The rise of the fractional CXO

Written by
Moritz Kaffsack

There’s a silent revolution happening among senior and experienced talent: CXOs are shaping new career paths for themselves, by unbundling their career. It’s counterintuitive: After 15, 20, even 25 years in full-time roles, running P&L, leading teams, having acquired a reputation in the market, you’d think CXOs would cruise through the second half of their work life. On the contrary - they have a surprise in store. Many find that the model that made them successful no longer serves them as well as it used to. And so they create portfolio careers.

Like many of us on this path, I first heard about the term ‘portfolio career’ years after I left my corporate career behind. After 12 years with the same employer, many in management level positions, I left the firm with the intention to go out on my own. Since then I have run my own company, mentored startups, founded a collective and a community, taken on a fractional CXO role, crossed industries to go back into full employment and acquired a host of new skills along the way. Like many of us, I read about the portfolio career and said “that’s me!”  

This is not the gig economy, where independent workers join platforms to compete with each other for customers who pay by task. With a wealth of skills and experience to rely on, these CXOs start unbundling their career, deliberately, with the ultimate goal to maximize autonomy, flexibility, income, career satisfaction and personal growth.

For example Pin Chin Kwok, who, after a long career driving business model innovation in medical devices, life insurance, and digital health, decided to unbundle her skills and experience. She is now working with healthcare startups as a fractional leader, driving growth, operations, product development and ecosystem partnerships.

Just like working for one company all your life seems like a concept from a time long past, the concept of working in only one job is in question. 

Motivations behind this trend are diverse. Some are coming back to the job market after having kids and want a career on their terms. Others know the CEO position isn’t for them, they’d rather grow laterally. They look forward to their regular startup mentoring sessions because it gives them a break in their routine. They were inspired by the new flexibility we gained during Covid. Some were laid off and want to take their careers into their own hands. Others don’t want to wait until retirement to write that book, start that community, make that podcast.

The one motivation that trumps all others: the desire to break out of the box that is the traditional ‘job’ and the established career path. The most common comment I hear is: “I want to do something interesting” and “I want to meet interesting people”. The traditional job limits growth, especially in the second half of our careers. We rarely get to apply all our skills in one role. We rarely find all of the professional purposes we’re looking for with one employer. For many, the box of the traditional job is too small for their ambitions. 

What is a Portfolio Career and how does it meet CXO needs?

The portfolio career allows CXOs to use acquired skills in new areas and find professional growth through new projects. According to Harvard lecturer Christina Wallace the Portfolio Life is built on three ideas:

  1. You are more than one role or opportunity
  2. Diversification will help you navigate change and mitigate uncertainty
  3. When your needs change, you can and should rebalance your portfolio

The elements of the portfolio career are diverse. A common starting point is a mentorship, often of startups, matched through an accelerator, a venture builder or a corporate venture program. These mentorships easily convert to advisory roles, with more time invested and more deep involvement in the business. This can culminate in a fractional role.

Fractional CXO roles allow full ownership of a function in a part-time capacity. Unlike a consultant, the fractional CXO runs the team, represents the company, sets and tracks KPIs and reports progress to their superior. Often this involves senior operators working a few days per week in smaller companies or startups who benefit tremendously from their seniority and experience. Often the company can’t afford to or doesn’t require a senior CXO full-time. This model is commonly seen in support functions such as CFO, CHRO or CISO, but is also becoming popular in CMO, CTO or CPO positions.  

Ronan Hurley, for example, holds a portfolio of fractional roles as COO and CFO with startups in Singapore, after 15 years working with the Big 4 and with global retail and e-commerce companies. As a fractional leader he owns the function, leads the team and represents the company externally. Apart from this Ronan also has other assignments, where he acts as advisor, consulting founders and management.

From here some go into entrepreneurship, launching their own ventures in consulting or in entirely different fields. Others become angel investors who take an active interest in the success of their investments. Many wish to share the wealth of their accumulated experience and write books, launch podcasts or become speakers on topics of expertise. 

The desire for community is strong, many join communities related to elements of their portfolio, some even found their own communities. There is a stark realization that traditional networking limits our options. Most of us are extremely well networked - but only in the silo that is our industry. It’s not so often that we meet new people with new ideas that can get us ahead in different ways. And so new communities centered around portfolio careers become an attractive place to meet like-minded people who want to explore new paths. A great example is the co:grow collective, founded by Susan Chen earlier this year. Herself an HR leader who heads the function for Asia at a leading global video game development company, she saw a desire by others in her field to work on projects outside of their organization, solving organizational challenges and reimagining the HR function. 

Why is the time now?

External factors are helping drive acceptance of portfolio roles among employers. Employers are starting to warm up to new models to fill senior skills gaps and the ever-faster shifting skills requirements are acting as a catalyst. As new technologies and disruptions require new skills, employers need diverse talent with diversified skills, flexible, ready to come in at a moment’s notice. With startups and scale-ups in the lead, employers see the benefit of bringing in a specific skill quickly and flexibly. Flexible talent models can be more effective than upskilling or the long search for the right talent in a limited pool of applicants.

The recent attention on skills-based hiring is also creating a boost for portfolio roles. Transferable skills are what allow talent to stretch into new functions and industries. When the hiring process focuses less on the traditional format CV, the titles we’ve held in the past and experience we have in similar roles. The focus then shifts to what the candidate can achieve for the company.

Still, many employers are unfamiliar with this new territory and initially skeptical. Just as many employees feel full employment is the most secure model, employers also tend to prefer the stability of fully employed leaders. And yet, the lack of engagement from their workforce should be a sign of the change to come. According to a recent Gallup survey 59% of the global workforce is ‘quiet quitting’ - defined as psychologically disconnected from their employer, minimally productive, feeling lost and disconnected from their workplace. This shows rethinking the workplace isn’t just an option, it’s a necessity, with new flexible employment models a core element. More awareness and education about best practices to make them work will be essential to take the leap towards changing the employer-employee relationship for good.

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