The Digital Skeptic: Executives Are Next in the Outsourcing Wave

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Art Saxby might just have the secret for dealing with big cheeses who turn out to be big headaches.

Don't give them that big job in the first place.

"More and more companies are finding that they can acquire top-tier talent without offering traditional long-term employment contracts," Saxby told me over the phone.

Saxby is the founder and principal of Chief Outsiders, a Houston-based cooperative executive search firm that specializes in placing chief marketing officers with mostly midsized businesses. These placements aren't traditional full-time roles, but they come with enough normal compensation packages to attract their attention, often on a part-time basis.

"It gives a best-of-breed CMO the chance to really move the needle at a company, do what they love," he said. "And do it all without the brutal back-office politics."

Saxby seems to be onto something with his idea to treat executives like professional athletes -- that is, pay them a boatload but for clearly specified terms and roles. He says he has doubled sales with his on-demand executive model every year for the past three. And his firm has grown from Saxby working out of his study to a business with a staff of 24.

Saxby's trick? Offer big-time marketing muscle from his bullpen of talent to mostly smaller firms that usually cannot afford first-rate marketing help, either because of limited budgets, feeble business propositions or stodgy brands.

"Take how we deal with a family-owned company, " he explained. The people who run these firms, he said, are usually smart. They know their company and their markets well. But new ideas can be a challenge. By bringing in a marketing outsider for a defined engagement, a firm can handle a specific product rollout. And nobody in management's inner circle is threatened, so all can relax and focus on getting the job done.

"It's understood that whoever we place will never replace a relative of the CEO who might manage marketing," Saxby said. "My people are leaving no matter what happens. There is simply none of the corner office intrigue that slows progress."

Rent-an-exec
Saxby's ability to be Virtual-Johnny-CMO-on-the-spot is dead easy to do technologically. It turns out that, just like any other information-based job -- whether it's in engineering, law or medicine -- it is a techno non-event for the supposedly irreplaceable, hands-on executive to be injected effortlessly into complex business problems from afar.

"It really depends on how geographically centric a business is," Saxby told me.

Sometimes his people need to be close at hand -- say, if product prototyping is important. But often, what a company needs is product expertise or fresh market vertical insight, which can often be handled better away from company headquarters.

"That is the secret of getting the top-level people I can get," he said. "The last thing they want to do is pick their families up to move cross-country."

When I asked what I thought was the obvious question -- How can a reasonable company be reasonably run without reasonably consistent management? -- Saxby chuckled at my ignorance of the nasty, brutish and short business life of top management.

The average marketing officer's lifespan is now 23 months per gig, Saxby said. That grim figure was confirmed by Chicago-based recruiting giant Challenger, Gray & Christmas' CEO Turnover Report. Our supposed world-beating, irreplaceable executives set a record for trips to the woodshed this year.

Even more interesting, Saxby is dead certain his modular approach to exec hiring and firing works for just about any role with a key to the executive washroom.

"This was not my idea," he told me. He explained that he got his inspiration from a fellow named Doug Tatum, who started a firm that placed chief financial officers on an on-demand basis.

And sure enough, the rent-an-exec model is taking hold. Firms such as Houston-based Phillips & Reiter job out chief legal counsel as contract players. Stamford, Conn.-based Ash Creek Enterprises can send an experienced chief technology officer out tomorrow. Kennesaw, Ga.-based Aepiphanni Consulting is happy to ship off a chief operating officer to run any business essentially at any time.

The age of the 24-month CEO
Saxby is way too polite to point out the obvious investor big-think here. So I will: Considering the grinding, investment-killing horror that is the executive merry-go-round these days, wouldn't just about any firm be better off if management boards simply outsourced the entire executive team?

Besides saving, in some cases, hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation packages, the pointless blood feuding that distracts all from the real challenge at hand -- making investors money -- might actually disappear.

"I cut my teeth at Frito-Lay, Coke ( KO), Compaq -- serious A-List firms" Saxby told me. "And I wish I had figured this out sooner. It makes so much sense to cut out all that nonsense out and focus in on what needs to get done."
This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.