As a card-holding member of Generation X, I adopted an early disdain for temporary work, often equating it with the McJobs popularized in Douglas Coupland’s quintessential book. But with the changing economic climate – one that waves goodbye to the notion of long-term job security and loyalty – temporary work has gradually become normalized.
Author Daniel Pink first documented this phenomenon over 10 years ago in Free Agent Nation: How America’s New Independent Workers Are Transforming the Way We Live. Increasingly, these free agents include executives who find themselves in-between roles or committed to working only on short-term contracts. A recent Harvard Business Review article called them “supertemps.”
Rather than categorizing these executives as a cruel by-product of economic conditions, “supertemps” fill a void in corporations that previously may have balked at hiring temporary top talent seen as lacking “skin in the game.”
For the savvy professional, capitalizing on this trend can be advantageous since it offers a broader experience base and opens up a new network, sometimes in a different sector. For women specifically, these short-term executive roles may provide an additional entry point for companies keen to test out talent.
Once seen as the domain of male baby boomers not wanting to fully retire, interim leaders now constitute a more diverse demographic, suggested Jane Matthews, president of Odgers Interim Canada, a management recruitment firm.
“There is a culture shift in corporate Canada where companies are OK with bringing in an interim leader and showing them the good, the bad and the ugly,” Ms. Matthews said.
She knows this first hand. After 23 years in financial services, Ms. Matthews quit her executive role to reassess her career. Shorty after, a technology company contacted her and asked if she would consider a three-day-a-week role as interim vice-president of sales and marketing.
“It was such a leap for me because it was very much out of my comfort zone,” recalled Ms. Matthews. But the role provided the catalyst for her to shift careers. She later moved into the executive recruitment industry.
Data on the rise of temporary executives in the U.S. and Canada remains scarce. A McKinsey report from June, 2011 shows that 58 per cent of U.S. employers expect to hire more temporary, contract or part-time employees, with an emphasis on highly skilled roles rather than administrative ones. Anecdotally, Ms. Matthews says she receives an increasing number of requests for interim leaders from the private, public and not-for profit sectors.
She attributes this demand to the thinned-out management ranks, where many lack the time to take on new initiatives. Add to that mix an executive’s sudden illness or a job termination and companies are left scrambling to fill roles in order to continue normal business operations.
On the supply side, many find the experience to be professionally and personally very fulfilling.
“I really found my voice as an interim leader in that, for the first time in my career, I felt I could speak really freely to top executives and board members without any fear of upsetting political sensitivities,” recalled Darlene Frampton, who spent close to 30 years in senior leadership roles in communications and resource development.
Tired of the time constraints and the politics involved in being a senior leader in a large, complex organization, Ms. Frampton sought a change. Interim executive work also allowed her the flexibility to care for an aging parent.
Over the past three years, Ms. Frampton “supertemped” at the Toronto French School, the Toronto Humane Society and the United Way of Oakville before assuming her full-time role at the Canadian Paraplegic Association Ontario. In one role, the executive she replaced left on Friday and she started on Monday, preventing a sudden leadership void.
Ms. Frampton feels that interim opportunities may help place more women in senior executive roles by allowing companies to try out candidates. One senior leader that hired her admitted that he was not committed to the relationship in the long run but this gave her a chance to prove herself as more than capable for the role.
Kim Worster, who took a three-month role in the healthcare industry to cover a medical leave, believes interim roles provide a win-win situation for leaders and companies.
“It is an easy exit for the individual if it is not the right fit and it saves organizations severance costs should they choose to end the relationship,” she said.
Ms. Worster now works permanently as vice-president of operations at Stock Transportation Ltd.
For women specifically, Ms. Worster believes that the trend of supertemps can make a significant impact on closing the gender gap.
“Interim leadership roles allow an organization to test out a leader prior to making a long-term commitment,” she said, adding “It’s like moving in together before getting married. There are no surprises.”