Going Gig? Not Like Eating a Piece of Cake

By February 26, 2024Archive, Careers, Latest, Viewpoints

By Deborah Kops, Sourcing Change, and Paolo Piselli, Green Peas Resourcing

You’ve left or retired from your glorious career at a consultancy or in an enterprise. You’ve made the assumption that the world—or at least big, important companies—will beat a path to your door, offering you all manner of interim roles because of your experience. And it seems both enticing and entirely within your grasp—the opportunity to take umpteen years of success solving problems/transforming businesses/leading large teams then selling it to the highest bidder on your terms—40-hour weeks, no PowerPoint, advising and warning folks who you think just haven’t a clue how to run their business.

Think it’s easy to waltz into the world of successful interims? Well, it’s not like eating a piece of cake.

In a post-COVID world, the talent markets are, in the words of an Elvis Presley song, “all shook up.” No more wholesale war for talent; it’s now point buyer. Compensation levels have become less exuberant. Cost pressures have pushed out hiring. And corporate strategies are evolving rapidly in response to churning business conditions.

As a result, the concept of hiring interims, especially for transformative roles in areas such as global business services or technology implementation, is taking hold. Why put someone on a permanent payroll when the job at hand may only last 12-18 months? Why suffer through extended hiring processes when interim search firms or professional employment organizations can source and onboard at pace? Why appoint an internal who doesn’t have critical capabilities when the market is replete with strong senior talent who have “been there, done that?”

At the same time, we’re seeing an increasing supply of experienced folk on the market. Talented transformers and operators are retiring from their corporate roles but are not yet ready to hang up their spurs. Enterprises are recalibrating their operating model’s post-COVID hiring spree, putting accomplished leaders on the street. And the concept of work-life balance is reshaping expectations about career paths, making gig work more attractive.

Why are enterprises embracing interim employment?

  • Need for specialized expertise Sometimes the corporate talent bench does not have the right capabilities to solve a specific problem at hand. An interim with the exact profile, especially one who has “been there done that” with a track record of success in an analogous situation can move the dial.
  • Temporary nature of the work Enterprises often need to deliver a program or project with a deadline, fill a short-term leadership gap, or make a change that requires particular skills at a high level. Interim hiring allows them to obtain the capability without a long-term commitment.
  • Valuable perspective Enterprises are insular institutions. Often, a different perspective from an external who has worked on similar initiatives in other organizations is just the ticket, bringing valuable war stories and lessons learned with them.
  • Speed By avoiding lengthy recruiting, posting, and onboarding processes, talent can be on the ground quickly. Another plus is the ability of experienced interims to quickly get the lay of the land and have an immediate impact.
  • Reduced risk If conditions change, programs stall or are discontinued, or an interim is not delivering as expected, they can be “rolled off” more easily—for less cost.
  • Consultant fee fatigue Rather than bringing in a team of consultants, an interim who can work alongside the enterprise team and harness internal capabilities may be a more cost-effective and durable option.

But as we said in our tee-up, it can be hard for career employees to easily pick up interim roles:

  • It’s a jungle out there Competition is becoming fierce. There is a rising class of experienced career interims. They can go into a new business, often in challenging circumstances, forge new connections and add immediate value. They know how to hit the ground running without taking two to three months to understand the challenge and figure out their role in driving change.
  • Generalists (usually) need not apply The most desirable interims tend to specialize in a specific area—think function/industry/challenge—not something undefinable called “transformation.” That is what makes them more attractive to clients; they know that their reputation is everything (this is how they will secure their next interim role), and it is far easier for them to stand out as an interim if they specialize in a specific area.
  • Variety is the spice of life Desirable career interims have worked in a range of businesses. They can adapt to diverse ways of working across different industries and have a wealth of relevant experience gained from operating in various corporate contexts.
  • Takes work to get the work Career interims are skilled in business development; they know how to find their own clients and projects. Having skills such as networking, marketing, and proposal writing are critical to get a gig. If you are looking to go interim, or are fortunate enough to snag an interim role, here are a few tips to be wildly successful:
  • Be realistic about compensation  Don’t think you can waltz in and get compensation equivalent to your former package: base plus bonus plus long-term incentive. The client will look at both the market and equivalent internal compensation. For many transformation roles, market rates act as parameters for what an enterprise will pay. And do not compare interim rates to those of independent consultancy; interim work has less financial risk.
  • Don’t place undue conditions on the role Sure, you’ve planned three vacations, want weekends off (don’t we all?), and hate to get on Teams calls after 6 pm. But one of the value props of interim for an enterprise is flexibility—and that can include the way you work. An interim gig is rarely a work-when-you-want role.
  • Refrain from patronizing the client team Riding in on a white horse to save the enterprise from itself is not part of the brief for the vast majority of interim roles. You are there to help them achieve their objectives, not play smartest-man-in-the-room or impose your ideas.
  • Don’t expect permanent employment Too many interims think that an interim role is a try-then-buy. While interim work may very well turn permanent, likely you are there to facilitate a change or function as a bridge until an internal team can be assembled. There’s no implicit promise of a long-term relationship.
  • Understand your decision rights Take time to understand how the enterprise makes decisions and which, if any, you are empowered to make.
  • Don’t impose your point of view at every turn Ultimately, the enterprise you are working for makes or ratifies decisions. Coming across with a “I’ve always done it this way” when you don’t understand everything about the context or have all the facts is not an endearing way to operate. Having a trainable point of view is imperative.
  • Adopt the enterprise’s language and ways of working Every enterprise has its own ways of working and communicating. Coming off as one of the team is critical to interim success; communicating the way the client team communicates and engages is key.
  • Avoid thinking your role is solely advising and warning Your job is to get work done, not sit back and pontificate or criticize. Roll up your sleeves and focus on delivery. If the client wants an adviser who can’t do PowerPoint slides, they will hire one rather than you!

The cynics among us could argue that all corporate employment mimics interim arrangements, given constant restructurings, layoffs, and an ever-changing compact between employer and employee. Today, we are all journeymen and women working for companies that hire and fire us at will. Mastering the art of working as an interim can be a career advantage.

Deborah regularly pontificates about talent and operating models in business services organizations. This month, her partner in crime is Paolo, director of Green Peas Resourcing, an interim agency focused on transformation roles.