Not all independent consultants are the same
“Professional, experienced independent consultants have Firms: legal entities, websites and LinkedIn presences that they actively manage. I have noticed common themes among successful independent consultant firms and am happy to share them, in the context of an evolving market.”
Never before did organizations need to act faster and better to have the right workforce, now. To attract and retain in-house talent, solid value propositions must be in place. Such propositions need advancement prospects that are real and within reach, for talent to opt in. That is hard to offer broadly, since there are only so many leadership roles. Oftentimes, high-quality competences are needed on a point basis, and they do not necessarily need to belong to your organization.
The market of independent professionals is booming, and perceived harder to navigate. How do you find what specific high-quality people you need, when you need them? This article offers you a perspective.
Let us look at three traditional people sourcing options:
You can go for volume, expanding the budget you have to get many days of work that you manage and coordinate yourself. Lower cost days can be found via service providers or directly on portals, wherefrom you can source talent fast. You can find independents individually or through a freelance service provider. Either way, you can switch people as you want or need to. Buying much time typically comes with high internal cost, as new staff requires extensive onboarding and introduction, orientation and direction. It also comes with risks for unnecessary work generation, organizational confusion, or impact to your department’s brand.
To prevent those downsides, you can go high on your specification, selecting from people who show you evidence that they have done exactly what you need doing, in other places. There are consultant networks with very large talent pools that can help you in the selection, for an embedded fee. Such companies, as well as the higher specification, will cost more. The process to find and select consultants is longer, but then they will work more independently and carry less risk. Engaging them will take time prior to start, and delivery will be faster. If you need more than one person and pick them individually you need to make them a team and direct their efforts. If you source a team from an organization, you often get a package of one expert with a team of people who more or less learn-on-the job, at your expense; in this case, you typically never see that learning as they will effectively portray a higher level of expertise during interactions.
You can obtain recommendations from your procurement, your HR or from your external network. Your match will be as good as your precise expression of need, multiplied with the mix of people and organizations that are covered as you ask around, multiplied with the precision of the expressed recommendations you get. The resulting consultant(s) may have a high “like” factor, but may not be the people that best fit for you as this approach contains a great deal of chance.
The question of whether to buy consultants individually, through consultant networks or from traditional professional services organizations is pressuring all executives. Categorically going with preferred suppliers is generally right, but not so in all specific situations. The main argument, other than the difficulty of fit, are price and effectiveness. A gigantic consultant talent pool is currently on the market. A very large portion of it is of the same caliber of people, people who worked for firms like Accenture or McKinsey who now work independently.
Let us look at a few generic independent types:
People who take gigs do so because they can; they often appreciate the clear roll-on and roll-off dates and use them to pursue non-work activities in between projects. Often, they leverage niche expertise gained under employment, which they can do with regularity, flexibility and ease. Their price is good for them and good for you, provided your work is an exact match with their skill. Selecting a gig-taker is a matter of personal match, since you can trust them to deliver on their offering.
Some professionals go independent because something happened in the organization they worked and because they know too much to be entirely let go. With time they tend to find another few clients so that when work with one client ebbs out, they treat other clients until the next 3–9-month gig is obtained. Work statements for long-timers tend to be less prescriptive since less formality is needed; there is a long-standing mutual understanding of businesses and abilities. Work statements are often renewed.
Entrants are common in 2023, post-pandemic, one year into a European war and following global re-acquaintance with inflation. There are different reasons for entry and the past years were lucrative for freelancing in many geographies. Markets are now contracting and it is reasonable to believe that not all new entrants will persist. One way to get a footing into the business is to go low on rate. Another is to aggressively sell and re-use concepts and solutions from prior employment or from one client to another. You can easily spot entrants and I you see the risks with engaging them; I would just highlight it to you that there are some entry dynamics going on now. Confidence is not the same as competence.
Professional, experienced independent consultants have firms: legal entities with or without a brand (different to the person) and possibly with few employed staff or a network of people they sub-contract. Some Firms have websites that they actively manage. Some publish content and are active on LinkedIn. Here are a few common themes I have noticed among successful independent consultant firms:
The founder has started businesses before and does significant up-front business definition prior to launch. The firm has a clear value proposition, a clear set of target customers, and works actively on the steps it takes to establish and promote the business.
The founder comes from a significant employed consulting career, often from MBB (McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, and Bain & Company) from where he or she built a network of potential clients and learned to very strategically position themselves and select topics and projects to engage on.
The founder has been consulting independently for so long that he or she has organically shaped an identity of the Firm, which after many years of operating has been setup as a separate entity. This type of Firm tends to be highly specialized.
Combinations are possible. In my case, I almost started a business in 2018, I did set up a Firm for my consulting, I come from McKinsey and maintain a website and LinkedIn presence. I position myself as a strategic and hands-on, quick to pick up the essence of a situation, who works effectively to address needs covering topics of service strategy and design, strategic sourcing, vendor governance and financial performance.