Sep 24 2020

The Gig Economy Executive

(This post, written by my co-founder Cathy Hawley, also appeared on

The gig economy is a labor market where short-term or freelance roles are more prevalent than permanent positions. It’s generally characterized by having independent contractors rather than full-time positions, but in some locations and for some types of roles, gig workers may be part-time or fixed-term employees.

The gig economy that started with roles like artists, drivers and web designers is quickly expanding to include executive-level roles. There are  a few trends in today’s workplace that are driving this expansion. Startups and scaleups have more flexible, remote-friendly work environments and are looking for creative, less expensive ways of accelerating growth. Executives have shorter average job tenure and are more often displaced or between roles, and they are also interested in the flexibility that gig work can give them.

In a study conducted by MavenLink/Research Now, “The White Collar Gig Economy,” 47% of companies state they are looking to hire contractors to fill management and senior executive roles, including c-suite contractors. At the same time, 63% of full-time executives would switch to become a contractor, given the opportunity. These trends will be accelerated by the current economic downturn and recovery, as some companies have fewer resources, and more executives are displaced.

At the executive level, there are a few different types of roles that could be considered ‘gigs’. The most common two are coaching and project-based consulting.  Coaching or advising, and particularly CEO coaching and advising, has become very prevalent over the last 10 years. The CEO hires a coach who can help them navigate new situations and challenges. Often, CEO coaches stay with a CEO for a number of years, helping guide and support them through the stages of company growth. There are also coaches and advisors for other functional areas to provide similar support for other executives, although more commonly these coaches are hired for specific initiatives. 

Then there  is project-based consulting, where executive-level talent is hired to run a specific project such as reviewing a company’s packaging and pricing, performing due diligence on an acquisition, creating a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion strategy, or creating an investor deck for a fundraising event. This type of consulting isn’t new, and it’s similar to what large consulting firms offer. It seems to be more prevalent now for very senior roles than it ever has been in the past.

But the gig economy for executives now reaches well beyond coaches and consultants.  There are also executives who are hired into interim leadership roles while a company searches for a permanent placement. Some roles take a long time to find the right person, but there’s an urgent need for someone to take on the leadership mantle in the interim. If the interim executive is a good fit, and is open to it, it’s not uncommon for this individual to be considered for the permanent position.  “Try before you buy” works both ways — it can be good for the company and good for the executive, too.

An up-and-coming type of executive gig role is the fractional role. We are seeing this more and more in the last couple of years.  Fractional executives can either be consultants or employees, since the expectation is a long-term relationship, on a part-time basis. For example, 3 days or a certain number of hours per week. The fractional executive is responsible for all functional areas as a full-time executive in that same role. The company may be too small to need (or afford) their level of expertise on a full time basis, but needs more than just an advisor or project consultant. The fractional executive generally remains with a company until the company needs a full-time leader for that function, in which case either the fractional executive goes full-time, or the company hires someone new.  Fractional executives may support more than one client at a time, and may also come with a team of more junior functional experts who can support them to take on more work.

Finally, for our purposes at Bolster, joining a company’s board of directors could be considered taking a ‘gig’ role since it’s not a full-time executive role.  Startups and scaleups need independent directors, and their needs change based on their size, stage and strategy. We see a growing trend of companies contracting with directors for 1 -2 years rather than lifetime service. 

There’s a real opportunity right now for companies to capitalize on the expertise of this talent pool without having to hire them for long-term full time roles, and for executives who want to contribute their skills and expertise without the commitment of a 80-hour work week. Bolster is helping bring these two audiences together in a marketplace that matches on-demand executives with companies who need their services the most. Bolster also provides services for members so they can focus on their consulting rather than their business, and for companies to evaluate their executive teams and boards.