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Dys-FUNCTION-al Skill Gaps

The risky reality of overlooking undiscovered talent

Looking at the strengths and gaps across functions, one thing was clear: organizations have leadership talent hidden in functions where they might not expect.

“For the core business skills of financial acumen and business savvy, leaders in Finance and Marketing/Advertising led all functions, while Engineering, Operations, and HR comparatively fell short.”

Dys-FUNCTION-al Skill Gaps

Which Functions Can Learn from—and Teach—Others?

Leaders can take many routes as they ascend the organization, and time spent in a particular function can be a defining characteristic of their experience. Inclusive talent planning must pair success profiles and look across functions to answer two questions: How do functions differ? and How do leaders from different functions ascend? To guide these efforts, we examined leaders from seven major functions, all of whom completed rigorous assessments, to directly compare their strengths and deficiencies. We then profiled strength clusters and examined the composition of mid-level to C-suite candidate pools.


For our analysis we classified leaders based on the function they worked in the longest during their careers. We limited our analysis to the 10 skills that varied most across functions. For each skill, we identified the strongest, weakest, and mid-range function. See the “Top-and-Bottom-Ranked Functions” graphic.

Leaders from two functions distinguished themselves as particularly well-rounded: Marketing/Advertising and Sales. They excelled in communication, selling the vision, and entrepreneurship, while also exhibiting several distinctive strengths.

IT leaders were in the mid-range for most skills but lagged in selling the vision and global acumen. Yet, they were adept at leading teams, a promising sign of capability within this often-maligned function.

Engineering and Operations were near-twins in their skill gaps—that is, communication, financial acumen, and executive disposition.

For the core business skills of financial acumen and business savvy, leaders in Finance and Marketing/Advertising led all functions, while Engineering, Operations, and HR (discussed in more depth in another section of this report) fell short comparatively.

Candidate pool compositions (shown in the “Proportion of a Leader Level” graphic) change substantially, moving from mid-level to C-suite. Finance and Operations backgrounds comprise larger portions of the higher-level candidate pools, while HR, IT, and Engineering make up miniscule portions. Finance and Operations appear overrepresented in comparison to their full skill profile, likely indicating the high—and arguably overly so—weight placed on financial acumen, business savvy, and global acumen when assembling strategic and C-suite candidate pools.


  1. Recognize the vastly varying skill development needs across functions as well as the risks of a learning model that neglects these distinctions. Target function-specific skill gaps first, and then integrate learning cohorts.
  2. Address risks to international expansion resulting from poor global acumen among talent (HR) and technology leaders. These groups deploy systems across borders, but too often they lack the awareness and knowledge to do so successfully.
  3. Design cross-functional assignments and informal mentoring to take advantage of function-based pockets of credibility and expertise (for example, pairing Marketing leaders with those from Engineering, or Sales leaders with Operations).
  4. Carefully evaluate succession plans for functional representation to ensure that candidate pools reflect strengths that span interpersonal as well as management skills, rather than historical trends or assumptions about the “right” functions as pathways to the C-suite.
  5. When choosing senior teams, assemble a complementary group to draw on unique cross-functional strengths.

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A Synthesis of 15,000 Assessments into How Leaders Shape the Business Landscape
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