The most effective senior leaders are able to think, act, and influence at both a tactical and strategic level, balancing strategic priorities to help the organization achieve its goals.

Even before the current crisis brought on by COVID-19, the challenges facing functional leaders were great. As organizations face intense pressure to innovate or be left behind, these leaders are forced to continuously improve and perform, and may struggle with how to do it.

The reality these leaders face is challenging and complex — and there are many new skills needed to be successful in the changed world that comes after COVID. By clarifying challenges, focusing on what’s most important, and targeting development we believe leaders at this level have great opportunity to boost performance and create a positive impact for their organizations, the teams they’re privileged to lead, their families, and their communities at large.

This paper looks at the challenges and realities of being a functional leader and how individuals in these positions can focus their development and boost performance.


The work is based on a study by a team of our senior faculty. They analyzed assessment results and written comments from close to 1,000 functional leaders who participated in our Leading for Organizational Impact program, or in a similar, customized client engagement.

Today this program is available in an online format, Leading Across the Organization, providing leaders of divisions or functions who have the tactical skills needed for success, with a high-impact learning experience that challenges them to develop a more strategic mindset.

Our team also analyzed 360-degree assessment ratings from 14,851 of their bosses, peers, superiors, and direct reports, and interviewed 101 of these leaders to better understand their most pressing issues. Some of the trends that they detected include:

  • To provide broader, more strategic perspective, organizations are extending functional leaders’ responsibilities to oversee several functional areas.
  • Functional leaders are being asked to lead major strategic initiatives across the organization to gain critical experiences they may be lacking.
  • More targeted mentoring is being offered by highly experienced leaders both inside and outside the organization (including board members).
  • Strategic projects are being owned by multiple functional leaders, while applying a more systemic and strategic approach to leadership.
  • Leaders are gaining experiences from both wide and deep job assignments. More often, these assignments include global and cross-cultural responsibilities.
  • Reward systems are measuring results over a longer time horizon.
  • Board members are being more proactive in developing key talent.
  • CEOs are thinking more strategically about their organization’s leadership.
  • Functional leaders are moving from a mindset of “either/or” to “both/and” in their strategic planning, decision-making, and implementation.

For a more comprehensive overview of the research, download the full paper below.

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