Can I really be a Portfolio Executive? Part 2

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There are a whole host of other professionals, some which are fairly sector specific and some which are much more general.  Perhaps you have got 15-20 years’ experience in a particular field and you are wondering whether you can become a Portfolio Executive.

This is Part 2 of a two-part article in which we will explore the examples of Programme & Project Management and Operations.  We looked at Diversity & Inclusion in Part 1.

But be aware, as you come with a more niche capability then the size of business you are likely to engage with is going to be bigger.

2 – Programme and Project Management

Perhaps you are an experienced Programme Manager or Project Manager and you are wondering if you can transition to a Portfolio Executive role. Often people from Programme Management or Project Management careers initially transition to interim because projects and programmes, by their nature have a beginning, a middle and an end.  They may be turning round a failing project or being brought in to support a specific project or programme.  Projects and programmes are natural interim territory.   

But what I am noticing is that there are many businesses with a core service delivery ethos which recognise that they need to build project and programme management disciplines in their organisation in order to be as effective and as competitive as possible. 

For example, there are many mid-sized IT Services businesses that look after the wires, boxes and applications of their clients. Their real strength is in providing consistent and efficient service operations for their clients.  However, there are three client facing areas where they do need to have good project management disciplines:  onboarding new clients, handing over when their client relationship ends and incremental improvements to the IT estate.

It is not only in client facing areas that they need Project and Programme Management disciplines: internally they need to have the capacity to treat their marketing campaigns as a set of projects, or run projects to change internal capabilities such as implementing new disciplines, building their HR capability, opening a new office or offering a new service line.

Such activities are best managed as projects or programmes.  Therefore, there is a very strong justification for a business like this to have a Head of Programmes & Projects who is continually improving their capability maturity of the Programme & Project discipline within the business.  But it wouldn’t be a full-time role: the person would come in and establish things like a project office and programme office structure, develop the formal processes for initiating and finishing projects, ensure that things like benefit realisation were built into the project and programme disciplines.

3 – Operations Director

If you’ve got experience for most of your career as an Operations Director, then the challenge is slightly different.  Operations Director means so many different things in so many different contexts.  If you have worked in large organisations, it might be that the Operations Director is the person who has responsibility for all internal activities, all non-client facing activities except finance.  Or it could be something quite specific where you are focussed on the value adding functions in the business.  

So, for example, in Manufacturing, the Head of Operations will be the person who is responsible for ensuring that there is the right flow of materials onto the factory floor that the machines are being used properly, that the right products are being put through the machinery, that dispatch works, in fact for the whole end-to-end delivery process.

As an Operations Director you really need to look into what your job has meant in the past. Some of the Operations Directors I talk to have had a narrow focus around a manufacturing or construction operation, others have effectively acted as the deputy to the CEO. The CEO has owned the sales activity and the new product development activity, and the Operations Director looked after everything else except for the finance function.

You may have an extremely broad set of skills or you may have some very well-established disciplines that you can bring to bear.  There are lots of small and mid-size businesses where the CEO is looking for, in effect, a deputy to look after the day-to-day activities whilst they can go forward and directly manage the Sales and Marketing functions, the commercial functions and work with the Finance Director.  The CEO has in effect just three primary direct reports: the Commercial, the Finance and the Operations Directors.

In this example, as the Operations person, you after Service, HR, Client Delivery, Project Delivery, managing the property, managing the office.   You ensure these operations are efficient and effective.  You are a bit like the ring master co-ordinating all of those different dimensions making sure that the right things are done, and that they are done right.

Initially, you may be effectively building and developing the internal teams that run the operations for you.  Over time, some of those team leaders will become Heads of or Directors of in their own right and join the Executive Board and over time your narrowly defined operational responsibilities will start to shrink as other Heads of and Directors of take up the lead, and the executive team grows.

Ultimately you may migrate into becoming a Head of Transformation where what you are really doing is building the new capabilities and enabling the new capabilities that a building has.

On the other hand, if your operational responsibilities have been say in manufacturing where you are looking after the whole scope of the manufacturing process then it is likely that there will be somebody in place already who is the Head of or Director of Operations. In that case it’s more difficult to position yourself as the Director of Operations or Head of Operations because there is already somebody with that job title in place.  The way to resolve this I think it to be the Strategic Operations Partner.  Working alongside the CEO you are is defining the shape of those operations as they evolve over time and making sure that the Head of Operations is growing and developing their capability so that the operations are fit for purpose throughout the development of that business.


Whatever your specialism if you have got 10-15 years of experience, if you have had Head of or Director of responsibilities in a large corporate setting, I believe that we can find a way of positioning you as a Portfolio Executive bringing that skills, knowledge and experience to smaller businesses. This is not a field reserved for HR Directors, Finance Directors, Marketing Directors and IT Directors. You too could become a Portfolio Executive.


Charles McLachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.