Richard Longstreet on recruiting consultants in a gig economy

05 September 2019 7 min. read
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Rapidly digitalising work, a shortage of talent, and an ageing population mean recruitment as the world knew it must adapt to survive the coming era. Following a career in consulting, Richard Longstreet heads the management consulting practice of executive search firm 3Search, and sat with to explore how recruitment and independent consulting are evolving.

You’ve been headhunting (experienced consultants) for several years now. What notable changes in preferences are you seeing among consultants?

Increasingly, we’re seeing that consultants are considering company culture when deciding whether to put forward an application to a company. As well as asking us as a recruiter about the company, they’re also doing plenty of their own research. Glassdoor has obviously been around for a while, but we’re seeing more and more consultants use it as a point of reference, along with the company’s career pages, and speaking with any connections already in the business, when deciding whether to apply.

A lot of consultants are also more interested in developing a greater breadth of experience than before. In consulting, to progress within a business it pays to be a specialist in one area (whether that’s skill-based, or sector-based), but increasingly we’re seeing candidates looking to maintain a broad skillset and work across multiple sectors.

Richard Longstreet, Manager at 3Search

There’s a combination of factors that have contributed to this, I think. Firstly, company loyalty is decreasing, so consultants don’t feel the need to toe the company line to move their careers forwards. Secondly, one of the perks of consulting is the variety that it can offer: different clients with different challenges. Building a ‘portfolio career’ is a great way to continue to gain new experiences, and to challenge yourself. Lastly, I think there has been more of a movement to the ‘gig economy’ in the past few years, where consultants are working independently, giving them the freedom to pick and choose the projects they work on, rather than having to work on whatever projects the company sold. Working independently also gives consultants the feeling of greater autonomy and ownership over their work, and they’re definitely owning their career path.

Statistics show that a growing number of consultants are going freelance. What are some of the main reasons that you come across in your discussions?

There are many reasons that consultants are going freelance. I’ve touched on a couple above (ownership of delivery & career), but there is also the flexibility of taking on projects when you want, for as long as you want, and giving yourself the opportunity to work on side-projects, or take holidays etc. Particularly at a more senior level, one motivation for moving freelance is that the focus is very much on project delivery, rather than on business development, side-of-desk work, and sales. This ties in to another reason we see consultants going independent: to move away from the politics and bureaucracy of working in a consultancy. Lastly, there is the obviously potential financial benefit of working freelance – although there is a risk associated to this too!

Going freelance is not easy – despite the perks, many are left disillusioned. What do you advise to consultants considering the jump?

Firstly, do your research and prepare prior to making the jump. Think about how much you’d need to get by before the first project comes in, where that first project is going to come from, and whether you’re logistically all set up to work independently. Consider whether you’re going to focus your efforts on one particular niche, or whether you’d rather be a generalist, and think about how you’ll build your brand around that. It’s particularly worth spending time thinking about where you’re going to source projects to work on: can you leverage your existing network (including clients and ex-colleagues), have you spoken to recruiters already, are you signed up to job boards etc.? Having a plan in place will help relieve any stress if there’s a delay before you start your first project.

Through the rise of professionalised networks such as Eden McCallum, Comatch, B2E Consulting and Movemeon, the lines between firms and independents are converging. To what extent are you seeing this development in your work?

It’s a really interesting space to be working in. Technology has obviously contributed to the launch of platforms like Movemeon and Comatch, and there are a few other ‘hybrid’ recruitment/consulting firms as well, who can deploy teams of ex-consultants to deliver consulting engagements (both shorter, sharper strategic engagements and longer transformation projects) – this is effectively what we provide with our interim proposition which we launched earlier this year.

One-fifth of the consulting revenue in the UK last year was spent on independent consultants, demonstrating a client need for freelance consultants, so naturally there are companies looking to help clients access the best talent in the market and make a profit while doing so. This trend could continue, with clients increasingly becoming frustrated at some of the larger consultancies for not delivering value quickly, for pitching the A-team but sending the reserves etc. Freelance consultants generally represent a simpler way of working.

I think it is also worth noting that, with more freelance consultants in the market, clients have access to a greater number of high-calibre consultants than they might have had previously. When clients see the value that freelancers bring, this can lead to more opportunities going to freelance consultants, which I think is contributing to the growth of the freelance market.

How are the consulting firms you speak with preparing for the gig-economy trend?

A lot are already taking advantage of the gig-economy. The Big Four are leaning on their associate networks, employing consultants (who they have trained previously) on a day-rate basis for project delivery. Some smaller consultancies have built up a team with a strong, central skillset, and rely on associates to provide more niche skillsets or SME knowledge as required. Using the gig-economy also allows the smaller consultancies to compete for larger pieces of work, as they can rely on their associate network to scale their project teams as needed. It is precisely for this reason that we’ve launched our Virtual Bench proposition, where we’ve already built a network of ex-management consultants to help smaller consultancies scale their project teams.

I think that we will see consultancies put more structure and rigour in place on their use of associates as the gig-economy trend continues to grow.

After a few years of freelancing, independents typically miss a team environment. What are things consultants should consider when moving back into consulting?

This isn’t necessarily something we’ve seen as much, as there are a number of consultants in our network who, having made the move freelance, who can’t think of anything worse than going back into a consultancy.

That said, being a freelancer isn’t for everyone, it can be stressful, and a lot of people don’t enjoy the insecurity of semi-constantly having to look for your next project. If you are looking at going back into a consultancy then it is worth considering what you want to get out of that: is it career progression, is it the chance to feel part of a larger organization, is it that you want to learn from others in the business? Have a plan in place for what you want to get out of your time there.

It’s worth mentioning that a number of our clients are less keen on bringing in ex-freelance consultants as they are concerned that they’re out the loop of representing a consultancy to a client (as they’ve spent so much time representing themselves and their personal brand to the client).