Case study: How a fractional leader can help break through international expansion barriers

As businesses experience rapid expansion, they face a multitude of decisions and challenges. Founders are stretched thin across various leadership roles, often outside their expertise. While the need for strategic leadership is evident, a new full-time leadership role may not yet be feasible. That’s why at Masters of Scale we have recently launched a new service: Fractional Leaders. The case study below, from one of our Masters and Fractional Leaders, shows not only the impact such a role can make to an organisation in a relatively short time, but also how important it is to bring in the right person, with the right expertise. 

Read on for a great example of how a fractional leader can help break through international expansion barriers!

For privacy reasons, the name of the client company cannot be disclosed. For the purpose of this case study, we will call the client company Zenith.

Zenith was one of the first companies in the European insurance industry to provide an end-to-end online insurance experience. A pioneer in their industry, Zenith was a growing start-up that had already gained dominance in their domestic market in one segment. While they were operating successfully and had already started expanding to three other markets, they found themselves unable to scale further. Their challenge was to grow across more segments and to boost their international sales. In an industry where bigger is better and reach means survival, growth and scaling were paramount.

Where do you go from here? How do you grow further? Zenith’s leadership realised they lacked the specific expertise to scale further. Finding themselves at a standstill, they reached the difficult decision of bringing in someone from the outside specifically to help them reach the next level.

Stephen Grossman has dedicated his career to responding to critical situations – commercially, and in terms of risk and/or dispute resolution. He has served several companies as an interim C-level executive, with a focus on scaling, international expansion, and turnaround/rescue, often combining it with specialty risk consulting. Throughout his career, Stephen has run operations in 40+ countries and has managed well over 1,000 employees, leading dozens of acquisitions and spin-offs across Europe and the US. He has taken 1 company public (OMX NASDAQ) and has served as an interim in three other public companies.

“As an interim and response consultant, I’m brought in to deal with very specific situations and to get results in a fairly short period of time and then to get out again. Whether it’s a crisis or it’s to grow a business.”

In most of the cases, such as with Zenith, Stephen comes in via referrals, and is directly introduced to the largest stakeholders in the business. Even so, being brought on as a fractional executive is not necessarily a quick process.

“For every project I’ve ever done, except for one, it took us a few months of meetings and conversations before they got comfortable. There has to be trust before you even start.”

In his work, Stephen also agrees at the beginning on the duration of his assignment. In Zenith’s case, this was 12 months. This brings clarity for everyone in terms of expectations.

“I was very explicit that I’m here for 12 months. And that means that we have to work backwards from the committed goal, and with that hard stop and that goal in focus, build the actions needed to achieve within the timeframe and other constraints.”

When is the right time to bring in a fractional executive?

"There's no hard and fast rule when to bring in a fractional executive.

It's about the concept of being able to bring in someone to achieve very specific goals for the business in a very specific time period and get out. Meaning when they get out, they've already also laid the groundwork for the right people to come in and continue the work.

If you’re thinking “we don't know what to do”, then you can hire an advisor for that, you don’t need a fractional executive.

In most of the cases you bring in a fractional executive because you either have goals that you cannot achieve on your own, or because you have a problem you cannot fix, and it's existential, systemic, fundamental."


With Zenith, Stephen initially stepped in as an advisor, working side-by-side with the chairman and CEO (who was the largest shareholder). Within a month, the two of them, with the board’s approval, decided Stephen should take on the role of Chairman and CEO, and that the former CEO and Chairman would move to the Supervisory Board. This gave Stephen full control and autonomy to make decisions and deals quickly, without having to go back and ask for permission.

“When you do this kind of work, you don’t really care what the title is. What’s important is to have the support of the board and the decision-making power needed to execute effectively.”

With the mandate from Zenith of “How do we grow from here?”, Stephen first started looking into how the sales were going, and especially analysed Zenith’s strengths and weaknesses in the other markets they were operating.

He quickly understood there were some challenges that were also their best opportunities. The biggest of them? Zenith owned outstanding technology that no one else had. However, they couldn’t really exploit the technology fully because the other markets (other than the domestic market) were too weak, both in management and sales, and they couldn’t beat the dominant players in those markets.

How do you expand sales in this situation? Stephen realised the best way to move forward was to get other insurance brokerages to buy their technology – which in the current situation they wouldn’t do, because they were a competitor. For Zenith’s technology to become attractive to their competitors, they had to spin the technology out of the company, make it agnostic.

Stephen pitched this idea to the board, alongside plans on how to expand the brokerage side of the business.

In his experience as a fractional executive, Stephen has often been placed in the position of telling the client’s leadership things they don’t really want to hear, or proposing directions they don’t really want to take or haven’t considered. You have to make a business case that this direction is in their best interest. Here the trust established in the beginning plays a critical role. Then it comes down to showing results incrementally in order to preserve the trust and to test the thinking and planning was solid.

“They didn’t swallow this very well in the beginning and at least one of the stakeholders continued to despise my plan, but he was simply outnumbered and the results proved the majority were right to back the new plan. The investors and the original founding shareholders backed it because it made the most sense, but you really have to make the case. It’s a big leap of faith, and that leap must have a safe landing for all stakeholders.”

With the board’s approval to move forward, in just 12 months, a lot was achieved: the spinoff program for the tech company was designed, a separate tech company was created, regulatory approval was granted, and they began selling the tech to competitors.

At the same time, they began to reshape and strengthen the brokerage through a combination of restructuring management, training, divesting some businesses that were dragging them down, buying some businesses, strengthening the business in the core market while expanding the business in other markets.

When Stephen joined Zenith, it was already a successful company. Despite dominating the domestic markets, they were struggling to grow further, increase their sales, and expand internationally. In 12 months, with a fractional executive on board, they achieved substantial work: spinning off the unique tech into a separate company so they could sell it to competitors and increase sales, and growing the insurance brokerage business in relevant markets through a combination of restructuring, divestitures, and acquisitions.

Zenith now remains number one in its core market and has expanded through its tech to a lot of countries.

“Some of these guys still call me. I have a lot of time for them. They know they can get feedback, a little bit of an injection of some thinking when needed. And I have turned to their top executives on several occasions to pick their brains. It’s just a good relationship. Even after several decades, I remain in regular contact with most of my clients.”

Stephen Grossman is one of Masters’ of Scale Fractional Leaders.

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