Skip to content

"I'm A Temp And Your Cfo"

There's a growing army of nomad executives

"I'm A Temp And Your Cfo"

There's a growing army of nomad executives

You hold a key management post at your company but feel stifled in the job. Or bored. Maybe you should consider becoming a "portable executive." That's the trendy term for a growing class of corporate nomads who hire themselves out to companies for temporary stints.

Don't call them "consultants," a label that still suffers from association with all the downsized execs who couldn't find a job in the 1980s and early 1990s. Consultants usually advise. Portable execs roll up their sleeves and manage projects, substitute for other execs, set up a new division, or even guide a company through a particularly troublesome period. As a rule, their gigs average about six months but can often stretch out to a year or more.

A good example is New York's Ronald Lefkon. "I was not happy simply running a department and hitting deadlines," he says. With years of experience in finance and accounting at such major corporations as AlliedSignal (HON) and American Express (AXP), Lefkon became a partner two years ago in Tatum CFO Partners, an Atlanta-based partnership of 300 chief financial officers who farm themselves out for interim assignments. Now 59, he's having a great time company-hopping: He's winding up a turn at a small telecom outfit and will soon start another merging two other companies' financial systems. "I've now got tremendous management challenges, working on honest-to-goodness business problems," Lefkon says. "It's invigorating."

The number of executives who've taken the portable route has increased tenfold in the past decade, estimates Christopher Hunt, president of Hunt-Scanlon Advisors, a Stamford (Conn.) consultancy that analyzes recruitment trends. And now looks like a good time to take the plunge, as the fast-changing economy and a shortage of management skills have increased demand.

LEADERS FOR RENT. There are even several high-end temp agencies--talent agents for executives, in effect--that can help match your skills with particular jobs and help negotiate fees and perks (table). They work like normal temp agencies; your paycheck comes from the agency, not the company where you're working. But the agencies give you access to such benefits as medical insurance, and even provide experts you can call to help solve problems while you're on a job.

Getting the top bucks these days are execs in finance, information technology, and operations. Human resources isn't so hot, and sales and marketing don't lend themselves well to temporary positions. Manufacturing managers are in demand in the Midwest. But it's "much easier to cross industries than to cross functions," says Alice Bova, research director at Spherion, a Fort Lauderdale recruiting firm that in mid-September purchased Imcor of Stamford, the biggest agency for portable execs. Demand is greatest, she says, in financial services, telecom, and Internet-related businesses, with much of the action centered in Northern California and the East Coast from Boston to Virginia.

Executive skills are especially needed in new businesses. "For young people running tech companies, these portable execs are invaluable," says Hunt. Expertise in venture capital and public offerings is in particular demand.

HELPING HAND. Take Christopher Miller, 34-year-old founder of, an executive recruiting Web site that needed financial savvy. One of Miller's board members introduced him to Gary Martino, who founded a software company, took it public, and most recently headed an Internet startup. Martino, 40, began hiring out to young Net companies in May. He now spends two and a half days a week as 6Figure's CFO. "We are not at the point," says Miller, "where we can financially justify a full-time CFO of Gary's caliber." Says Martino: "It's a great fit."

Being portable may keep the brain cells fired up, but the life isn't for everyone. Karen Fergeson, a vice-president at Resources Connection, an executive talent agency based in Costa Mesa, Calif., notes that portable execs must have secure egos, since they aren't judged by their titles or the size of their offices.

Also, there's no settling-in time on projects; you've got to work effectively from the day you walk into the new office. Your energy level must stay high. "You cannot have retired already," says Lefkon. It also helps to be "a quick study--able to get the heart of important matters and not get bogged down in politics," says John Thompson, author of The Portable Executive: Building Your Own Job Security from Corporate Dependency to Self-Direction (Simon & Schuster, $12). And you may have to deal with people who resent your intrusion. "You have to be an adept mediator and psychologist," says Jesse Atwell, a former CEO of Bond Robotics in Detroit who has been a portable CEO for a decade.

Temperament matters away from the office, too. Many execs prefer a steady, predictable routine. Doing projects can demand peak performance for months--while the downtime between stints can make you restless and anxious. And is your spouse supportive? Your new work tempo can strain a marriage. "You never know how you are going to react to a lack of structure," says David Opton, who heads ExecuNet, a Web site for executive networking.

Your finances will look much different if you go out on your own. Negotiate to have all your on-the-job expenses paid; "it's better to get the 100% reimbursement than to get the tax deduction," says Shelley Martin, a partner in New York's Weikart Tax Associates. But you won't get paid vacations, so set aside a big chunk of money to live on between assignments. You'll be responsible for your own health insurance and pension, as well as the employer's portion of Social Security and Medicaid taxes.

And don't forget that you'll have a lot of costs just looking for posts--researching companies, attending industry meetings, and traveling to interviews, for instance. Finding work can be a big job in itself, points out Larry Benson, a veteran health-care consultant in Toledo.

Striking out on your own is scary. But pursuing a constantly changing career script--one you write yourself--can be deeply satisfying. Says Atwell: "I am in effect a project manager, a gunslinger, and I go in with a specific task and the authority and solve their problems. I get to pull all the strings." Can you say that in your present job?