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The Rise Of Gig Work: Companies Turn To On-Demand CEOS


You know, gig work isn't just for people who deliver food or groceries or composers, like BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music. Experienced executives are doing gig work, too, as some companies are turning to on-demand workers to be CEOs. NPR's Yuki Noguchi explains why.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Duncan Thomas (ph) has served as CEO of a medical practice, a Russian software firm and a logistics company, each stint lasting a few months.

DUNCAN THOMAS: It really suits how I like to work, and it suits how I like to engage people. And, you know, it gives me tremendous work-life flexibility.

NOGUCHI: Thomas fell into temporary executive work by way of a traumatic experience. Six years ago, he was working long hours as the CEO of a vocational college.

THOMAS: I came back from a vacation, and I was feeling unwell. And I went to the doctor that day. And that day, they said, you'd better go down and get an ultrasound.

NOGUCHI: The doctor returned, head hanging. Advanced melanoma, he told Thomas, left him about seven months to live.

THOMAS: Nine tumors in my lungs, and I had three in my liver. And the biggest ones were 9 1/2 centimeters in size, so it was pretty overwhelming.

NOGUCHI: Thomas was trained as a veterinarian and found a clinical trial. The test drug eliminated the cancer from his body.

THOMAS: It was almost like a rebirth.

NOGUCHI: Thomas, a native Australian living in Los Angeles, reevaluated what he wanted out of life and work. Working as an itinerant CEO, he says, leaves him time between gigs to recharge with his family.

The pandemic increased the popularity of gig work for CEOs. It's left companies in turmoil, and more leaders are willing to trade in a higher salary for short-term stints and greater flexibility.

Jody Greenstone Miller is co-CEO of the Business Talent Group. It matches experienced executives with interim CEO jobs. Miller says she started her firm because companies in transition or crisis often need temporary expertise, but they don't want the multiyear commitment of a long-term CEO.

JODY GREENSTONE MILLER: And the notion that I could just, you know, need somebody for three or four months to come in and solve a problem or help me, you know, build a new business just didn't exist in a formal way.

NOGUCHI: The fact that so many people are now no longer commuting to an office, she says, broadened the pool of temporary executives and the companies wanting to hire them.

MILLER: And what that did is it really opened up the world of talent.

NOGUCHI: But succeeding as a gig CEO isn't easy. High-end temps are often flown in to handle crises and scandals. Duncan Thomas has seen his share.

THOMAS: The challenges can be very real.

NOGUCHI: Thomas has taken over at firms that were cooking their books, or the previous CEO sexually assaulted an employee. Righting such ships isn't easy. For starters, Thomas says, workers often distrust leaders who parachute in. They're suspicious of their motives and know they won't stick around.

THOMAS: A lot of the stigma that I've come across is that you are a Chainsaw Al, you're a mercenary, that you are only in for the money, that you really don't give a damn about people.

NOGUCHI: These days, there's the added challenge of managing teams you've only met online. But Peter Wokwicz says there are also some advantages of coming in fresh.

PETER WOKWICZ: I can really come in as an outsider, an independent, don't have favorites. That often helps, also.

NOGUCHI: Wokwicz lives in Chicago. He's currently juggling two separate executive gigs at a robotics company and an e-commerce firm.

WOKWICZ: One of the benefits is you never get in that rut of being in one company for a long time.

NOGUCHI: So, he says, it never gets boring.

Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.