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Tempus Fugit

America has often been described as a jobs factory masquerading as a society. Not only does this country constantly create …

America has often been described as a jobs factory masquerading as a society. Not only does this country constantly create millions of new jobs for its citizens, fueling the most powerful economy the world has ever known, but it ceaselessly creates the kinds of highly specialized and, in some instances, absurd jobs that would never exist elsewhere: life coaches, chief learning officers, decluttering experts, celebrants who stage formal rituals to commemorate employee downsizings. (Yes, these people exist and can be found at the Celebrant USA Foundation in Montclair, N.J.)

In the tiny office building where I work in suburban New York, I have seen an amazing array of niche businesses come and go. One sold shares in a prodigiously fecund New Hampshire bull. Another booked concerts for amateur singing groups that wished to sing in small churches in France, Germany and Italy. A third provided a hotline for people needing short-term nursing care or emergency monitoring and companionship.

It was this last enterprise-a rather successful one-that got me to thinking about a new business opportunity someone should develop: a CEO temping service. These days, American corporations hire and fire CEOs like nobody’s business, creating what The Wall Street Journal refers to as “the interim CEO.” Last September, Bristol-Myers Squibb named James Cornelius interim CEO after axing his predecessor. Meanwhile, the Sharper Image was bringing in a temporary CEO to right the ship, as were McAfee, Trident Microsystems, Vitesse and SafeNet. And about a year ago, RadioShack brought in Claire Babrowski as a temporary CEO after her predecessor admitted fudging his résumé and felt compelled to resign.

                                  

Since both scandals and a fiercely competitive environment have increasingly made the CEO an endangered species, the time would seem propitious for a shop offering a full range of CEO temping services. Temporary CEOs could be hired by the day, week or month-and brought in to pinch-hit for a CEO needing a long vacation, desiring a sabbatical to clear up assorted personal matters or afflicted by an unexpected case of the mumps. The temporary CEO would have most of the powers, obligations and responsibilities of a normal CEO, but probably be discouraged from charting overall policy, as he might only be on the payroll until Friday at 4:30. He could be paid by the day or the hour but would receive no benefits.

Ultimately, as CEO temping caught on, penthouse temps would assume a much larger role. An embattled company, fighting off a horde of disgruntled shareholders, rapacious private equity firms or meddlesome hedge funds, might tell its capable but not especially combative CEO to take off the rest of the week, while some tough ex-Marine CEO temp stepped in to duke it out with the frothing, circling sharks. CEO temps might serve short-term stints because they speak a foreign language, dress better than the full-time CEO or are terrific public speakers. Corporations might even hire a CEO temp for the annual shareholders meeting, because the temp has better media skills, a winning personality or a track record in handling the loonies who can turn these gatherings into a living hell.

Would temping ever lead to a full-time position for these gifted pinch hitters? Why not? Savvy boards might elect to hold formal contests, trying out different temps to see which is the best fit. On Monday, one temp would address shareholders; on Tuesday, a second would go to Beijing to raise hell about piracy; on Wednesday, a third would debate trade policy with Lou Dobbs on CNN. And let the best man win.

Over time, companies might even switch over entirely to a CEO temping system. True, some may dismiss this suggestion as frivolous. Frivolous or not, it’s hard to see how temps could do any worse than the guys running things out in Detroit.

About Joe Queenan

Joe Queenan is a regular contributor on business issues, corporate culture, and financial follies to Barron's and The Wall Street Journal.