Many executives enjoy the variety of new challenges

By Anne Kerr

Jane Rounthwaite, interim president of Women’s College Hospital Foundation, a non-profit health organization in Toronto, didn’t start her working life intending to not have a permanent job.

But, at age 48, that’s what she’s finding works best for her.

Ms. Rounthwaite is also serving as executive director of a new startup foundation, the Foundation for Athletes and Sport Training, a spinoff from the Toronto Olympic bid, to raise money and awareness to support developing athletes.   Ms. Rounthwaite is one of a small but growing number of seasoned top professionals who are for-hire executives, changing companies and job titles several times a year.  Often, they juggle more than one position, one company and even one profession.

“I’ve been working as an interim executive for four years now and I’ve been offered at least two permanent positions.  I was tempted because they were great organizations with great people, but the truth is I get bored if I stay in a job too long and when I’m bored, I don’t do my best work,” says Ms. Rounthwaite, who worked at Crown Life Insurance Co. for 17 years.

Ms. Rounthwaite perfectly fits the profile of the for-hire honcho who must hit the ground running.

“These people are doers, not advisers.  They don’t want to be owned by anyone or be a cog in an organization,” says Marty Parker, managing director of Caldwell Interim Executives, a division of Caldwell Partners International Inc. in Toronto, which provides chief executive officers, chief financial officers, vice-presidents and other seasoned senior veterans for short-term stints for some of Canada’s top companies.  A typical placement is four to eight months.

Mr. Parker says that interim placements are the fastest growing part of Caldwell’s executive search business.  While about 60 per cent of the candidates – many of whom have been downsized out of corporate jobs – would prefer a permanent position, a growing number are opting for the freelance life, he says.

The majority don’t fit the stereotype of the aging executive easing into retirement who wants to combine intense spurts of working with extended vacations.

Unlike consultants, who come in, make an assessment, write a lengthy report of recommendations and then leave to let the company do the implementing, interim executives actually are part of the management team, actively involved in operations and changes, with staff reporting to them.

There are some significant financial attractions for companies using interim executives, even though the per diems can be steep.  The rate charged by the Osborne Group Toronto Inc., essentially a Canada-wide “marketing co-op” for 75 self-employed interim executive members, such as Ms. Rounthwaite, averages $1,000 to $1,200 a day, and slightly less for non-profit groups, says executive director Barbara Burton.

But the companies don’t have to pay for pensions, benefits, stock options, or severance.

Some organizations take on high-priced talent when they need a fill-in while they search for a permanent candidate.

“A big reason this is so popular now for companies is that they have to be so much more flexible themselves, they have no idea where they’ll be in two years time either,” adds Mike Rodgers, vice-president of human resources for Labatt Breweries of Canada in Toronto.

Expectations for an interim executive are higher than for someone filling a permanent position, Mr. Rodgers says.  There isn’t a lot of time for getting acclimatized and from the very first day, they’re expected to perform.

Interim executives with an entrepreneurial streak and diverse skills fare best, though certain professionals are in hot demand.

“My background is in IT and strategic planning, which are fundamental now to how most businesses work.  The opportunities are greater, I’d say, than if you were a sales guy specializing in consumer products,” says Ron Sloan, the interim chief information officer at Spar Aerospace Ltd. In Toronto.

Isn’t it hard, though, to be thrown into an executive role, in charge of a group of people who may resent your presence or, worse, not take you seriously because you’re not long-term?

Mr. Sloan says how well you’re accepted is all in the attitude you present.

“If you go in all autocratic and heavy-handed, it doesn’t work, for sure.  If you’re like a mentor/teacher, they’ll generally saddle up behind you,” he says.

Ms. Rounthwaite’s job at the Women’s College Hospital Foundation is to help it merge with two other organizations.  In a few months, her position won’t exist, and she’ll be looking for a new job.

Even having to keep breaking apart from colleagues and companies you’ve bonded with isn’t the downside some might think.

“Actually, I still know everyone I’ve worked for.  We’ll golf or go for lunch and I’ll keep giving them advice, if they ask for it,” Ms. Rounthwaite says.

“In fact, we probably keep in touch more than people who worked together years, then went their separate ways, because the experience was so positive.”

And that’s just the way she likes it.


Originally posted Monday, July 15th, 2002 in the Globe & Mail.