It's a well-established fact that the independent / freelance workforce is growing fast. According to Edelman Beland and Freelancers Union, freelancers in the US account for 34% of the total workforce. According to Eurostat data, there are 8.5 million Independent Professionals across the 27 Member States of the EU. They represent 4% of the working population. But between 2000 and 2011, the freelance population rose by more than 82%, whereas the percentage of those traditionally-employed tended to stagnate.
This means most organizations at some point in their life-cycle have or will hire independent skill-force to complement their team. At a-connect owing to our business model, we have seen a large variety of situations and have learnt a lot of how Independent Professionals work with different client teams. This post is aimed to share some of our insights around: How do you successfully integrate one or several Independent Professionals (IPs) into a project team?
Fundamental frame: outsourcing vs. insourcing
Increasingly at a-connect we see that clients want to take ownership of the project. Coupled with the fact of a cost-sensitive external environment, clients often deploy few internal resources that will spend dedicated or a part of their time on projects. In context of such a setup, in our view, the fundamental frame while working with IPs is to view their engagement as "insourcing specific skillset, knowledge &/or capabilities" vs. "outsourcing your problem to them". This is a critical mindset that needs to be embedded as you aim to engage an IP. This also helps to maximize knowledge transfer and in building internal capabilities.
4C framework of integrating Independent Professionals into a project team
Over the last 13 years, a-connect has delivered 2,500+ projects across geographies, cultures, industry sectors and functions. While a project never has only one success factor, we have learnt a few lessons and have articulated critical pointers and pragmatic tips to ensure that an IP's engagement is impactful.
CHOICE: Know and define what you are looking for and ensure participation in hand-picking the right person(s)
- Define a clear purpose on "why" you need an IP in the first place. Talk to your team to define specific capabilities/skills, expertise or experience you need and the role the IP will play.
- Often in project based engagements, you choose an IP without having a chance to meet/discuss with the professional before-hand. Ensure you take time to interview (like you would for an employee). We have often seen that at a-connect, we have found an ideal professional for the team in terms of profile, but a critical component is the personality fit that is a deal-breaker and therefore an interview discussion is paramount to assessing the professional / team of professionals that you will get to work with your team.
- The IP(s) need to have a mix of skills & experiences that are similar as well as complementary to the client team. The similar skills create immediate trust and facilitate evaluation of the professional. Complementary skills bring the critical value of an external team member(s) and the critical additional capability base and lens.
COMMUNICATION: Align on project success and ensure expectation setting and effective communication mechanism
- Conduct 1:1s with project team members (e.g., executive sponsors, project leaders, team members, etc.) to introduce the professional and most importantly hear from their perspective what it will take to successfully implement the project. This will allow you to assess the level of engagement, identify disconnects and priorities.
- Set aligned timelines and goals. The IP(s) need to come in and drive with sense of urgency and demanding goals. However, at times a gap could exist between the client team's and IP(s)' work rhythm and goals which could lead to an alienation of the IP(s).
- As IPs, hit the ground running and add value quickly in order to build support, trust and respect. For example, within the first week develop a plan of action for the team with clear timelines, deliverables and expectations. This can be especially useful for stagnant/bottlenecked or ambiguous projects.
- In general whenever initial challenges are faced, two simple pointers help: 1) Over-communicate than under-communicate. 2)…and pick up the phone vs. sending emails!
- Ensure you take time to communicate feedback frequently, especially within the first weeks, which will help both parties to build rapport, and course-correct where necessary for an impactful support.
COLLABORATION & CO-OPERATION: Invest in building a personal relationship
- Build a personal relationship. Clients want to work with IPs that they feel add value, and that they appreciate and like personally. This does not mean a strong personal bond, it just means a good working relationship where the client can be confident that they understand the IP's values, and can therefore be confident that the IP will do their best in producing quality and in supporting the project team.
- When you bring on an IP into a large project team, take time to identify roles within the team which will play a key step in seamlessly integrating the IP into the client team
- As a client, ensure you have an internal team member who is working day-to-day with the IP.
CULTURE: Integrate IPs into your company culture like you would with your employee
- Understanding and aligning to organizational culture and dynamics is a key to enabling and equipping the IP(s) to add value and become a trusted partner to the client team.
- As an IP, understand and be sensitive to the underlying politics of any client team. Any situation will have competing interests driven by organizational politics, or personal ambitions for career advancement. It is critical for the IP to understand those dynamics, and to use these factors in adjusting their engagement plan. This will be helpful in order to navigate potential landmines, but avoid participation in them will be key to remain neutral.
As clients, it is important to view IPs as a critical and unique piece on your talent chess board and keep the above mindset and framework in mind for an impactful engagement. Over the last 13 years, a-connect has been helping leading businesses to discover new ways of connecting with exceptional people, maintaining the core belief that access to talent is more important than its ownership.