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Interim Executive Work On The Rise As Managers Seek Freedom And Flexibility

This article was first published by Leah Eichler in The Globe & Mail on Friday June 10th, 2016.


Think juggling one executive role is tough? How about two or three?

No, I’m not referring to the rare exceptions, such as Jack Dorsey, chief executive officer of Twitter and Square, or Elon Musk, chief executive of Tesla Motors and SpaceX. Rather, I’m talking about those everyday executives who have decided that life is more interesting when they can pick and choose the companies that will benefit from their expertise.

Take Toronto-based Valerie Sorbie. She has held senior executive-level roles for public and private companies for the past 15 years. Her most recent role was chief administrative officer of BMO Nesbitt Burns in Toronto. Despite her love for the job, she decided 18 months ago that working for one company full-time no longer appealed to her. So Ms. Sorbie decided to embrace a “portfolio career,” to focus on the aspects of work she loved, such as using her strategic and operations background.

“Life’s too short and I want to help companies grow. My passion is helping smaller companies scale [up],” said Ms. Sorbie, who now serves on four boards, has three advisory clients, and will start working on a temporary basis for an e-commerce platform.

She added that the rise of interim executive work is a win-win, not only for executives looking for a lifestyle change but also for small and mid-sized companies that don’t need full-time support – and couldn’t afford it even if they wanted to.

Undeniably, Ms. Sorbie is part of a growing trend in the larger “gig economy” of management professionals seeking interim work. The Harvard Business Review coined the term “supertemps,” when the trend started to take shape a few years ago.

While data about the number of executives engaged in the on-demand workforce remains scarce, we know overall temporary work is on the rise. According to Bloomberg, six million Americans work part-time by choice, largely so they don’t need to commit to one role or company. Last week’s dismal U.S. employment report showed another part of this story. While fewer jobs were created in May, the number of part-time workers increased by 400,000.

In Canada, the picture is much the same. According to a March story in The Globe and Mail, Statistics Canada data show that since last August, the economy has lost 70,000 full-time jobs, while part-time employment has increased by 100,000. Though the trend can be partly attributed to the decline in the price of oil, Canada is now home to more than 900,000 “involuntary” part-timers – people who would rather work full-time but can’t find a full-time job.

Presumably, the trend will accelerate as aging baby boomers continue to want to work, but with more freedom and flexibility.

It’s in this market that a new company called Kahuso Inc. is hoping to make its mark, by connecting executives with interim work. The Toronto-based company – whose name is a blend of kahuna, the Hawaiian word for expert, and espresso, as in delivering a quick jolt of caffeine – launched May 20 to target what its founders see as a growing market for executives wanting board and contract work. While they aren’t releasing official numbers, Michael Carter, the company’s co-founder and CEO, says they have seen considerable interest on both sides of the marketplace.

“As Canada’s demographic ages, the move towards experienced executives looking to work outside the full-time framework is also set to grow, since increasingly, completely leaving the workforce is no longer either desirable or relevant to how people want to work, live, and age,” Mr. Carter said.

He launched the company with co-founder Caleb Rubin after they both found themselves “retired” from executive roles and looking for relevant work.

The ability to hire executives in contract, interim, or part-time roles also allows smaller organizations that can’t justify a full-time position to benefit from those with the relevant skill sets, Mr. Carter said. While he doesn’t see the end of full-time employment, he does envision a future where the availability and desirability of those roles will continue to diminish.

Caroline Cole Power, the managing director of Canadian HR Solutions, a Toronto-based management consultancy firm, agrees that this marketplace will only get larger as executives shy away from the traditional employer-employee mindset.

“The reality is that the duration of employment relationships has shifted from long-term to useful term. What this means is that more of the available work across sectors is project-based rather than permanent full-time in nature,” Ms. Power explained.

She also observed that the management of one’s career has shifted from the employer to the employee and, as a result, organizations are more comfortable letting staff go when there isn’t sufficient work – or the right kind of work – to go around. It’s still possible to work full-time hours, but engaged in multiple professional roles for a variety of companies.

The drawback is that contracts are often offered with very little notice, sometimes only days, and executives are expected to make themselves available right away. Similarly, these contracts can come to an abrupt end for reasons other than performance, leaving interim executives in the lurch.

“Executives can overcome these drawbacks by networking well and situating themselves so that they have a pipeline of interim opportunities that minimize the likelihood of being without an assignment for too long a period of time,” Ms. Power said.

Despite the risks, Ms. Sorbie calls such a transition “liberating.”

“More and more people are doing it for the flexibility and being more in control of what they do, when, and for whom,” she said.

Leah Eichler is founder and CEO of r/ally, a machine-learning, human capital search engine for enterprises. Twitter: @LeahEichler

Caleb Rubin

CMO and Co-Founder of Kahuso Inc. An accomplished digital marketing pioneer, Caleb co-founded Kahuso to help revolutionize the on-demand executive economy.

See more posts from Caleb Rubin