The rise of the gig CEO

In the wake of the pandemic and the adoption of remote-working technologies, a growing number of executives are offering their services on demand to companies that need a quick hit of leadership.
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What's a gig executive?

A gig executive, or fractional executive, is a part-time employee working at the top level of a department, who's contracted to work with a business for an average of six to 24 months. They'll often work with multiple businesses at once, spending as little as one day a month with a company. Think of them as a consultant, but a consultant who's integrated into a business and responsible for delivering results, not just ideas. A company that hires a fractional executive is effectively renting a portion of a leader's time. Early-stage businesses, for example, will often hire a fractional chief financial officer to work one day a month to help with strategy and bookkeeping (venture funds often mandate this for companies they invest in), or they might hire a part-time chief marketing officer to provide guidance on marketing strategy.

An interim executive is related but distinct. They typically work full-time with a business for a temporary period and will be responsible for implementing large-scale changes. For example, an established business that's technologically behind its competitors might contract a chief technology officer; or a company that's suffered losses across the board might bring in a CEO to make broader management decisions.

Feel the churn

Fractional leadership traces back to the 2008 recession, where layoffs and a weak job market saw seasoned professionals turn to contract or freelance employment. Similarly, the pandemic has resulted in a larger pool of career-change executives ready to join the gig economy. These executives are leaving gaps in their previous organizations, which is also driving demand for leadership in the short term.

Ben Wolf – the CEO of Wolf's Edge Consulting and author of a book on fractional leadership – says that improvements in remote-working technology – think Zoom, messaging app Slack and work management software – mean business owners can look further afield to find the talent they need. While a business could hire a full-time remote employee, given economic uncertainty, a permanent hire may feel too much like a significant commitment and cost.

No corner office needed

A small company with a founder or CEO and a couple of employees will often need another leader to be able to grow the business but, until they grow, they often can't afford that hire. Ben calls this the ‘entrepreneurial catch-22’, which bringing in a fractional leader can solve – a short-term hire can help a business scale without committing to the long-term cost of a high annual salary. That's beneficial both ways – an interim is typically someone who's ‘seeking challenge, not a corner office’, according to Robert Jordan, founder and CEO of recruitment firm InterimExecs.

Burnout – often brought on by common leadership challenges like decision fatigue – is a big issue for business founders used to wearing a lot of different hats. Fractional executives, with years of experience in a specific industry, can offer that bit of unfiltered, actionable advice that comes with ‘been-there-done-that leadership’ that a growing business needs, according to Ben.

Check out our guide on how to hire a gig executive here.

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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