Earlier this year, Protagion asked to hear your experiences of contracting and interim roles. We are particularly interested to learn why you choose these flexible, time-bound and often project-related opportunities, mostly available when employers want a specialist skillset to do work they feel is not part of business-as-usual (BAU). We also wanted to gain insight into whether you move between these roles and permanent positions, and how these roles fit into your past and envisaged career path. This article shares your experiences, including what you like best about contracting and interim work, and what you don’t like. We hope that it is a useful resource to others considering these roles.
The contracting mindset
Versus other markets I’ve experience of, contracting is significant in the United Kingdom, especially within the actuarial, IT and change / programme management functions. When I first arrived in the UK (post financial crisis) from South Africa where permanent roles were far more common, the distinction was immediately apparent, and it gave the office environment a different feel. Contractors made up a sizeable proportion of a number of teams I engaged with, explaining the influence of this "contracting mindset" - I was particularly struck by how employers themselves pushed for more contractors "for more flexibility" across a wide range of projects taking place, possibly driven by ongoing regulatory change. It worried me that companies weren’t developing their permanent staff to take on these new project opportunities, arguing that they didn’t wish to "disturb BAU".
Experiences as a hiring manager
As a hiring manager with department budget responsibility, I’d previously experienced working with contractors from one side only, and remember being surprised about the year-after-year costs of contractors within our team as well as on projects we sponsored. My personal view was that it was much better to have permanent, committed staff, who we would train and develop to add value over a multi-year (planned) horizon than a constantly changing rota of people dipping in and out. I particularly recall one conversation with an expert in the company’s secretarial team about my frustrations… She confessed that she loved contracting roles herself, and wished she could go back to being a 'specialist-for-hire'. I realised that the situation was far more nuanced than I’d assumed until then, but it didn’t stop me, tongue-in-cheek, nicknaming her 'mercenary' from then on.
Over my years in the UK, I also had staff members in my teams choosing to leave their permanent roles to take up contracts elsewhere, which encouraged me to reflect on the relationship between employers and employees, and how attractive our development opportunities were, for example. I hadn’t realised too how much contracting rates can fluctuate over time, having a significant impact on contractors – see one professional’s perspective on this under "Drawbacks" below.
Another practical example of the "contracting mindset" is the difference in attitude between one of the managers in my team, and one of my bosses: she felt that team activities like strategy days and teambuilding sessions were for permanent (BAU) people only, because contractors were paid a day-rate for specific output, and that we shouldn’t pay them for discussing the three-year business plans. He vehemently disagreed, saying that everyone in the office should celebrate together, as we all played a role in the team delivery and office environment. To me, the distinction about who should be involved in debating the future strategy depended on who would be there to deliver that strategy e.g. if it was a three-month contract, I could see little value (for the company and the individual) in taking time to participate in something not affecting them – not to mention the competitive considerations. If, however, the likely outcome was that the contract would extend long-term, then they should be part of crafting that future.
And now, supporting Protagion members who are contractors has given us additional insight into your hopes and dreams. The remainder of this article shares your views (both members and other contributors to the article) on contracting and interim positions.
As we approach the end of 2017, I wanted to share with you an article summarising a panel discussion on career ownership at the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries Asia Conference in Hong Kong in May this year. It was chaired by Yanum Venkatrathnam (RGA), and the panelists were Mark Saunders (AIA Group), John Chen (Swiss Re Asia) and Ka-Mon Wong (Axa Asia).
Reading the words of the panelists brought back good memories, reminding me particularly of Asian culture – I especially enjoyed leading project teams, launching products, and working with local distribution and marketing experts in the East. The panel discussion brought to mind the sense of respect and sacrifice/dedication in many Asian workplaces.
In the discussion, respect was shown to the people who affected the panelists' careers, with references to both previous managers and Chen's PhD supervisor. And, personal sacrifice "in terms of time, energy, resilience and emotional effort" was highlighted as necessary "to become a true leader". I also found the eagerness to "create an impact" and "make a contribution to society by giving back" telling.
Other suggestions included:
The contrast between Asian culture and Western culture was also referenced: "Asian culture concentrates on performing well, earning good performance reviews and being given promotions based on being recognised as a valuable contributor by one’s managers" i.e. recognition and promotion stems from good performance which seniors will notice. However, Western culture expects more active behaviour, including "speaking out and advertising that you can handle the next role and that you wish to be considered for it". This can be seen as too pushy/demanding/aggressive/entitled in Asian contexts. Wong (who has worked in both cultural environments) explained that, "when prepared, she raises her hand, and shows her interest in a role". Saunders suggested "volunteering for projects" (rather than pushing for roles) to demonstrate how keen you are to get involved and work with other departments. He warned that relying solely on your seniors to notice your output can be challenging as "managers often cannot keep detailed track of everyone, especially in big teams".
The full article can be found here: http://www.theactuary.com/features/2017/09/take-charge-of-your-own-destiny/
We'd love to hear from our readers in Asia (across all professional backgrounds) whether these career lessons have applicability and relevance to you, especially given local approaches to work (by employees and employers), the economic environment (including high growth in China) and the shifting cultural norms over time. Please do share your experiences with us.
A thought-provoking article in Harvard Business Review by Dorie Clark that reminds us all of the positives of diversification, even in our careers, below.
The article describes five reasons for corporate employees to actively develop at least one alternative income stream (whether from consulting, speaking, mentoring or building a product/service):
1) As a hedge against uncertainty: a back-up plan if something does disrupt your company or industry
2) To learn new skills: helps you keep growing and can distinguish you from others
3) To build your network, especially outside of your company and industry: expanding your connections outside of your traditional areas "makes you both more resilient, and more valuable to others"
4) An enhancement to your brand, by signalling your self-motivation, thought leadership abilities, ambition and innovative perspective
5) To grow your income
It concludes with: "...even if you love your job and keep it forever, a small dose of entrepreneurship can teach you new skills and enrich your perspective, making you that much more indispensable at work".
I recently had a conversation with a friend about the benefits of multiple income streams, and he expressed surprise that I meant at work as well. He felt strongly that his employer would view it negatively and would penalise him for not being 'all-in' at work i.e. 'living and breathing' the company at all times. While I fully agree with not competing with your employer or being in other conflicts of interest situations, I do worry that complete dedication and loyalty may not be reciprocated. Sadly, sometimes the same 'possessive' companies are the ones planning redundancy exercises or recruiting for other executives to take over (part of) your role. Somehow income streams like letting your apartment, doing stand-up comedy gigs on weekends, or sharing your car with your neighbours for a fee are more acceptable.
Other difficulties or drawbacks include juggling multiple responsibilities and delivering well on all of them (including managing your time), the cost of keeping the income streams distinct (e.g. you may need a separate limited company for your consulting work), and any other administration involved in receiving the diversified income (such as invoicing).
Your thoughts on this topic? Is it realistic for a corporate executive to do both their day-job and other income-generating activities? And, are companies’ views towards it changing?