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Hiring experienced outsiders can be a business game changer

27th March 2023

The idea of hiring in outsiders when companies need fresh strategic thinking or a shot of adrenaline to accelerate change is not new. The theory is that they will pay their way through efficiencies.

There is a strong case for bringing in professional support, but business leaders must decide what kind of help they need.  Bring in the wrong outsider and the mistake will cost an organisation dear, perhaps for years to come. Professor of Economics, Mariana Mazzucato and Rosie Collington, PhD student, both at University College London argue in their recently published book ‘The Big Con” that the large consultancies, accounting firms, and outsourcers are preventing organisations from standing on their own feet. For me, the choice boils down to building internal capability or creating long-term dependency on certain outsiders. Either way, the decision can be a business game changer.

Build capability, not dependency

Not all types of outside professional help are the same, depending on what drives them. Some are incentivised by creating long-term dependency, while others are more motivated by delivering an agreed brief, leaving capability in place and then exiting.  In the fifteen years that I have been introducing interim executives to help businesses accelerate change or manage the unexpected, overstaying a welcome has never been a good look. I believe that companies can and should build their own internal expertise too. Interim executives will get companies to a place quickly where they can do that.

I’m not against the work of large consulting firms, outsourcers, and accounting firms – if brought in for the right reason and not allowed to overstay. They offer extensive expertise in business model design and vast libraries of research and off-the-shelf templates. But allowing them in to spread out, take control and stay is a big – and expensive – decision to make.

Internal capability for managing change doesn’t always exist, but building capability should be on every human resource director’s to-do list. The modus operandi of interim executives focuses on enabling just that. Interims also alleviate the pressure on businesses when it comes to backfilling the work of employees seconded to change programmes.

Hire people who know how

Mazzucato and Collington’s suggestion is that consultants, particularly the big ones, never seem to leave. They just build onsite presence and longevity with each client. In other words, they ‘land and expand’. Interims provide the alternative if your organisation knows what it wants to change, but just needs the know-how and adrenaline to deliver it. The costs of allowing large external firms to ‘do’ what a business could if it just had extra experience alongside it for a short period are eye-watering. Hiring a single senior-level management consultant to lead change can cost around £1m annually. An equivalent interim change leader who both upskills employees and shares their knowledge and experience costs less than half that.

Independent outsiders help businesses stay in control

Interims have a career’s worth of experience in leading, delivering, implementing, and accelerating change.  Their motivation is to engage, deliver, hand over and exit, having shared their experience and left capability in place. The interim management model is a direct response to the need for readily available independent experience, to help businesses deliver change and help their employees learn to manage that change without feeling their jobs, responsibilities, and career aspirations have been taken from them. Although it receives fewer headlines than the Big 4, the independent interim executive network is an industry the UK excels at.

Positive, purposeful, and impactful

The positive and purposeful impact of interim executives is undeniable. An assignment cycle begins with an agreed brief – which is clear and concise. Interims swiftly move on to engagement and delivery. Within six to eighteen months or so, they are presenting their handover: job done with a legacy of improvement and enhanced capability. In contrast, questions are rightfully asked about the sustainability of what capability the big consulting firms leave in place, if anything, for the large sums spent on them. I speak weekly to business leaders who spend their days planning how to regain control of swathes of their organisations from outsiders who don’t know when to leave.

Conclusion: The right outside help will always be needed in a rapidly changing world

Organisations will always need outside help. Human resource plans can’t be expected to cover all eventualities. With their lean operations, organisations inevitably struggle to match the range of experience readily available externally. Business leaders know their organisations better than anyone outside. But to get where they want to be faster, external experience is essential to gain that competitive edge. Once an organisation has made the decision on ‘what’ they are trying to achieve, the decision then focuses on ‘how’ to deliver it. Interim executives offer a compelling answer: years of implementation experience and a proven record of leaving capability in place.

Organisations should perhaps avoid the ‘default response’ of bringing in outsiders before considering who internally could step up. Why not give colleagues the career opportunity they joined the organisation for? However, if external experience is needed, making the right call on what type of outsider can also be a powerful employee retention strategy. Do colleagues need mentoring and guiding, does a role need backfilling or is implementation impetus needed? In the long run, organisations – and their people – benefit far more from building internal capability, where possible.

Businesses should run efficiently and effectively. Bringing in experienced, professional help is often necessary. If change delivery know-how and experience are needed from an independent outsider, there really is only one choice: interims, expert game changers of the economy.

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