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What is the difference between Interim, Fractional, and Consulting Roles?

Joe Romello & Tiffany Joy Greene, MBA

Interim, fractional, and consultant descriptors can be confusing or semantic, but these signifiers delineate different roles, which should guide your decision when choosing between an interim, fractional, and consultant role.

To understand the difference between interim, fractional, and consultant roles, let’s evaluate their definitions.

According to The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th Edition:

Interim is “an interval of time between one event, process, or period and another.”

Fractional is “of, relating to, or constituting a fraction.”

A consultant is “one who gives expert or professional advice.”

In relation to a role, we could argue that:

  • A person holding an interim role is a person who is serving as a bridge from one state or condition to another. For example, a sudden executive departure would require an interim resource while a search for a permanent replacement is conducted. Therefore, in this scenario, the interim is the person serving a role between the previous leader and the next leader.
  • A person holding a fractional role is someone who works part-time as a leader or is more goal/results focused. For example, a small business may hire a fractional Chief Brand Officer to assist with the strategic direction and management of a brand but on a part-time basis because the small business is not generating enough revenue to hire a full-time, permanent leader. Additionally, upgrading an ERP, reworking a supply chain, or managing a process change could be managed by a fractional leader.
  • A person holding a consultant role is bringing in specific expertise. They advise and counsel. A client poses a challenge or problem, and a consultant offers a strategy for solving it. However, it is not the consultant who solves the problem.

So, when do you choose to bring in an interim, fractional, or consultant leader? The simple answer is “it depends”.

Consider the optics, internally and externally.

  • Would leadership be in question if the position was vacant for an extended period?
  • Would the competitive position in the marketplace be in question if the position was vacant?
  • Would internal resources perceive the Company as rudderless if the position was vacant?
  • Do you have the expertise in-house to address the challenge or problem you are facing?

This is just a sampling of the considerations to be factored into the decision.

Interim leaders work full-time, but they have an end date. Interim leaders can serve a role to complete a project or to provide oversight until their expertise or oversight is no longer needed. They are a temporary solution, and an interim leader is often chosen to fill an essential high-level leadership role because having a vacancy would be a detriment to the organization. An interim resource would clearly be charged with ensuring the goals of the Company/Department were still in focus.

Fractional leaders work part-time or on a limited contract. Fractional leaders bring you insight, skill, and expertise, but they do not take an active, everyday role in the organization. Fractional leaders are a great option for organizations looking to grow or level up their business in a specific area. Many small and mid-sized organizations will choose to utilize fractional c-suite and upper-level executive services to help them level up or solve a pain point. A fractional resource could be used to indicate a change in operations possibly in the works. Or, it could be as simple as a full-time resource is not required at this point in the company’s stage. Fractional leaders are a great hybrid of consulting and freelancing because they provide advice and counsel (strategy to address the challenge or problem) while helping to implement the strategy.

Consultants offer expertise, often in specific areas of expertise. They don’t execute or implement their strategies. However, since they have specific areas of expertise, they tend to have knowledge of what works, what does not, and how to implement solutions based on the industry. Consultants offer unbiased perspectives and because they don’t “get lost in the weeds” of the business, they can often see different problems in ways an organization’s leadership cannot.

Labels do matter, internally and externally, so consideration of the message implied by the label should be factored into the decision for an interim or a fractional resource. Qualified resources can be found under these labels; most resources can function in any of these capacities.

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