The Guest Blog

Miller: The Rise of the SuperTemp in the C-Suite

Jody Greenstone Miller |Founder and CEO of Business Talent Group
GSO Images | Getty Images

Ed Trevisani hangs out with his young sons when they come home from school. He volunteers as a Boy Scout leader, serves on nonprofit boards, and teaches management courses at Philadelphia-area universities. He’s even been known to sit on the back porch in the middle of the workday. Not bad for a guy who’s still pulling down as much as he did when he was a partner with IBM and PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Trevisani is a Wharton MBA and GE alum who now manages high-powered projects for Fortune 500 companies and advises executives on operational issues, change management and potential mergers. He does all these assignments on a temporary basis, working as an independent contractor. You could call Trevisani a supertemp.

The Independent Project Professional

He and others like him belong to the “free agent nation” popularized a decade ago by the author and workplace guru Daniel Pink, but they inhabit its most rarefied precincts. Supertemps are top managers and professionals – from lawyers to CFOs to consultants – who’ve been trained at top schools and companies and choose to pursue project-based careers, independent of any major firm.

They’re increasingly trusted by corporations to do mission-critical work that in the past would have been handled by permanent employees or established outside firms. New intermediaries have sprung up to create a market for such marquee talent. Supertemps are growing in number, and we think they’re on the verge of changing how business works. Both the independent talent and corporations stand to benefit.

Career Hopping to the Extreme

For the talent, project-based work has simply become more attractive than the alternative. Today, technology makes it easy to plug in, the corporate social contract guaranteeing job security and plush benefits is dead or dying and 80-hour weeks are all too common in high-powered, full-time jobs. The surprise may be not that top talent is looking for “permanent temp work,” but that anyone who has a choice would want a traditional job.

Independent Talent as a Competitive Advantage for Corporations

Companies follow the talent. So as growing numbers of professionals decide that they prefer to work on a temporary basis, organizations are finding ways to work with them. The prevalence of lean management teams, the post-recession drive to cap costs, and the accelerating pace of change combine to make temporary solutions compelling.

These new arrangements have also spread because the surge in outsourcing and consulting in recent years has accustomed managers to thinking about work (including high-end work) in modular ways. In a global business climate that’s perpetually ambiguous – and that puts a premium on companies’ ability to test ideas and change course on a dime – knowing how best to engage this lower-risk, flexible, and faster talent model can be a source of competitive advantage.

The Emergence of Intermediaries

Through my work at Business Talent Group, I’ve seen intermediaries spring up over the past five years, creating a market for such marquee talent. Several other companies focus exclusively on high-end temporary talent. Axiom, backed by the venture firm Benchmark Capital, today supplies 650 temp lawyers to nearly half the Fortune 100; the firm will garner revenue of more than $100 million in 2012, almost tripling its size since 2008. London-based Eden McCallum has built a $40-million firm in recent years by placing 400 independent consultants with global Fortune 500 and private equity firms.

Traditional executive recruiters are also getting into the act. Lauren Doliva, the managing partner of Heidrick & Struggles’ new Chief Advisor Network, says that baby boomers’ retirement will shrink the supply of executives even as demand holds steady—increasing the need for temporary talent and senior advisory resources. In other words, a lot of signs point to a niche market on the verge of breaking into the mainstream.

The Future of Work

How big is the phenomenon today? McKinsey research in 2011 found that 58 percent of U.S. companies expect to use more temporary arrangements at all levels in the years ahead. We have little doubt that professional life is moving inexorably in this new direction, because a desire to live and work more autonomously is the driving force behind this change. As we’ve long argued to anyone who will listen, why should this era’s managers and professionals be the only elites in human history who don’t set things up to get what they want?

This article was adapted from the April 2012 Harvard Business Review article“The Rise of the Supertemp.” Jody Miller is founder, chairwoman, and chief executive officer of the Business Talent Group, a new company delivering top-tier independent business talent in five days for consulting, project-based and interim executive assignments.