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Contractors, Consultants, Interims, can you spot the difference?

Contractors? Interims? Consultants? What is the right terminology? And are you one? And how do you decide what to call yourself? As a recruiter, I tend to work with Interims, most of them call themselves Professional Interims and have taken the conscious decision to become an Interim. Then there are people who have been a victim of circumstance and despite their best efforts in looking for a permanent job, they’ve not found it and have taken jobs that don’t offer a permanent contract for whatever reason. Which then leaves Consultants, do they usually work for a Limited company and charge themselves out to work on various projects? But there are such blurred lines between the three. And then there is the association of who you’ve known in the past and what they’ve called themselves, am I right in saying that usually shapes your perception? It did for me anyway. 

I worked for a business who was going through the most difficult time I’d ever known. Price inflation was making margins minimal, machinery was flat out with no down time for planned maintenance so it was constantly breaking down. Every day we’d short at least one of our customers who in turn were increasing the amount of audits they’d be doing and then throw in an unannounced audit, chaos was the polite word for it. And people paid the price. You’d go into work one day and someone’s desk would be cleared, no explanation and no warning that they’d not be returning. If anyone was genuinely off sick, your first thought was that they’d left the business. The majority of the Interim people were Operations and Technical, both office and factory based. 5S, Lean Manufacturing, all seemed very text book ways of talking but time would tell if the new ways of working made a difference. And then some Consultants arrived to help turn things around. They never introduced themselves to the office staff, they took over a meeting room and brought with them a collection of white boards, flip charts and kept it all behind closed doors. They wouldn’t speak when you saw them in the kitchen, avoiding all eye contact, they were always there when you arrived in the morning, and they were still behind the closed door when you left the office gone 7pm.  

As most of you know who have dealt with the major supermarkets, “Cost Saving Initiatives” or “Cost Out” is such a huge focus for food & drink manufacturers. So when you’re challenged by a retailer to “find £1,000,000” you get a team together and start brain storming. It was then that the door of the mystery meeting room opened, it was like a moment from “Stars in their eyes”……Tonight Matthew! We all watched with intrigue as one of the Consultants joined us to help us “find” the missing £1m. We had high expectations and were confident that he’d come along with a huge amount of new ideas and initiatives, because what else had they been doing with all the white boards and flip charts? He didn’t introduce himself but he certainly brought some ideas to the table and a great idea for a spreadsheet. And as he start talking, you could see the excitement of the interaction, it was like he’d been in solitary confinement for months, “Tonight Matthew I’m going to be interacting with people face to face”, oh the excitement he must have felt. But as he started to speak, a habit of his appeared. The end of the pen he was using was against his face and the more animated he became, the more he moved the pen round his face, across his cheek, over his forehead, down to his mouth and then chewed it. And then the pen went on its travels again. And this carried on for some time. I’m not sure at what point the pen started to leak ink but we watched with amazement and intrigue as the ink mapped out the route across his face. Whatever ideas he had to take cost out of the business, to this day I don’t remember any of them. I just remember trying not to snigger when a colleague of mine said “Oh I think you’ve got a little something on your face?”. A little something? I went from being a Commercial Manager dealing with a multimillion pound account to a child who was trying to stifle laughter. 

Needless to say, the Consultant never came to another Cost Saving Initiative meeting. And we ploughed on with trying to find cost savings without compromising the quality of the product, without reducing shelf life or increasing waste. But the majority of the Interims who joined us, fitted in perfectly, introduced themselves around the open plan office, came to taste panels, came to customer meetings, were great at communicating and added a huge amount of value in terms of both new ways of thinking but also helped enormously with morale which was incredibly low.  

So I guess it doesn’t matter what you call yourself, Consultant, Interim, Contractor. What does matter is communication and how you treat people as people are more effective when working as part of a team, not as individuals.