By Dean Lombardo
The first thing a new boss announced when she came in to manage me and my colleagues at a global midsize organization was that she wanted the department to operate more like an agency. She wanted to transform us into a customer-focused team (“customer” also meaning our internal stakeholders). We would exist to provide services and value for the customer and the corporation’s bottom line. We would do this efficiently, and automate legacy, low value tasks so we could focus on being strategic and creative.
Such a situation is often not good news for career lifers. It can mean lifers have to refocus their skills (some of these skills lacking) toward the business’s most essential business objectives, instead of their comfortable long-time focus and processes. This allegiance to the past can result in obsolescence across the enterprise, with legacy, low-importance activities continuing to be met by time-consuming human efforts, whether they are customer-focused or not. In cases where the organization’s most critical objectives aren’t clearly communicated or prioritized, the lifers can live another day, while disruptive, forward-thinking bosses have to move on. Somewhere between lifer and disrupter, I learned a lesson from this corporate experience. The new boss had been right. To operate optimally, a department must focus on what’s critical now (not critical years ago), do it as efficiently as possible, and make sure important client needs are continuously being met. It’s called being aligned with the business and your valued customers, and if you’re not automating low-value tasks, your competition will outperform you.
So how do we as professional contributors and project managers ensure that we engage with the teams we join, and get the best of everyone’s collaborative talents and ideas toward important customer requirements? The downward cascading of goals comes to mind immediately, but it’s not a one-way street anymore. We as individuals, as teammates, want to be able to make our own roles easier, more fruitful and efficient, and have our suggestions adopted. And in any organization where the focus is efficient service of the customer it will become job security for us to do so.
The Gig Economy Mentality
Enter the gig economy, but for the purposes of this article, let’s call it the ‘gig economy mentality.’ Like my ambitious boss, I moved on from the less-flexible, less-innovative organizations of the world and joined for a while what I now recognize as the gig economy, a market driven by the self-employed. I bounced around as a freelancer, performing contract jobs, until I was contacted by an agency owned and operated by a man passionate about his customers. This guy took an active role recruiting his new clients and the employees who served them. He helped me with my work, my hours, and the final product. It was a great collaboration with him and I got a chance to target my talents at topics such as alternative energy sources and battery recycling and a bevy of other interesting themes. Little did I know, while he was forging me into the best I could be, he was also offering me valuable Catch 22 “agency experience.”
Today, full-timers are not exempt from having this freelancer, or gig economy, experience and skillset. If you’ve ever been laid off, the first time you apply for a gig you might be faced by a job requirement that says “Agency Experience a Must!” The ol’ Catch 22.
Don’t let it faze you! You’ve spent a few years or more at an organization gaining skills, then another organization where you hungrily learned additional new things. You have what it takes to meet any agency’s needs. Don’t be frightened by this agency question, this Catch 22 related to “Must Have Agency Experience.” You might be able to freelance indefinitely, and, if you choose, you can land your next full-time gig. A well-run corporate department is an agency… focused, efficient, and diligent not to overstaff or overcharge for a project. It’s about alignment with the customer and customer-focused stakeholders.
Tied to this principle of a freelancer/full-time agency person being accountable for his contribution to customer needs is the concept of the self-directed employee. A freelancer…. or self-employed person… generally manages his or her portfolio of customers, does his or her own taxes, schedules his or her time, and drives his or her own learning and career navigation. The merging of the gig economy and the corporate world is happening, and these self-starter freelancer skills and efficiencies are welcome in today’s self-developing organizational climate. On the flip side, strategic HR professionals can now offer the digital tools these self-starters need to contribute and make the organization more efficient.
P.S. to Free Agents…
Getting laid off nowadays simply means you drive your own career for a while. You pick up the gigs you want and know you can succeed at, while learning in the role. In the process, you may be fortifying your resume/CV with some of the Catch 22s needed by employment agencies and mid- to large enterprises. But first you must ensure you are digitally connected (i.e., active and demonstrating a positive attitude on professional job sites and social media). Network with others in the digital talent ecosystem, update your LinkedIn profile and online resumes continuously as you go. Who knows who might contact you about a gig.