Marc didn’t fall into the role of vice president of operations by chance. Over many years, he’s built his skills, gained extensive experience, and produced strong results. Taking the VP job was the next logical step, the result of personal ambition and a strong commitment to the organization and its customers.

Marc knows he’s talented, but sometimes wonders how he can be more effective as the demands of the job increase. Yet the reality these leaders face is challenging and complex — and the skills needed to be successful are many. It’s not surprising they feel the need to continuously improve and, at times, struggle with how to do it.

CEOs, too, are unsure if they are developing their functional leaders sufficiently. “I know our leadership team is good, but is good really good enough?” the CEO of a global consumer products organization asked us.

This paper looks at the challenges and realities of being a functional leader and how these talented leaders 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 open-enrollment Leading for Organizational Impact program, or in a similar, customized client engagement. 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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