Managing On-Demand Talent
To stay nimble and competitive, many organizations today rely on expert talent sourced from anywhere in the world, in a variety of ways that fall outside the traditional employment model. The globalization of talent and technology frees up companies to experiment with new ways of filling critical skill gaps while staying lean. We call this phenomenon agile talent.
Our research, which is the basis for our new book Agile Talent, found that over half executives report increasing their use of outside expertise and sourcing talent from “the cloud.” While cost is clearly a consideration, managers describe the primary benefits of agile talent as increasing flexibility, speed, and innovation. In short: it’s better, not cheaper.
While agile talent can be a game changer for organizations, it’s not a panacea. Nor is there a single common model for managing it. In our work, we’ve found that organizations seem to take one of three paths: agile talent as the exception (a mostly traditional workforce of full-time employees with limited use of “cloud resourcing”); as strategic augmentation (an increased use of agile talent, particularly to fulfill fast-changing strategic capabilities); and as a total workforce strategy (a transformational approach characterized by employing a mostly agile workforce).
The middle path, the model emphasizing strategic augmentation, is the one that particularly interests us and that we increasingly see used in top organizations. Few companies are shifting in the direction of agile talent as a total workforce strategy, at least currently. But in a recent series of workshops with line managers and HR executives, over half the people described their organizations as moving slowly but inexorably toward employing agile talent to extend their capabilities in fast-moving strategic areas — for example, Apple in design, Rolls-Royce Aerospace in engineering, and Workday in system implementation.
The decision to venture away from traditional staffing models and invest in greater dependence on agile talent is, of course, made by senior management. But effective implementation falls, not surprisingly, to middle managers. In our work with organizations, we have found seven things managers do that set up their external experts for success:
Build a talent network. The actor Rob Lowe once said it straight: “Ninety percent of moviemaking is casting.” Mid-level managers depending on Procurement or Human Resources to find agile talent are behind the curve; smart middle managers tend to their network as a means of ensuring the right agile talent — with the right technical skill and way of working — is hired. These managers are relationship builders who understand the importance of thinking ahead about the skills required by their organization. They are attentive to their talent network and invest time and effort in expanding it and keeping it up to date.
Kickstart the work and relationships. Good managers know that external hires need an onboarding experience that lets the work start fast and strong: clear goals, well-defined schedules and milestones, agreement on performance expectations, and early investment in agile working relationships with internal colleagues. While thinking about onboarding talent that you don’t even “own” is counterintuitive, the likelihood of project success falls significantly when agile talent operates without a clear understanding of the work and their role. In our research, only a third of executives describe their organization as effective on this dimension.
Manage the politics. For traditional organizations, bringing on agile talent creates internal politics. Agile talent is a concern for many employees who wonder whether their jobs are now at risk, and a worry for executives who wonder whether their role and influence will be diminished. Competent middle managers know this and anticipate it, and are successful in finding ways to avoid creating winners and losers. For example, being clear that agile talent is a supplement, not a replacement, for internal staff is critical, as is explaining to others in the organization the strategic benefits of agile talent — such as access to new technology, speed, market discipline, and flexibility — rather than emphasizing any cost savings.
Think of talent as partners, not clients. Top expertise has never been more in demand. Good managers understand that outstanding external experts often have their pick of opportunities. And recruiting/talent agency firms like 10X and TOPTAL offer the stronger technical experts a wide range of opportunity. Middle managers need to establish a win/win partnership relationship with agile talent, one where both parties feel a stake in one another’s success. A recent article, “Why an Ex-Google Coder Makes Twice as Much Freelancing,” makes clear that mission is just as important as money. Says one top coder, “We get called to do mission-critical things that will make or lose the company a lot of money. It’s like you get a seat at the New York Philharmonic. Now every performer is performing at their top level…”
Be a talent developer. Yes, managers of agile talent need to coach and invest in the development of their external experts. Good managers coach their external talent to work effectively within the organization and provide ongoing feedback and respond to calls and emails in a timely manner. And managers develop their own internal people by ensuring that top agile talent leaves behind some of their expertise through formal and informal training.
Ask for feedback from everyone affected by your agile talent decisions. It’s not enough for your team to hit its marks; it has to be committed to the success of the teams it depends on and those that depend on it. That, in turn, means you have to be attentive and connected to those other teams and invest in building those individual relationships. Closely related to this is the importance of after-action review: getting agile talent right depends on continuous improvement in selecting the right talent, building the partnership, and figuring out how the work is planned, communicated, and executed.
Nudge the system toward better alignment. We say “nudge” rather than “steer” or “lead” because middle managers don’t have the license or authority to drive big system changes. But they can nudge around the edges of the work system and drive helpful changes that reduce friction. A good manager in this model of agile talent remembers Casey Stengel’s explanation of good baseball club management: “I try not to trip my players on their way out of the dugout.”
While the transformation of today’s workforce to a mostly agile one will take time, many more organizations are ramping up their use of “expertise on tap” in order to acquire and master the capabilities they need to perform and grow. Managers who focus on the practices above will thrive and build teams that outperform in the digital, connected world of talent.
This article was originally published on Harvard Business Review.