Episode 34

34 - Leading Fractional Executives with Deborah Fell of Chief Outsiders

Greg Ballard interviews Deborah Fell, Managing Partner at Chief Outsiders, about leading fractional executives. Deborah shares how Chief Outsiders provides growth consulting by deploying part-time CMOs and CSOs into client companies. She discusses the high bar for talent and the experience required to be adaptable across companies and industries. Key insights include aligning with the client's mission, embracing the culture, and leading with inspiration. Deborah also talks about making the transition from CMO to leading a team of all-star marketing leaders.

Key Moments

0:00 - Introduction to Deborah Fell and Chief Outsiders

2:30 - Overview of how Chief Outsiders provides fractional CMOs and CSOs to drive growth for clients

5:00 - The high bar for talent and experience required to be adaptable across companies

7:30 - Aligning with the client's mission and vision as a key success factor

10:00 - Embracing the client's culture and integrating into the company

12:00 - Leading with inspiration rather than just management

15:00 - Deborah's transition from CMO to leading a team of CMOs

18:00 - Staying adaptive through surrounding yourself with smart people

20:00 - Making leadership and self-development lifelong pursuits

To learn more about Deborah and her work, click HERE.

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Transcript
Greg Ballard:

Hello, and welcome to the adaptive executive. I'm your host, Greg Ballard. And I am joined by a very special guest, Deborah fel managing partner with Chief outsiders. Deborah, glad to have you with us today.

Deborah:

Thank you. Great to be here.

Greg Ballard:

So you and I've, we've, we've connected many times over the last several years, we've built a really good relationship. And I've just finally got you here on the show, and so glad to have you. I'm really looking forward to our conversation. Today, could you tell us a little bit about your journey and what brought you to Chief

Deborah:

Well, what brought me to Chief outside person in the first place was I have many years of being a marketing marketing leader. You know, starting off from the beginning, a long time ago, and at one point, I had stepped out of my role as senior vice president of brand marketing for Marriott International, which I I loved, never

Deborah:

organization that's full of Chief Marketing Officer, so your peers, our chief marketing officers, and it didn't take me long to say, Yes, let's go. And I haven't back that was eight or nine years ago. And it's just been great to be in the group. And now we've added Chief Sales officers so we can really address the growth engine, the growth needs of

Greg Ballard:

Fantastic. Tell us a little bit about chief outsiders. Yeah, market you serve you knew and how you guys operate.

Deborah:

Chief outsiders, is a company that's really focused on helping CEOs of mid market, and I like to say 20 million to 200 million, just because it has a ring to it. But certainly smaller and larger, but that's on a bell curve, that's probably our focus, but CEOs of mid market companies, and this is the big important line, who want to grow,

Deborah:

more more known, we can be interim or we can come we come in on a part time basis, but help to deliver full time results, big time results. For companies in the in the mid market, whether they have a marketing challenge, and need a marketing plan. Or they may have a sales team that needs leadership, or even a sales leader who wants some help in

Deborah:

company with a regular CEO, who's who's who's looking to grow.

Greg Ballard:

That's fantastic. So if I'm capturing this as your team can come in, kind of hit the ground running and operate as that Chief Marketing Officer, that Chief Sales Officer and be on the team fully immerse, supporting the CEO into realizing their vision.

Deborah:

Yes, absolutely. Now I'm managing partner today on the executive team of the company. So I'm not really Consulting at this point, except every time I talk to a CEO, I am consulting in some way that listening and asking questions. But But yes, you I can remember having having talking to a CEO on a Friday when I was consulting, and saying how

Deborah:

look for low hanging fruit immediately and start working on the scope of work that we've discussed with the CEO and getting there in the first place. We tend to To sit on the executive team, in our clients, we are the CSO, or we are the CMO in the company, there is a team, we're leading it. And that's how we we operate for the most part.

Greg Ballard:

So that's. So I would say the stakes are high. Right? The stakes are high, you don't get a redo. Right. There's no Mulligan's at this

Deborah:

level. And the deliverables are clear,

Greg Ballard:

the deliverables are clear.

Deborah:

Well, I'd like to say in fact, one of my cmo says, We're not furniture, we don't just come and sit in the corner office, there's no corner offices for us. You know, we're there to accomplish, what needs to be accomplished, build the muscle inside the company, maybe even helping them hire people, but certainly mentoring and training their

Greg Ballard:

So that's fantastic. And one of the things that I'd love you to dive into kind of speak a little bit to the caliber of the Chief Marketing Officer, the Chief Sales officers that are on your team. And in addition to that, if you could speak to how you've had to transition from being one of them to leading a group of them.

Deborah:

Yes, yes. So I'll tell you that we hire about 1% of the people that we interview. And so that gives you a sense that we talked to a number of people, but we're very selective. And and part of that selection process is mean, I'm not even talking to them. Unless they've had multiple successful stints as a CMO or a CSO, preferably in

Deborah:

company to make a difference? So some of these things, but certainly, having led and driven this success in a few companies not just been in the room when it happened. And so we have a very extensive process for interviewing, but you spoke to the caliber of people, it's really, you know, it's really the best of the best world class, marketing

Deborah:

different. This is not sitting in a corner office, if that's what they've been doing. This is rolling up the sleeves and getting things done. You know, have I written a press release? Have I written a line of coffee? Have I actually pushed email campaigns out through Salesforce or HubSpot? You bet. But our primary role is really developing the

Deborah:

organization, and make sure that the right things are executed, and that it works. And that really takes the best of the best to to know how to do that, who also have extraordinary people skills.

Greg Ballard:

Yeah, so this is where I get really kind of excited and interested like I really want to click on this because you're the folks on your team. They're operating in a fractional way. The the stakes are high there, there is no Mulligan's. The deliverables are clear. And they have consistently performed right there's a track record of

Greg Ballard:

executives to be adaptive, and the folks on your team, like exemplify that they're, they're doing their role at level At any, all star level, in multiple different scenarios? And I'd be curious to say, what are some of the principles or the values of the approaches that you give people coming into chief outsiders, so they can operate in that

Deborah:

Yes. And let me just say this, and I'll answer your question. For the most part, the CEOs that they work with, we tell them, for example, Joe has three clients, your number, you're the third client, and then we have that whole discussion about them. What does that mean? That doesn't mean he's working the first you know, three hours of the

Deborah:

they're going to call a way to answer the phone. And that's called commitment. So to get back to your first question, you know, the, I think the first thing is that the, the fractional executives, and I'll just use that term are cmo and CFO, but the fractional executive needs to be, first of all interested, be more interested than interesting,

Deborah:

solved, or an urgent, strategic initiative that that needs to to be for advanced, and it's for whatever reason, it's not invent advancing. So our team needs to understand what those issues are, and be excited about and committed to working with this. So it's being clear on mission. That's number one. Now, the other part of the challenge is when you

Deborah:

what I see. And talk that through and say I think we should do more of this and less of this, or maybe this goes away, and this comes in altogether. And then that gets negotiated can because it is all about alignment with the CEO, which is number two, is that they should be in rock solid with alignment with the CEO in about every way you can

Deborah:

wants to talk about, we're probably going to want to give them a little bit of update, tell them what's ahead, maybe tell them what we learned. But it is about maintaining that alignment. That's a continuous alignment, and relationship building, but with the CEO. And the third point is, and it's also not just the CEO, this is where I think, you

Deborah:

everyone to remember that you're also working with perhaps your team, you may be working, you need to work with the CFO who's running, you know, customer service. We're, you know, Have you have you spoken with, you know, the head engineer, or anyone who's running, manufacturing, really understanding and certainly HR to you know, the CHR o Do you

Deborah:

have to share this story with you the same CEO, interestingly, that I spoke to on a Friday, he wanted me in New York on a Monday, I worked for them for actually a couple of years. And at one point, early on, after an executive team meeting in New York for that company, he calls me into his office. And it was time for me to do a check in just kind

Deborah:

one. But he said, I want you to be the CMO. And I said, this may be a trick question, but I am the CMO. I'm not sure I'm understanding your question. He said, In that meeting, we were just in one of our guys who doesn't know anything about marketing, you know, raised a point to kind of challenge you, and you came back with a very gracious response

Deborah:

consultant, I want your full on leadership and marketing leadership in this company. So I tell that story to every new person. Because they're there, if they haven't consulted before, they'll experience this, even if they have consulted before it merits a reminder of it isn't just the skill and the experience that we bring in terms of the functions

Greg Ballard:

And let's click on that for a second. Because I think a lot of our listeners may not recognize the difference, right? Because as a chief officer in an organization, you represent like the first chair for that discipline, marketing, sales, finance, engineering, whatever it is, you represent the first chair, because I don't

Greg Ballard:

their lieutenants, hey, I need you to run this lead this right. And that individual gets to really kind of operate as a first chair in that discipline. And that is a very different mindset, and posture and position to a consultant. Because a consultant is they, here's my expertise, you have to make the decision, you have to decide, right. And

Deborah:

Yes, yes. And that's really, that's really the role. And that's the difference, I think, between If outsiders and an a consulting firm, for example, each have their own, you know, purpose and mission in going in. So, I think those are really the, you know, sort of the main things that we say, to a new chief outsiders. And then the fourth

Deborah:

leadership piece, because there's a million people, I don't even know more than a million marketers out there. There's lots of people who develop programs, lots of people who do this and that but what we need are the folks who understand how to look at data and information and a market know what to do and then has a leadership skills to take you

Deborah:

along, getting their feedback. truly listening, listening is a very important leadership skill, inspiring others along the way, and leading the business forward. And, and that is a key point that I that I make to new folks. And whenever someone, you know, I have 20, some fractional executives that I'm specifically responsible for, I'm responsible

Deborah:

I, you know, how can I shift this dialogue, or this isn't, you know, I don't feel like I'm quite broken through on this relationship. And it's inevitably about the leadership piece. And we hire great leaders. But sometimes people just need to be reminded when you go in as a consultant in our business, part of what we bring is we're battle tested

Deborah:

forward to a better place.

Greg Ballard:

I love it, I and there's such a significant difference between the mindset in that, and I really want to draw that out. When I want to, let me see if I capture these four things. And you can calibrate me but number one, clear on mission, mission vision, number two, alignment with the CEO, and maybe even hyper alignment, right, not to

Greg Ballard:

point for everyone to follow.

Deborah:

Yes, so the thing I would sort of build out a little bit on being in alignment, rock solid alignment, is alignment often come down, it doesn't mean everybody's agreeing all the time. In fact, alignment and you, you can explain this better like and alignment comes through a process of really teasing apart and having different points

Deborah:

we see a better way, we're going to talk about that, we're going to give evidence of that we're going to make recommendations and suggestions and frame up what's going to happen, you know, if if there is a point of disagreement, so alignment is not just about a rote follow through it is about those conversations. And that's also where, after

Deborah:

those cultures, versus deciding whether it's good in the middle or bad. And, and, and, and seeking to change it is about respecting that culture. And you know, if we have points to be made to make them to the CEO regarding culture, but it is an important alignment with culture versus coming into trying to break the culture. Really important

Greg Ballard:

Yeah, I remember, you know, one of the conversations that we had, we talked about this specifically, and you had you know, you're sharing that your team adopts the corporate values of all their clients. So when you go in, you're going to understand that these are the these are the values of the organization and as a leader in the

Greg Ballard:

my experience, it takes a true understanding of self. Yes, as an individual, by your own character in your core values in order to be able to operate on other core values.

Deborah:

Yeah, yeah, to and to respect them. And that's, that's why we do want to see a track record of having been in multiple companies successfully.

Greg Ballard:

Makes a tremendous amount of sense. So I'd like to ask you, Deb, as you lead, I think you said about 27, cmo, CSOs, what have you learned, kind of stepping out of the the role of being you knew the person going in the fractional seat chief officer, right. And now you're coordinating and supporting a team of these very high caliber,

Deborah:

First of all, it's, it's really an amazing and inspiring role. I also recognize it's not a normal role. To have, you know, this caliber of people and and imagine being I mean, we have a CMO of our company, who's really a principal of our company. And I used to say, what it's what's it like to be the CMO of all these CMOS, but it is, it

Deborah:

incredible group of BPS on my team. Um, and, and the only reason that anyone we're not at married is because they they made that choice was very strong team to carry the business, you know, through the next. But this group is they were essentially me at all, all these other companies. And so, if you, if I were to come in and try to, like,

Deborah:

out themselves. Or maybe I can give an example of one of my consulting engagements or prior employer. So it's a, it's a roll of, I mean, it's a serious role. It isn't that I'm just I get a chance to have really fun conversations about marketing, you know, all day, every day, it is a challenging and serious role, to really, first of all, bring in the

Deborah:

time, and then we may no longer be the right fit. Again, these are accomplished individuals who may go on and do a variety of other things. But we are also I mean, our people are W two employees. So we're not a loose Federation. We are you have a culture, we want people who are dedicated to our mission, which means being dedicated to each of the

Greg Ballard:

Yeah, and I can I can, I appreciate the nuance between management and leadership and to think about the caliber of people and not just the caliber of people, but the task that you've given them that you've requested of them, right. Go here into that person's house and serve them. You know, if you'd begin managing them Um, you're not

Deborah:

I define it as it's really, you know, inspiration. And side by side. And the ability to not not just be in a position of power, but to be in a position to actually set a vision for the future and have people follow you there, which I think definitionally is done through through listening, and inspiration.

Greg Ballard:

I love it. Next question. Is it possible to lead without having technical chops?

Deborah:

Without having technical chops?

Greg Ballard:

Yes. Yeah. So for example, maybe engineering or coding, marketing, versus leading, so being brought in to lead a team of people on something when you don't have the technical background that everyone else in the room does?

Deborah:

Yeah. Yeah. I would say yes. 100%. And, in fact, sometimes I wonder if, if you're a better leader when you don't? Because so often folks can start to that know so much, you know, that they begin to either do or begin to advise on what to do, when that's not the role?

Greg Ballard:

Right. Right. Love it. So, as we begin to wrap up a couple of other things, I wanted to kind of see if I can pull from you. Is there any practice or thing that you do to keep you on the bleeding edge and to being adaptive as a leader of leaders?

Deborah:

Well, first of all, I hang out with some of the brightest people in the world, every day, are having new challenges, and many days, they're sharing them with me. And I, we are a learning culture that that is part of that is a differentiated aspect of Chief outsiders, we learn from one another, we learned from outside, we've been reimburse

Deborah:

got to, you've got to pick the right podcast conferences, you know, and books and so forth. But I'm, I'm pretty avid reader. And, but I would say the advantage I have over the average person is I'm just surrounded by about 130, you know, nationwide of our people who I would put up against anybody, I don't even think I could get the job at cheap

Deborah:

their nature will say, Okay, I want to master AI, I'm just making that up. That's a that's a shiny thing. It's real. Yeah, but yeah, I was gonna push a lot. There's a lot a lot going on, in there out there. And, and we now have some who I would, at this point consider to be experts. I have I sold into a business that's all about AI because part

Deborah:

happened to have that understanding this was a business focused on AI so he could come in and you know, do all the translation and get the business to where they wanted to get to now, I could pick many people because they have each decided to be masters of knowledge here. And do you know and one of the best ways is to do is to teach others. So

Deborah:

learning. And what's next? And is it a shiny toy, it doesn't need to be deployed, and then learning the use case and bringing it back into for all of us, including myself to learn now. The other side of the coin is in the business of leadership, you know, how do I stay on top of my game there, and that's a separate study for me. And it's been a

Deborah:

to focus with my teams on leadership. And it really is a constant for me to want to improve my leadership skills. And we want to be able to leverage leadership to help other people accomplish what they want to accomplish, whether that's a CEO, a chief sales officer, chief marketing officer, and certainly within my own company. I'm, as I said,

Greg Ballard:

So I'm gonna summarize what I heard you say in some bullets, because you said a few things there. One, I think the first thing you talked about your surroundings, several times, you're surrounded by some really smart people are on the cutting edge of what's going on. Right. So it's not just smart people, but smart people

Greg Ballard:

mine is your own personal development, right? Clicking in early to say, leadership is going to be what gets me you to where I want to go. And it's going to take investment over time, working with mentors, working with coaches, working with other folks so that you can hone your skills.

Deborah:

Yes, yes. Yes. I'm so glad you I'm so glad you asked that questions, because sometimes I have to remind myself, you know, because we all want to know so much about so many things and be good at so many things. And it never ends. I don't know when it ends I I'm not looking forward to, but to be to be reminded that if I'm remembered for

Greg Ballard:

I love it. Deborah fell chief outsiders. I'm so excited to have you here. We could keep going. I mean, we've had long conversations many times. So I really just want to thank you for coming on the show and sharing what you've talked about today. If folks want to reach out to you or connect with you, what would be the best way for them

Deborah:

So they can find me on LinkedIn. Certainly I'm on the cheapest ciders website as well.

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The Adaptive Executive