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A growing crop of “supertemps” is changing the nature of work

High-end gig workers can transform your company—if you let them.

A growing crop of “supertemps” is changing the nature of work
[Images: jesadaphorn/iStock; Ganna Galata/iStock]

 A Life Science specialist who consults independently to earn a living–while hoping to hit it big on a startup venture.

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 An MBA-trained millennial who left a major consulting firm to broaden his skills and try out various fields of endeavor in search of the “perfect job.”

A former Big 3 consulting partner, who was tired of being responsible for securing business instead of solving clients’ problems.

They’re all “gig” workers, but not the kind you’re thinking of. They’re part of the fast-growing marketplace for high-end independent talent. MBO Partners estimates that the number of freelancers who make more than $100,000 annually grew to 3.3 million in 2018, up 70% from 2011.

The rising number and power of these “supertemps” is transforming the white-hot war for talent—and they may just give smaller, more nimble companies a huge advantage.

As the personal stories outlined above indicate, this diverse, highly skilled, agile workforce of executives and experts is pursuing what a recent study dubbed the “New American Dream”: professional control of where, when, with whom, and especially why and how they work.

Indeed, the traditional corporate social contract of job security and rich benefits is getting harder and harder to find. So many top pros are more than happy to leave behind the interminable meetings, bureaucratic infighting, and 80-hour workweeks that have become the hallmarks of executive life to pursue their own purpose-driven career and personal priorities.

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Businesses (including mine) have thrived by serving this new cadre of corporate dropouts: Upwork, a company that connects 12 million registered freelancers with 5 million business clients, went public last year and is now valued at more than $2 billion. Axiom Global Inc., which provides on-demand legal talent and technology, appears headed for its own initial public offering.

Tech companies that supply HR software are also recognizing the need to support freelancers. Payroll provider ADP acquired WorkMarket’s freelancer management platform last year, and Workday recently shared its own vision for applying artificial intelligence and advanced analytics to make it easier to connect a pool of specialized workers with employers as specific needs arise. And my own firm’s collaborations with executive search leader Heidrick & Struggles and work solutions innovator Kelly Services further demonstrate the demand to help place on-demand top professionals in critical, project-based assignments.

Yet despite these developments, it is still challenging for many big enterprises to figure out how to tap into an agile, specialized pool of talent. They have been slow to establish the necessary systems, infrastructure, and most important, mindset to deal with the speed and direct user experience of the on-demand freelance marketplace.

One big company that’s leading the way is Microsoft, which has embraced the advantages of this segment of the gig economy not only for itself but, for other enterprises. The software giant’s state-of-the-art digital “Freelance Toolkit” arose out of managers’ own frustration with internal hurdles to engaging outside talent when they needed help with digital production as part of a new product launch. The toolkit now enables both Microsoft managers and external employers to rapidly and easily build teams for projects, design their workflows, and access and integrate independents suited for specific assignments.

Meanwhile, the reticence of other large enterprises to embrace business models capitalizing on the availability of senior talent-on-demand creates a big opening for more nimble companies to transform their enterprises in winning ways–if they’re willing to pursue more flexible, cost-saving, project-based approaches to achieving their goals in a fast-paced, constantly changing competitive environment.

And in fact, at my firm we’re seeing more managers of growth companies with a sense of urgency warm to fresh ideas about talent. For example, we helped one fast-rising e-commerce client engage a top loyalty marketing specialist to assess the competitive landscape and design a customer loyalty program, allowing the company to rapidly increase market penetration across their three major verticals.

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In another instance, a high-growth biotech firm that couldn’t afford to wait to complete a search for a full-time head of human resources was able instead to bring in an interim head who designed its organization, and hired an outsourcing firm to manage the company’s benefits and drive key recruitment efforts.

Why is it easier for growth companies to take advantage of the opportunities created by on-demand talent? They’re usually flatter, with more senior management visibility into the implementation of strategy and less baggage in the form of legacy departments and traditional HR and procurement systems. Which makes them less concerned about hierarchy or ruffling the feathers of existing employees by bringing in outside expertise.

Plus these companies can not only move quickly to access needed talent for project-based work, often they need to in order to achieve first-mover advantage or scale rapidly once they do. And their early-stage enterprises sometimes revolve around a single project or product–an ideal situation for accessing talent on an as-needed basis.

That nimbleness, flexibility, and willingness to plan for and integrate independent talent may not only give fast-growth companies a competitive advantage in getting critical work done faster, smarter, and more cheaply. It gives such firms a leg up in winning the expanding talent war for high-end independent professionals and experts–precisely because their less-bureaucratic structures accommodate the flexibility and professional control independent workers seek.

In other words, the emerging competition to engage “supertemps” like our Life Sciences expert, perfection-seeking millennial, or onetime Big 3 partner is proving to be yet another area where “bigger” may not be “better.” And displaying the insight and flexibility to seize on that advantage might make all the difference when it comes to achieving your business goals.

Jody Greenstone Miller is CEO and cofounder of Business Talent Group, a marketplace for independent talent. 

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