Rise of the Fractional Executive

Published May 15, 2023

I’m Not Good at Math, What’s a Fractional Executive?

The concept of ‘fractional’ refers to a person who gives part of their attention, effort, or expertise to a cause rather than committing all of those resources in a single place. 

Notice that it’s not only about time. A fractional team member is not accurately described as a part-time team member as their contribution is measured primarily on value, impact, or results. 

If you haven’t met a fractional yet, it won’t be long. With today's economic narrative, digital communication tools in abundance, and high-speed internet accessibility nearly anywhere, a labor force of independent fractional executive experts are arriving soon. In fact, from 2020 to 2021, the number of independents in the labor market grew by 34%. That’s an additional 13 million professionals joining the movement which constitutes 9% of the US workforce.1

"Fractional is one of the best things an emerging company can use. Get the expertise without the giant price tag."
-Chris Dyer, Author: The Power of Company Culture and Remote Work

Fractional vs. Consultant vs. Freelance, What’s the Difference?

Consultants tell you what to do. 

Fractionals join you in the doing.

A fractional combines both the conceptual knowledge found in abundance at the big consulting firms with real-world experience and expertise. A fractional joins as both a subject matter expert and an executor of their role in a company. A fractional team member contributes at a level that produces tremendous value for the amount of time invested, and they’re not afraid to integrate with a team and get their hands dirty. 

Fractionals might work as an advisor or a consultant if asked, but they have the chops to make things happen in a real-life business scenario.

Freelancers are typically focused on execution. They have experience and a valuable skill set, but they're removed from the strategic work that impacts an entire organization or department.

You can expect a fractional to blend all three elements as shown in the diagram below.

fractional executive diagram

"I absolutely love that this [diagram] actually includes the division between consultant and fractional roles."
- Valentina Thörner, Fractional Remote Leader

Why Do I Want a Fractional (Or Want to be One)?

The rising trend towards a gig economy supports the idea that on-demand work is no longer a futuristic concept, but rather a current reality. In fact, one-third of the world's workforce are independents, and 2023 expects to see that number expand by 17%.

With layoffs the norm and economic instability looming, fractional engagements can de-risk things for both contributors and businesses. Some of the benefits that both parties experience include… 

For contributors: 

  • Diversified streams of income by reducing the personal impact of a layoff
  • Added control through greater flexibility in schedule and types of projects to work on
  • Accelerated learning from exposure to multiple companies, industries, and products
  • Better earnings by exchanging expertise rather than time for compensation

For businesses:

  • Access to talent with critical specialization
  • Lower commitment poses less layoff stigma risk
  • Reduced total costs compared to full-time employees (benefits, taxes, L&D, etc.)

“In the Summer of 2022, I switched and started to work as a fractional product design leader. The change has been like a lightning bolt to my energy and well-being. I’m able to focus where needed, ship something forward, then move to another project while I wait to hear back. This allows me to learn quickly, picking up what works on one team and transferring my learnings to other teams within the companies I support.”

-Joshua Wold, Fractional Designer

Fractional Executive?

A Company needs leadership across each area of the business. No matter how large or how small an organization is, having a leader with specialization in their practice area is a clear advantage. This concept isn’t revolutionary, nearly every reader here recognizes these common senior leadership roles outside of the CEO and COO seats.

  • Technical strategy: Chief Technology Officer (CTO)
  • Human Capital and People Operations: Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)
  • Finance and risk: Chief Financial Officer (CFO)
  • Sales and growth: Chief Revenue Officer (CRO)
  • Product strategy and execution: Chief Product Officer (CPO)
  • Distributed Workplace Design: Head of Remote

Fractional is a safe and cost-effective way [for companies] to gut-check their hypothesis.

-Darcy Boles, Fractional Head of Remote

The list above isn’t comprehensive, but you get the point. A growing business benefits from specialists. The problem is that specialists are expensive, and a small yet ambitious organization doesn’t have the capital for a half-dozen full-time executive salaries. So what do most founders do? They wear all of the hats. It’s a badge of honor worn proudly on the job ads of most startups and small agencies, “you’ll wear a lot of hats here”. 

A fractional executive helps founders put their focus where it needs to be, delivers like a seasoned pro, and won’t cost more than your student loans. 

“A CTO isn't essential to most businesses, even many in tech, but the work that a CTO does is.”

-Topher Wilson, Fractional CTO

Do I Need One?

A fractional executive is an ideal solution for an organization between 10 and 500 people. Where an extra couple hundred thousand dollars can be a major difference maker. 

A founder might choose to engage a fractional executive for a number of specific reasons. Here are a few sample scenarios that might warrant it:

  • Interim support. This relieves the pressure to find a full-time replacement in a hurry. Executive hiring takes a while and the impact of a mis-hire at this level can be crippling. A fractional Chief Technology Officer in this capacity can keep their area of expertise moving forward and support the onboarding of the new full-time CTO.
  • Internal initiative leadership. Major internal initiatives need the right stakeholder or sponsor to cast a vision, guide the process from start to finish, and be accountable for the outcomes. A fractional Chief Human Resource Officer is in a great position to do this for internal people experience projects while a founder closes the next round of funding or that flagship client.
  • Long-term fractional executive. When the roadmap puts the addition of a full-time Chief Marketing Officer 2 years down the road, having a fractional one to support a small internal team and leverage their expertise to drive marketing strategy now is a valuable option to have. 

"There are a host of benefits to having a fractional team member filling the gaps as you grow, along with the associated cost savings. It's a huge win for small to medium-sized growth companies"

- Topher Wilson

What’s Next?

My prediction for 2023 is that startups between Series A and C, as well as growing creative agencies, will approach headcount with caution and look to leverage the expertise and leadership of the independent marketplace. Fractional leaders and executives will either build new or lead existing practice areas that have historically stretched founders outside of their core area of focus.

If you’re a founder that finds this model interesting, I’d love to hear from you.

If you’re a leader that wants to explore a fractional career, or have already made one, I’d love to talk with you as well and find ways to grow and further define the fractional executive space. I’m planning more conversations around this topic and I’d love to have your perspective.

Want to hear more conversations about fractional businesses? Subscribe to my podcast.

"Hiring C-Suite just for the sake of it is such a waste."

-Michelle Keefer, Fractional CMO


1. Zippia. "23 Essential Gig Economy Statistics [2022]: Definitions, Facts, And Trends On Gig Work" Zippia.com. Sep. 22, 2022, https://www.zippia.com/advice/gig-economy-statistics/

Photo Credit: Sophia Jené Photographs