Should CEOs Rely on Part-Time Specialists? Reviewing Advantages and Disadvantages

I was at a meeting of CEOs last week and we started to discuss one of our greatest challenges: Surrounding ourselves with the right people. Business owners wear a lot of hats. And when we hire employees, we oftentimes start with a bookkeeper, an administrator and/or a sales person. As the business grows, those same people become our financial officer, our HR specialist and our marketing chief. But, has their expertise grown in relationship to the business growth? Or is it time to take a second look at your business needs if you want to grow?

So our #Vistage Chair, Dan Wertenberg constantly asks, “Are the people who got you to this level going to be the ones who get you to the next one? What do you need to do differently? And how can you go about doing it?”

One of the answers is getting the right talent; but talent is expensive. However, in these difficult times it is vital for businesses to employ experienced people who can add value and make a real difference.

This is where part-time specialists (HBR article) can fill a critical need. There are a variety of positions that can be filled by seasoned executives on a part-time basis.

What are the advantages and the disadvantages of this approach?

The Advantages:

  • You can get a highly skilled person for a portion of the cost, for as long as you need them and for the time that you need them. Sometimes that might mean a person working with you 50% of the time, 25% of the time or 100% of the time for a limited period.
  • These executives also usually have relationships in the market with other professionals who they can bounce ideas off of and benchmark against.
  • Many companies that have long-term staff with little turn-over find that they get stale, that they become insular. An outsider can prevent this from occurring.
  • If the person isn’t who you are looking for, you can change without a costly termination and re-hiring process.
  • There aren’t the same problems with disgruntled employees-or family members-as with hiring a new, outsider employee.

The Disadvantages:

  • The executive is dividing his or her time with several companies so may not be available 24/7 for you.
  • You may not feel they have the same loyalty to the organization and the same stake in your success.
  • It is usually cheaper to hire a full-time, more junior person.

And you may be wondering, “Why would a really successful professional want to work for 3-5 companies on a part-time basis rather than one company full-time?”

Here are some of the reasons that I and some of my professional colleagues have shared:

  1. It plays to their strengths. For 30 years in my corporate career, I had my job, and then what I did with my day! My job always revolved around marketing, sales and management, but my day often included many other things. Now, at Chief Outsiders, I can specialize in marketing, developing and implementing strategy. That is my strength. And I love doing it, keeping up with the latest innovations and techniques.
  2. It involves strategic rather than tactical work. Several of my collaborators do part-time CFO work. They oversee what needs to happen to keep the company’s finances in order. But they don’t have to do the work of the bookkeeper or accountant. They develop the strategies and delegate the rest to the company’s employees.
  3. They can specialize. Generally, the mid-size business doesn’t need a full time HR specialist, full-time CFO and CMO. So, within the company, other work is taken on. However, if they work for more companies, they keep very sharp on the key components of their function. They see what is working, what is not in their area. They keep up on the laws and regulations.
  4. Sometimes they are tired of working 60-70 hour weeks and want to remain active, but only working 35-50 hour weeks.

So how does a CEO effectively work with a part-time executive? Here are some tips from several CEOs who use part-timers:

  • Put together a 90-day plan of what you expect, discuss it and refine it.
  • Ask questions about what they do with their other clients and brainstorm what might work for your business.
  • Make them your right-hand partner. Allow them the freedom of getting to know your people and ask their advice on improving performance.
  • Listen to their ideas.
  • Be flexible. In every assignment I have had, things come up, issues, problems, emergencies and these can change the priorities and assignments.
  • Have regularly scheduled updates on progress and goals. Weekly is best.

In this era of specialization, more and more companies are turning to part-time, specialized workers. One of the other CEOs at my meeting has 3 part-time people fulfilling the leadership roles in HR, Marketing and Finance. He shared that this is really helping grow his business, and that these executives are mentoring many of the less-seasoned employees so by the time, he needs a full-time person, he will have them ready. Another has a part-time person taking care of his IT. He has seen incredible improvements since hiring the outside firm to be in charge of this.

So, get the right people in your key positions.