Talent   //   June 5, 2024

CHROs are leaving their high-stress roles to do part-time, fractional work

Overburdened and under-resourced corporate CHROs are leaving their posts to go fractional, where they provide more focused support on temporary projects at different firms. It’s an increasingly popular career move for these stressed professionals who feel the pandemic and new ways of working have made traditional internal HR work unsustainable for them.

“People are not feeling properly resourced, valued and respected in their organization for their expertise in HR, and so a lot of people are flocking to fractional because they’re just fed up and have had enough,” said Anessa Fike, a fractional HR professional with over a decade of experience in the space. 

Fike coaches CHROs leaving to go fractional, and said she’s coached over 60 people in the last year. “I know probably dozens of people a week leaving corporate and going fractional,” she said. “So it’s just a massive, massive wave.”

CHRO remits have exploded since the pandemic years – ranging from responding to social justice movements in 2020, trying to maintain culture and employee well-being during the period of enforced remote working, then the economic uncertainty of 2023, the avalanche of layoffs, managing return to offices, and managing performance when raises are no longer on the table.

The idea of the fractional executive has come up more recently in the marketing world, where fractional CMOs are providing their expertise temporarily to big brands in arrangements allowing for more flexibility on both sides. “Bringing fractional execs in allows the business to be more agile and flexible and to bulk up when they need to,” Fike said.

“People are not feeling properly resourced, valued and respected in their organization for their expertise in HR, and so a lot of people are flocking to fractional because they're just fed up and have had enough."
Anessa Fike, fractional HR consultant and founder of Fike+Co.

For the most part though fractional leaders are typically hired by startups and smaller firms that can’t afford to hire and pay a full-time executive. “You can still have the expertise but at a fraction of the time in a fraction of the costs, and so that’s really where a lot of small organizations have found this market for fractional,” Fike said. 

“Those who are fractional are coming in to build something they have grown, built, scaled before. They know the trends and the pitfalls to avoid, and they’ve been at an executive level to be able to say, this is what we need to do next from a strategic standpoint,” Fike said.

Tracie Sponenberg left a corporate CHRO role at the beginning of this year after struggling with burnout, which accelerated her long-term plan to start her own fractional HR business. “What we dealt with during the pandemic, it just made me rethink what my priorities were,” she said. “Working for myself gives me the freedom and flexibility I not only want but I actually need at this point in my life,” she said. 

Her clients today are both small and mid-sized companies. Her last client had about 500 employees, and she flew out-of-state to work on site every two to three weeks to essentially serve as its part-time CHRO. She worked on-site three to five days a week and attended leadership meetings and conducted a listening tour to get a sense of the organization, then built a strategic plan around what an HR team would look like over the next few years. 

“It’s actually really smart for companies to think about bringing in a fractional chief people officer because you’re getting some incredible talent that left corporate because they wanted to do their own thing. You’re getting a ton of experience and you’re getting somebody cheaper, who’s going to give you the best of what you need in that role,” she said. 

She cautions though for those going fractional to “go into it with a lot of thought and care when designing what you want and be very open with your clients. Because leaving for fractional in and of itself doesn’t cure burnout, and it can make it worse if you’re not careful about your intentions and about what you offer to your clients and what you need yourself,” she said.

“When you have that title of either fractional or consultant, you're treated with so much more respect than being in house, and really you're doing the same stuff. But there's a different level of appreciation."
Morgan Williams, fractional HR consultant and founder of MW HR consulting.

Setting those rules and having more control and visibility over one’s responsibilities is one of the key benefits of the work though. In internal HR roles, “once you get in there they could throw anything at you. This is very different. If it’s not within the scope, I’m not doing it,” said Morgan Williams, who switched from consulting to fractional HR around 2021 and now runs her own business, MW HR consulting.

Another major benefit for those who switch is a newfound sense of appreciation. “When you have that title of either fractional or consultant, you’re treated with so much more respect than being in-house, and really you’re doing the same stuff. But there’s a different level of appreciation,” Williams said. 

Most of her work today is projects around rightsizing workplace dynamics post-pandemic, dealing with issues around burnout, returning to work and rebuilding company cultures. “The world has changed, and I think a lot of people just thought we can get right back to work. That’s not really possible. Now, you’re ‘gonna have to address the needs of people and people are usually the biggest line item on anybody’s budget,” she said.