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Professional Contractors - The Ultimate Change Agents

By Mark Sparrow, Vice President, Professional & Technical - Asia Pacific, Kelly Services


Looking to change? Change is a constant in the business world and current market conditions are so sensitive and unpredictable, that as a business leader, you not only have to execute your initiatives with rigor but you also have to be highly tuned into the commercial climate to ensure that your initiatives still make sense and that the timing is right .


The dynamic changes create a landscape where leaders are continually balancing mitigation of their risk with the maximization of investments. One of the largest investments in most companies is of course, their people and the aforementioned balancing act also applies to the investment in human capital.


With the current unpredictable landscape, every role in every company is being scrutinized to assess whether it is of value to the company’s success. It is a common occurrence to see organisations reorganise themselves and for its professionals to take on extra responsibilities.


This may help with cost savings but is it a false economy? Does double-hatting help companies to save on their human capital cost base or does it just paper over the cracks? After all, performing one’s role effectively should logically be a full-time job. Hence taking on more responsibilities could have a counterproductive effect on the person's productivity in their original role.


It is a dilemma for many executives who are trying to balance the books around labor costs but there is a solution that mature recruitment economies outside the emerging Asian economies have been taking advantage of for some time to address this particular problem ....... the contractor.


"Temps!" I hear you cry. No, not just temps. But professional level contractors - Highly experienced professionals with specialized skill sets, who have chosen a more flexible career, to expose themselves to multiple organizations and a variety of business situations.


Consider this as a leader; if you are to take your organisation through a change, regardless of whether this would be an IT implementation, a restructuring or even a merger/ acquisition, you are faced with largely 3 paths in order to lead this change.


1. You could hire a consultancy to help you

This is certainly a well trodden path and there are many fine and reputable companies out there that will lend you their knowhow to design, plan and execute your change plan using legions of consultants and often following an industry accredited methodology. This can work very well but it does come at a price and consultancies like many professional services are not an inexpensive option. As the consultancy is often methodology led, there is never a guarantee that the team executing the change plan will necessarily have direct experience of your industry or organisation type. It is not by any means a terrible option as risk mitigation will be built into the model.


2. Look internally

This is certainly a cost effective option and it can open up career advancement opportunities for your staff and give them valuable experience which will ultimately prepare them better for future roles. However, there are two major drawbacks. Firstly, you will want to ensure success so it will often mean pulling a high performer from a post where they are delivering well. This will result in an opportunity cost unless there is a robust succession plan in place. Secondly, if the person is high potential but has no experience dealing with this type of project, you will as a company, expose yourself to the risk of not executing the project as effectively as you might expect and also giving your high performer a rare taste of failure! No successful person likes this experience and it may turn them off from the organisation as a whole.


3. The professional contractor

The third option may give an organisation the best of both worlds which is that of the professional contractor. As a leader, you will want to be offered an experienced people leader with a track record of multiple successful change implementations in a myriad of organizations of the nature you are looking to introduce. Someone who had been there, seen it, done it and had the scar tissues to prove it. These scar tissues give them an intuition of how to deal successfully with the situations that present themselves during organisational change. Someone, who unlike your internal options, would not be swayed or influenced by long term internal relationships or alliances but who would be objective and make the hard calls and tough decisions unemotionally. Someone who would be fully accountable for scoping, planning and delivering your project based not only on best practices but based on actual knowhow gained across multiple deployments and industries. An organization can get all these at a fraction of the cost of a consultancy and this offers the leader a fixed daily cost with no long term commitments as compared to a permanent employee.


It is a pretty compelling case and it is a medium used very successfully in many westernized economies. This is also known as "interim management" or "executive contracting".


The good news is that in many of our Asian economies, this body of professionals is swelling and everyday more seasoned and highly effective executives are taking a career decision to operate independently and use their knowhow to benefit organizations that are keen to limit their operational risk when seeking successful change. These professionals operate across a number of disciplines - HR, Finance, Procurement, IT, Marketing, Sales and often have reached Directorial level and above before embarking on these "second careers".


Think on this too…  "interims", to keep themselves employed, they have to possess track records of results, unlike consultancies where they do not have anything other than their personal consultancy brand reputation to ensure an element of stability in their income. Contractors also do not have a marketing machine behind them to ensure awareness and create interest in their work. They get most of their engagements through referrals and also recruitment firms such as ours. Therefore they have to deliver value otherwise they will not be recommended. So do you think these contractors will be determined to demonstrate their value? A common figure used in the interim industry is that of an experienced well qualified interim, with a clear and well measured brief will deliver 10x their cost of hire on average. Compare that to your other options and think whether that represents a competitive return on investment.


There are many pitfalls and tips in terms of engaging contractors successfully which will be covered in the future. But this growing band of professionals is now worthy of consideration to companies looking to inject short/medium term knowhow into their organizations at a controllable price point.