Evolution of Agile Talent Management
Two things happened in 2017 to change the way I think about the practise of interim management. The first was a routine approach to a client for permission to use our recent assignment as a case study for our website. Two of our interim managers had assisted with an awkward, but necessary transition within the client’s management team. Our client was hesitant at first. He was not sure he wanted it known that the company had needed external help. I had not been explicitly aware that business owners might attach some sort of stigma – a negative view of corporate capability – to using external management services. The second was my discovery of a new book by Jon Younger and Norm Smallwood, Agile Talent: How to Source & Manage Outside Experts (2016, Harvard Business Review Press). I wish these two events had happened in reverse order; then I could have assured my client, with authoritative backup, that his astute use of contract executives actually put him on the cutting edge of human resource management trends.
Younger and Smallwood’s publication is a research-based treatment of the emergent trends pushing progressive organizations toward the inclusion of agile (temporary, contract, interim) talent as part of their overall human resources strategy. The authors take the perspective of the contemporary enterprise that needs to integrate core competence, capability and flexibility into an adaptive structure that improves competitive advantage. Typical of an HBR publication, the research base and the illustrative examples are drawn from big business, but there is plenty of insight here that applies to small- and medium-sized enterprises as well. And while the focus is on the users of agile talent, those of us in the business of supplying that talent have lots to learn here. I won’t attempt a thorough review here, but I can touch on some the points that I find particularly relevant to interim management.
Younger, Smallwood and other researchers have documented the appearance of a “gigster” workforce – an important pool of expertise and skills that can and should be used in strategic as well as transactional roles. The reasons for utilizing the agile talent pool are summarized as: leveraging the increased availability of expertise, reducing cost, avoiding increases in permanent headcount, increasing the speed of getting things done and challenging the organization’s processes and assumptions with outside ideas. They say that it is important to understand that the members of this emerging workforce are not necessarily working on contract because they cannot find a permanent job. Many of them are motivated by taking on the “next cool project”. They are looking for autonomy, variety and balance in their working lives, rather than job security.
Intuitively, this makes sense to me. While it’s not for everyone, life as a professional “gigster” appealed to me early in my career. After university, I was hungry for experience and moved from one short-term employment situation to the next, always on the hunt for the next interesting and challenging project. I did put in my time mid-career on the corporate treadmill, but returned to contract work as an interim manager seven years ago. Younger and Smallwood got it right when they identified autonomy, variety and balance as primary career motivations at any stage of life.
Any enterprise will continue to need a central core of permanent, full-time, critical employees at all levels, but Younger and Smallwood maintain that, “… managers understand that agile, fast and lean strategies require that they think in new ways about accessing and leveraging key strategic talent for filing critical gaps in strategic capabilities.” Thus, they captured the essence of our interim management practice. As contract executives, we do accurately fit the book’s pigeon hole as providers of “agile capability”. As an aside here, I found the authors’ definition of capability to be among the more inspiring management concepts I’ve encountered, “Capability addresses the combination of competence and culture … to convert skill into the delivery of exceptional value.”
They also point out that, while the agile workforce exists and is growing, and the potential to use these resources to increase corporate capability is obvious, most organizations are not ready to take advantage. Even in very large enterprises, the role of “chief external talent officer” does not exist. They summarize seven conditions of corporate readiness for effective utilization of agile talent and contrast this to what contract professionals usually encounter in their temporary assignments. Not a pretty picture, but one that looks like reality to me, and probably to most practicing interim managers. This explains why so much energy needs to go into pre-contract proposal writing to prepare for a successful interim assignment.
The sub-title of the book includes “How to Source…” and this is the major weak point in the work. Beyond a few references to “tapping the cloud” and some discussion about how a company can make itself look like an attractive place for “gigsters” to work, there is not much here in the way of strategy or operational tactics if you are a company that needs agile talent. Those of us on the supply side of this situation need to organize to establish awareness of both the value proposition and availability of agile executives. At Osborne Interim Management, our particular niche in the agile talent market – well-qualified, experienced, senior contract managers – is not well known either to organizations seeking temporary executive services, or to executives who want to be available for contract work.
It is our mission to bridge the gap between a growing need for strategic capability and those who can provide it. Organizations like ours need to be, on one hand, the go-to resource for corporate clients and, on the other, the peer group and administrative support for external management expertise. I hope never again to have a client seem embarrassed to have reached out to fill that gap in strategic capability when it was, clearly, the right thing to do.
Managing Principal – British Columbia