SMEs must embrace CXOs to fill skill gaps

By Sara Daw, below, Group CEO of The CFO Centre Group and The Liberti Group

SME entrepreneurs, business leaders, and owners are remarkable individuals. Against all odds, they create organisations that ultimately become the backbone of global economies. Often fuelled by a personal idea, they innovate with ambition, agility, and determination to change lives – their own, their employees’, their families’, and their customers’. They strive to make a difference. I have tremendous admiration for them.

But they are missing out.

When they venture from their back-bedroom idea to starting a business, prototyping their first product or designing and delivering their initial services – there comes a time when they need to invest. This is normally to fund equipment, a website, that first employee. It is a financial investment and requires cash, often from hard-earned savings, friends and family, or even a known angel investor.

Many businesses don’t get past this stage. That financial investment never pays back. The idea or its execution just doesn’t take off quickly enough. It becomes too difficult, and the entrepreneur is forced to take another track, perhaps even back to employment to make ends meet and buy time before trying again.

For those that do make it past this first stage, they grow. However, the entrepreneur ends up leading and doing most roles because resources are tight. Yes, they have employees, but these are usually operational and good at delivery. No-one is sitting alongside the entrepreneur in each business function taking responsibility for the design and execution, co-creating the future shared strategy, identifying and managing risks, building partnerships … the list goes on. Unsurprisingly, the entrepreneur becomes overwhelmed and stressed, wondering why they started their business in the first place.

A New Approach for C-Suite Support for the Entrepreneur

It wasn’t meant to be like this, and it doesn’t have to be!

This is where Strategy and Leadership as Service comes in: the Access Economy for the C-suite.

SMEs need to invest in strategic and commercial skills at this point in their lifecycle, usually in an order that’s affordable and across the whole C-suite – finance, people, sales, marketing, and technology. They need to tap into the experience of high-calibre CXOs who have been there and done it in their function. Those who know what it is like to ‘feel’ big and how to get there, after all, that’s what these entrepreneurs want to do.

The great news is that, through the growing C-suite Access Economy, these skills are now available on a part-time and fractional basis. This is critical because SMEs don’t want, don’t need, and can’t afford a full-time C-suite but they do need the skillsets on an ongoing basis. It is a flexible service which means the business owner can dial it up or down as business needs dictate. What’s more, the cadence of involvement that’s right for the business and function and which often depends on budget, size, and complexity, might be, say, one day per week, or two days per month, but the way the service works is that the CXOs make themselves available outside of these hours. These part-time executives know that they need to be ‘always on’ and available for the entrepreneur. After all, business issues don’t fall neatly into a nine ‘til five working day and business owners often need to talk out of hours. By welcoming these conversations, and being approachable, accessible, and available, the relationships between the business owner and their C-suite become deep and trusted. These top-notch execs want to be involved and give back. They become the organisation’s killer app bringing a competitive edge, paying for themselves many times over, and delivering those crucial skills to scale at pace.

What’s more, by using the Access Economy to layer in these skills in several disciplines over time or even simultaneously, the SME gets accelerated benefit from these functions developing in tandem … a fractional CFO working alongside their part-time CMO, CIO, and CHRO means the marketing, technology, and talent strategies are properly funded, phased, and coordinated – reducing risk and increasing certainty in outcomes. Other tangible benefits cited by SMEs are that these individuals bring easy access to a wider network for sector and function, industry insights, and benchmarking.

Building Authentic Relationships with C-Suite Talent

But it’s not just the hard skills that these professionals bring. My experience of working with thousands of SMEs is that it is the softer skills that shine through and make the difference – relationships that are enduring and intimate (in a business sense of course) unfold. The C-level talent is right beside the business owner every step of the way, walking with them in their shoes. They believe in them, they guide, they challenge (appropriately), and they pick them up when they’ve suffered setbacks, so they are ready to go again. This is the true value.

To understand this, we need to remember why these CXOs join this privileged end of the gig economy. They are disillusioned with corporate life. They’ve climbed the ranks and conquered most challenges. They’ve got the rigour and professionalism, yet their corporate roles have become relentless. Constant travel, long hours to meet the next corporate imperative, and getting caught up in office politics mean they are getting further and further away from the role they love and the sharp end of business. They want to give back, feel appreciated, and valued. Their personal lives are suffering from extremely heavy workloads and unrealistic demands – it’s time to take stock and reflect on what really matters. Ultimately, they are seeking freedom from corporate life. They want flexibility, variety, and control over their lives. Working in the C-suite Access Economy is their answer. They can build a portfolio of SME clients who they work with on an ongoing basis, splitting their time across all of them. Finally, they are back in control of their agenda, they bring balance back into their lives and forge deep, value-adding relationships with SMEs who fully respect and cherish their input.

How to Unlock CXOs’ Value

If it’s the relationship that delivers the real gold in this partnership, then how can SMEs ensure this happens, and what could hold us back from unleashing this value?

That’s where Psychological Ownership comes in. Bringing in CXOs from the Access Economy on a part-time basis means engaging without the traditional employment contract and surely that’s a risk, right?

This is where it is time to go against the grain and shun orthodoxy. I argue that the absence of the employment contract, and the fact these C-suite professionals are self-employed and independent are the very reasons why these relationships work so well. They are there because they want to be and are delivering value, and if they aren’t they should go. That’s the beauty of the model, it’s easy in and easy out. My research has found that C-suite professionals must be competent at developing the key components of Psychological Ownership which underpin these relationships in the absence of employment. This involves common goals, shared identity, and feelings of belonging which must be carefully developed through responsiveness, intimacy, collaboration, and creating psychological safety.

The result?

Access Economy CXOs become insiders, trusted members of the SME team and what’s needed to fill all the skill gaps.

Sara Daw is the author of Strategy and Leadership as Service – How the Access Economy Meets the C-Suite, published by Routledge on 09 May 2024. Sara Daw is business owner and Group CEO of The CFO Centre Group and The Liberti Group. Operating in 17 countries it is the global number one provider of fractional and part-time C-suite portfolio professionals to entrepreneurial, owner-managed, mid-tier businesses, and larger organisations.