By Francesca Fontana:
Will the future C-suite look more like the gig economy? Part-time executive jobs are on the rise.
After leaving her job as chief marketing officer of San Francisco-area tech company Kloudspot Inc. in 2021, Karyn Scott, 59, took a break with her husband and contemplated a question a mentor had posed: “What is the ‘third third’ of your career going to look like?”
She decided she wanted more flexibility and the ability to focus on the types of work she found most rewarding. Seeing “fractional executives” discussed in articles and LinkedIn posts led her to an unexpected solution: working as a chief marketing officer part-time.
Fractional executives—usually with long experience in their fields—typically work with two or more clients at a time, often in positions such as chief financial officer or CMO. The part-time leadership positions take advantage of their expertise but avoid the 24/7 pressures of the typical executive role, giving seasoned professionals more autonomy in their lives.
“This is a solution to a problem that a lot of small- to medium-sized, rapidly growing companies have, which is they need certain sets of skills in order to grow effectively,” says Jesper Sørensen, an organizational behavior professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “But oftentimes they don’t have enough scale to get the kind of experience and expertise that they really want.”
The nontraditional career path is getting more attention as workers expect to live longer and work longer, and mid- to late-career professionals look for new options that allow for more flexibility. Workers 65 and older will account for more than half of the labor-force growth from 2021 to 2031, according to projections published in 2022 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Even as part-time executive arrangements gain momentum, the traditional C-suite is likely to remain at large companies, where full-time executives will still be needed. Divided roles also face some challenges: These executives may need to navigate conflicts of interest among the companies they work for, or counter skepticism about their commitment. While the pay can be lucrative, compensation for fractional leaders often doesn’t include health benefits, and inclusion of equity or bonuses depends on negotiation.
Interim executive stints, covering a short-term gap in leadership at a company, have also provided an avenue for experienced workers open to a freelance gig. But fractional positions, serving clients either on an open-ended or project basis, are also catching on now. “There’s no going back now,” said Robert Jordan, co-founder of recruitment firm InterimExecs.
Mr. Jordan says he has seen a sharp rise in demand for fractional positions since the pandemic began and expects the trend to continue. For now, the roles are a niche part of the industry and not always well understood. The notion that someone taking a fractional executive position can’t find a full-time job is a misconception, he says. “They’re in the prime of their career—they’re not retired, and they’re not between permanent roles. ”
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In recruiting for fractional executives, TrueBridge, a sister company of executive recruitment firm TrueSearch, looks for professionals who have an established track record. “In our talent pool, the median years of experience is 26 years,” says David Beuerlein, Truebridge’s founder and chief executive.
The CMO Ms. Scott, who has been matched with clients through TrueBridge, says she wouldn’t have been as comfortable or as successful working as a fractional executive earlier in her career. “I needed all of those experiences, to be at the big companies like Cisco and Salesforce, at the scrappy startups, so that I could come to my clients with a broader portfolio,” she says.
A perk of her new flexibility, she says, is spending time at an olive farm that she and her husband bought last year in California’s Napa Valley.
One of the most popular fractional executive positions is the chief financial officer, a role that requires an expertise that crosses virtually all industries and disciplines. Positions like CFO, Mr. Beuerlein says, “have less of an emphasis around day-to-day operations or needing to know the particular industry they’re coming into.” It’s different, he says, for the chief executive officer: “You need your CEO there every day. ”
Compensation for part-time executive work comes with some trade-offs. To get health benefits after leaving a full-time job, Bruce Cooperman, 64, who works as a fractional CFO, formed an LLC and then found coverage through a Professional Employer Organization. “Now I’ve got to operate that LLC and do all sorts of overhead work just to get my benefits,” he says.
But it’s worth it for the flexibility and the excitement of varied, project-based work, he says. Now he has the freedom to travel the U.S. and abroad while working remotely for clients and doesn’t think he would return to a traditional CFO position. “My lifestyle has changed so much,” he says.
For Shauna Giddings Schmitz, 52, a wish for less travel was part of what propelled her to fractional-executive work. After receiving her master’s of business administration in finance from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and working for years in finance and serving stints as a full-time CFO, she looked into working for herself after she had her first child in 2007.
“I was working 60 to 70 hours a week and traveling internationally, and I just thought, ‘What’s more important right now is being with my daughter,’” she says.
Ms. Schmitz lives near Boulder, Colo., and many of her clients are based in the area. The firms have ranged in size from pre-revenue up to around $20 million, many in the professional-services sector. She typically has three to six clients, each requiring some four to eight hours of work a week.
“Thirty hours a week is my goal because it meets my financial needs and also allows me to live the life I want to live,” Ms. Schmitz said. The flexibility allows her to drive her kids to and from school, to take a day off to go skiing, and to prioritize her mental and physical health.
In managing her clients’ expectations, Ms. Schmitz tells them, “I don’t work 24/7, but I am available 24/7.” It goes both ways, she says. “If I have the flexibility, I need to provide the flexibility to my clients.”
She is proactive about checking to see if one of her clients is a vendor for another or other similar involvements, and she refuses to take on gigs from possible competitors.
One of Ms. Schmitz’s clients is the Manhattan, Kan.-based financial-services firm Keating & Associates Inc. Quinn Jacobs, the company’s chief operating officer, says Keating brought Ms. Schmitz on in 2022, after connecting via InterimExecs, as the company’s longstanding CFO is retiring this year.
Keating isn’t new to working with fractional executives. The company has had a part-time chief information officer since 2018. Ms. Jacobs says Keating has focused on finding the right person for a role regardless of constraints like geographic location.
Bringing fractional executives to the C-suite is also a natural extension of other moves, she says. For instance, the company recently brought on a local outside company to handle benefits and payroll, allowing existing workers in that department to grow and take on higher positions.
“It brings so much value to us smaller, closely held businesses,” Ms. Jacobs says.
Ms. Schmitz says it was daunting at first to leave her full-time job, but she hasn’t looked back. “It’s a modern culture here, that we’re evolving to this fractional work and to work-from-home and to this ‘you don’t own me’ type of mentality,” she says. When her clients offer her full-time positions, she always declines.
“I still feel like I’m growing in my career,” Ms. Schmitz says. “This is not my sunset at all. This is my career.”
Write to Francesca Fontana at email@example.com