldn’t rob leaders of the opportunity to create their own breakthroughs. Results come fast to executives that recognize that they are the starting point for improvement and growth.

It’s not difficult to understand the concept or practice of fractional leadership. It’s simply playing at less than your best. The real danger of fractional leadership practices, particularly at the senior leadership level, is that when fractional leaders interact and collaborate with each other, they are consistently coming up short, like when you multiply fractions. While playing at less than you best hurts and any level of your organization, it has the most (negative) impact at the very top.

Leadership teams that clarify and reown their leadership agenda, focus on their unique contributions and practice collaborative leadership create the momentum for improvement, growth and breakthrough results in their organizations. This enables struggling (fractional) leadership teams to become good and good leadership teams to become great.

Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through his transformational growth process called Executive Ownershift®. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best. You can follow Dan at LinkedIn, at his blog or receive regular growth updates through his web site at


Contact Information

Dan Norenberg
Wensauerplatz 11
81245 Munich
Phone: +49 172 862 5123

About Dan Norenberg

Dan Norenberg improves leadership performance and organization results through Executive Ownershift®, his transformational growth process for executive teams. As a trusted advisor, consultant and professional speaker, Dan’s mission is to enable executive teams and their organizations to play at their best.