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In Conversation: The Agile Advantage of Using Interim Talent with Thom Cunningham-Burley

by Georgia Smith November 14, 2023
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The Director of Consulting at business consulting firm Freshminds discusses how a team blend of interim and permanent employees gives organisations an agile edge. 

In this interview, we are joined by Thom Cunningham-Burley, who advises several leading corporate, professional and PE firms on their wider resourcing strategy. He speaks with James Callander, Managing Director at Freshminds, about how organisations can develop, manage and sustain agile teams. This is an edited transcription of awebinar

Reason 1: Finding expertise fast. 

James Callander: people on demand, particularly within the professional services world, can provide huge benefits - the most obvious is that you can tap into specific skills and expertise really quickly. Is that what clients are often looking for? 

Thom Cunningham-Burley: Yeah, I think that's often the introductory win that clients are looking to achieve when we first start talking to them.

If there's a specific need or a specific piece of work where perhaps the skills and experience don't exist within their core team, you’ll look for additional support - particularly when it comes to change and transformation work. This talent may be critical for the duration of that particular piece of work, but they're not necessarily going to be part of the core makeup of the organisation going forward.

They're needed acutely for a point in time. And that really lends itself to augmenting the teams on a more flexible and contingent basis. 

For example, we do quite a lot of work with M&A teams, and they might have high-intensity periods where there's an awful lot of analytical work to get done, and they need extra horsepower.

…Strategy and planning only gets you so far, but if there are three or four big goals to hit as an organisation, having a PMO or a special transformation team set up gives you more focus.

James Callander: Could you give us an example of where a very specific skill or experience was brought in and how this benefitted the clients? 

Thom Cunningham-Burley: Yeah, absolutely. We did a piece of work recently with a large consumer goods organisation who were looking to roll a product out into a new market. So, they were developing their go-to-market strategyin a region of the world that they didn't have a great deal of experience working in.

And they came to us to help them identify somebody who could bring that sort of market knowledge to the table and help them shape up their plans. In that instance, it was someone who had a combination of quite relevant consumer goods experience, and they had actually, in a previous role, undergone a very similar piece of work in that geographical area. 

So, they knew and understood the context of the market and the likely challenges that the organisation would face. Again, their input actually was just for three weeks, but it was enough to let them know that the plans that they were drawing up and, ultimately, were pointed in the right direction.

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Reason 2: Having full flexibility over team sizes. 

James Callander: So, I guess benefit number two is all around the flexible workforce: being able to dial up and dial down teams. 

Thom Cunningham-Burley:Yeah, given the last couple of years of enduring uncertainty, I think a lot of organisations have really come to the realisation that achieving a blend of core substantive teams and contingent-on-demand teams is probably the smart way forward.

Now, that sort of contingent workforce ratio will vary from organisation to organisation. But we're increasingly having conversations with heads of HR and operational leads within businesses where they are trying to optimise their agility.

Whereas in the past, they might have had 90 percent of fully staffed teams and 10 percent of ad hoc support, now that's probably moving more towards a sort of 80-20 or even a 70-30 blend, giving inherent flex within the team, which is good. 

It's good for productivity. It's good for resilience, and it just makes us a bit more agile and a bit quicker to respond when we need to.

James Callander: Yes. And I'm sure that’s true if you zoom out to the broader professional services, whether it’s the world of legal or HR.

Reason 3: Enabling deep focus during projects.

James Callander: We've spoken of experience, we've spoken a bit on the flexibility side of things, but you also cite this notion of deep focus as being a real benefit. Could you tell us a little bit more about what your clients are experiencing around this benefit?

Thom Cunningham-Burley: The focus point, I think, is best summarised by the fact that I'm sure anyone who works in change and transformation knows and understands that actually, the number of change and transformation projects that are deemed to be successful or that they have fully realised the change and the impact that they set out to is probably lower than all of us would like.

Part of that is down to the fact that all too often, many of these critical projects or programs of work are tacked on to people's other business-as-usual responsibilities. Everyone has core elements of their job that demand and require focus, so how can they manage additional responsibilities?

Now, for change and transformation, in particular, to be done well, it needs to be somebody's top job. And that's really where, again, bringing in the individual who is going to be able to hold the pen on that particular issue. And by doing that, you are more likely to give that particular problem focus and ensure you get the impact out of that piece of work.

James Callander: It is clear that strategy and planning only get you so far, but if there are three or four big goals to hit as an organisation, having a PMO or a special transformation team set up gives you more focus and ensures that execution and delivery are front and centre in any sort of corporate change program.

Thom Cunningham-Burley:I think so, and there's a real secondary benefit, too. By employing targeted resources in your teams, you give a real opportunity for knowledge transfer back to your employees and the organisation as a whole. 

And that may mean then, for future iterations or for future instances where those skills and that approach might be needed again, your organisation has acquired and retained a little bit more of that capability themselves.

Reason 4: Embracing diversity of thought.

James Callander: This leads us to your fourth benefit, which was diversity of thought and diversity of team.

If we look at Freshminds and the overall landscape, diversity and inclusion have been a very big topic for the last 15 to 20 years, but how is that impacting interim talent now?

Thom Cunningham-Burley: Absolutely, and we could do a whole series of conversations just about this topic. There are enormous wins available to organisations using contingent and flexible resourcing models when it comes to diversity.

I'll probably split it into two key questions. The first is, can we make our own organisation, our own workforce more diverse? And I think the real obvious win is that by engaging people on a project-by-project basis, suddenly, you've got access to global pools of talent that you probably don't have access to otherwise.

A good example of that is a consultant who we've worked with probably on 20 or 30 projects over the past few years.

He’s absolutely top of his strategy game. But he’s also a scriptwriter, and he likes to spend large chunks of time pursuing that. This means he's not in the market for a permanent strategy role, but he is in the market for projects. And that just works brilliantly. Or if you want to engage global talent in places like Singapore, while that might be more difficult in a permanent role for an eight-week project, it’s totally doable. 

We see so many people at different points of their careers, from super senior at the partner level to consultants to recently graduated analysts. There are different benefits for everybody. 

And then the second question around diversity is, do you have diversity of thought in your team? Contingent talent gives you the opportunity to bring people onto projects whose own sort of professional experience may be different - this can lead to some really impressive outcomes through a cross-pollination of ideas.

James Callander: And also, I assume that includes wider pools of skills, whether that be sector-specific, functional, or even past experience. 
Thom Cunningham-Burley: Absolutely. And being able to tailor that to the context of the core team that you've got in place is important. There might be an opportunity to bring in a fresh perspective or a different lens that is going to help that group of people deliver on their goals. 

We see those wins all the time - those are definitely the good days on the job. 

James Callander: And finally, something I like to ask all my guests is, what's the sort of top business book you might recommend?

Thom Cunningham-Burley: I think one that I have been enjoying, both in book and audio form at the moment, is Michael Barber's book called Accomplishment. It's actually a series of interviews with a fascinating group of people who take on big challenges across business, sport, and the arts.

I would recommend that. 

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