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How to De-Risk Working with a Freelance Management Consultant

The world is changing rapidly, and the way that companies operate within it needs to shift as well. More than ever, organizations are using independent experts and freelance management consultants to address critical challenges.

In a recent webinar, I addressed some of the typical issues that arise when working with a freelance management consultant. Here are the key insights. 

Trends in an Evolving Business Landscape

Although many companies use independent consultants and freelance experts to help them solve critical challenges, the practice is still relatively new. At Malt Strategy, we expect to see the importance of independent consultants continue to increase. That’s because the way that work gets done has changed—and so have the people doing the work. 

Experts point to these key trends:

  1. Projects require true specialists. Niche experts are needed are needed now more than ever, and this is particularly true of digitization. Consider examples like data analysis experts, Google search engine advisors, and CRM strategists. The world of generalists is ending, and the need for specialized expertise will continue to grow.
  2. Companies become Flash Organizations. Increasingly, businesses “think” in projects, especially cross-departmental ones— otherwise known as Flash Organizations. Using the area of digitization as an example, organizations can use Flash Organizations to take on complex and data-based projects in a more resilient and agile way. 
  3. Remote work is here to stay. The COVID-19 pandemic offers proof that remote setups actually work. No. Not only are companies more accepting of remote workers, but they understand the opportunities that remote setups can provide. Now, people can work with professionals based on talent alone with fewer constraints due to region, time zone, etc. Travel costs matter less than capabilities. 

Additionally, the war for talent is increasing. Companies are experiencing a severe shortage of qualified employees, with research pointing to 14,000 current openings. At the same time, the “lifetime employer” cult is ending. The average job tenure in the U.S. is 4.2 years, and it’s even shorter for start-ups or other businesses that attract Millennials. This generation, along with older and younger age groups, is increasingly drawn to other employment formats: namely freelance work. Currently, 36% of the U.S. workforce and 14% of the European workforce operate as freelance professionals. 

In short, freelancers are becoming a more important part of our economy and the business landscape as a whole. That’s why, according to HBR, 90% of business leaders report that talent platforms will be important to their future competitive advantage. 

Independent consultants are poised to tackle change, but they need to be used effectively to help business leaders cope with modern challenges. 

Independent Consultants: Risks and Reality Checks

What does it mean to leverage the skills of an independent consultant “effectively”? Are there certain arrangements that lead to better outcomes? How can you “de-risk” working with independent consultants? And just as importantly, how can you optimize the arrangement and maximize the full potential of experts you hire? 

We’ve helped thousands of clients find experts for their most important engagements, thus we've gained a unique perspective into the challenges and preconceptions many organizations have around working with freelance management consultants. 

Here are a few of the fears that executives cite prior to hiring a freelance expert: 

  1. Independent consultants are complicated to hire. The fact is, that’s true for a lot of businesses. For those who try to complete the process themselves without using a platform, it can be difficult to find the right people, settle on fees, put together the contract, etc. A company like Malt Strategy provides support and assistance to ensure you have the right consultant—and all administrative tasks are taken care of by the platform. Working with a consultant marketplace will yield better results and make it easier to navigate the entire process. 
  2. Independent consultants are not as “good” as traditional consultancies. As with anyone you’d hire, you need to make sure experts are qualified. This is true of a traditional consultancy or independent consultant. Platforms can help remove this risk by doing the qualifying for you. For example, Malt Strategy has an extensive 5-step candidate selection process and ongoing project evaluations. The fact is that a marketplace is more selective (at Malt Strategy only the top 1% of freelancers in Europe are in our marketplace) so you can be sure that any independent consultant you hire is every bit as talented as those at larger firms. 
  3. Freelancers won’t integrate into my team (or their personality/working type isn’t a fit). That fear is present no matter who you bring into your organization—whether an independent consultant or full-time employee. But, you spend a lot more time hiring a full-time person. I recommend conducting an extensive interview that evaluates more than hard skills. Look for emotional intelligence and past experiences with organizations like yours. For example, if you are planning a change management project, you’ll want a diplomatic person who’s attentive to the needs of others. Someone with a background in fast-paced, decisive start-ups likely isn't a fit. 
  4. Independent teams are not as effective because they’ve never worked together before. It’s true that there are instances where teams of independent consultants are working together for the first time. However, most people would be surprised to know that this is the case in traditional consultancies as well. Sometimes these teams meet the Monday the project begins! To combat this, at Malt Strategy we carefully select project managers who will hand-pick their team based on skills, specialties, and working styles. This is a proven best practice that has led to successful outcomes for projects of every type. 

Consultant Use Cases

Independent consultants are incredibly versatile, and we’ve just addressed the most common stereotypes. So does that mean they’re ideal for every situation? Probably not.  A traditional consulting firm is best when the following factors should be considered: 

  • Reputation: If the success of the project output strongly depends on the reputation of the consulting brand, consider a top-tier firm. For example, if you are the owner of a company positioning a restructuring, a consultancy might be able to communicate your wishes with more expertise and authority. You can essentially save your own reputation so that you can remain a trusted leader in your organization moving forward. 
  • Benchmarking: When projects require extensive back-office or benchmarking figures, it may make sense to rely on a more traditional consulting firm. Independent consultants aren’t likely to have benchmark data on hand. They can perform the research, but that’s not always cost-effective or a good use of time. Bigger firms will have less expensive researchers where your company can profit from a daily rate, as well as more established benchmarking figures. 
  • Project steering: Occasionally projects are conducted across many regions or time zones. That requires a special kind of central steering that can prove too much for one independent consultant. 
  • Team size: Sometimes it’s as simple as needing a bigger team. If the project is more complex and a large group of resources is required, independent consultants are not the best choice. 

There are also plenty of times when a freelance management consultant offers an option that’s not only competitive but preferable. Some of those occasions include: 

  • If you only need one or two consultants to execute the project. Bigger firms are actually less likely to take on small projects, and independent consultants can be more flexible in how a project is set up. For smaller engagements, you can hand-select the talent you want to work with. Companies looking for one or two consultants can focus on knowledge and skills rather than the brand of the firm. 
  • When you need to stay in the driver’s seat. Sometimes consultancies move faster than an organization is ready to. Independent consultants allow business leaders to stay in control and remain integral to all discussions. This also makes it easier to have a blended team of consultants and your own team, which has proven crucial to project success. 
  • Testing out a future employee. A consulting arrangement allows you to “ride along” with the person to see if they’re truly a fit. If not, the relationship can conclude when the project is done. But if the working relationship proves successful, you can transition to full-time employment more easily. 
  • Projects that require niche expertise. As we mentioned earlier in the article, these scenarios are likely to increase in the future. If there’s a specific skill set that’s needed for a certain project or timeframe, a platform can make it easier to find and collaborate with freelance management consultants. 
  • When you want to use your budget more efficiently. Part of business is facing budget constraints. Independent consultants are normally less costly than firms because they have much lower overhead. Furthermore, with a consulting platform, there is competition between qualified consultants. If they’re all interested in your work, they are likely to offer you a fair and competitive daily rate.

Best Practices for Success with Independent Consultants

Fortunately, there are plenty of proven best practices we can apply to working with freelance management consultants. Your best chances of success occur when you take time for the following: 

  1. A real interview process - When you talk to candidates, don’t just focus on hard skills. Dig into the consultant’s approach—how will they handle the project, and what do they see as levers for success or potential hurdles? You also want to gauge their personality fit. What is their working style? Do they have experience in a similar business environment? Finally, make sure you cover motivation. Why is the project interesting to the individual? What would get them up in the morning?
  2. Thorough project setup - Be very clear on what you want to achieve and when. It’s essential that the problem is clearly defined from the beginning. If the scope is not defined (and bought into), projects tend to go badly. Make sure to fill in a problem definition sheet to ensure to ensure that success criteria and goals are clear and aligned. Then make sure your internal employees are integrated. Results that come from integrated teams are significantly better than from independent consultants or employee groups alone. 
  3. Consultant onboarding - After you hire the independent consultant, how do they engage with your company? Ensure that they receive a proper welcome, and assign an internal counterpart that will be present for much of the project work (at least 30-50% of their time). Introduce freelance management consultants to key people as soon as possible, especially when data is involved. Plan to communicate frequently and honestly right from the start. We suggest beginning with a weekly check-in where you can gather feedback and discuss issues openly. 

If you are looking for an independent consultant who can help you to achieve your goals, then I recommend using a matching service like Malt Strategy to greatly increase your chances of initial success and lasting results. If you're interested in learning more about how to de-risk working with a freelance management consultant, then please get in touch.