Five years ago, Carolyn Homberger started to hear something new among her executive colleagues: Gig work was making its way to the corporate world. At the time, Homberger was a 20-year veteran of the financial services industry with a high-level executive job. But the idea of the new gig economy reaching the C-suite level sounded just fine to her.
Fast forward to today, and Homberger has pieced together what industry experts call a “portfolio career.” The term was first popularized in the mid-1990s by organizational behavior and management specialist Charles Handy. Over the years, various pundits have argued for both the rise and decline of the portfolio career, but in this modern era it’s not only thriving—it’s reaching new heights.
According to Forbes, the pandemic years saw gig work increase by 30%. A survey released by the Freelancers Union and Upwork predicted that more than half of the American workforce would be freelancing by 2027. And recently gig work for CEOs, CFOs and CIOs has acquired its own name: fractional executives.
Today Homberger balances owning her own business with part-time high-level work in fin-tech and occasional consulting gigs. “Gig work isn’t just for Uber drivers,” she says. “Leaving my corporate job and switching to a portfolio career gave me the opportunity to take a step back and ask myself what I really wanted from the next chapter in my career.”
She’s not alone. The Harvard Business Review recently tackled the idea that portfolio careers are replacing the traditional one-job career path. “Whereas a career path tends to be a singular pursuit (climb the ladder in one direction and focus on what is straight ahead), a career portfolio is a never-ending source of discovery and fulfillment,” the article argues. A career portfolio can hold more in the mix than a single-focused career path. “It represents [a] vast and diverse professional journey, including the various twists and turns … In a world of uncertainty, talent that can expand their thinking beyond boxes, silos or sectors will be in demand.”
Homberger understands the world of corporate uncertainty well. Her own leap into entrepreneurship and part-time gig work was launched when her company closed its office in Naples. She had the choice of leaving Southwest Florida, where she and her family had built a community they loved, or trying something new. “These days, I feel so much more in the driver’s seat than I did with a single job,” Homberger says.
Meagan Baskin, director of the Southwest Florida Leadership Institute and an associate professor at Florida Gulf Coast University who specializes in human resources management and organizational behavior, said gigs at the executive level can be a boon to both the employee and the employer.
“The constant swift movement within organizations today requires so much innovation. There’s a need for flexibility and adaptability, and committing to a long-term position might be a hindrance,” Baskin says. “Companies might be more apt to seek out these fractional executives to maintain adaptability. As the need for certain skillsets shifts, businesses are able to bring on short-term people with the technical expertise needed in that moment.”
Still, she warned that too much uncertainty at the C-suite level can be destabilizing to a business. Fractional executives make the most sense for CIO and COO positions, “but it might be a lot more challenging at the CEO level.”
Yet even with an upside for both parties, Baskin doesn’t believe that the economy will turn entirely to gig work at senior levels. “Even though people are less committed to a single job, we still haven’t broken that mentality completely in the work space.”
Though Homberger stepped away from her full-time executive position, she acknowledges that corporate work is still key to her career. “Make no mistake, the corporate job funds the small business. That is absolutely the model,” she says. But the new gig economy at the C-suite level allows her access to the perks of a corporate lifestyle—good benefits, a healthy paycheck—with the flexibility and personal satisfaction that comes with other career roles. “Having the opportunity to do both fulfills me,” she says.