(c) American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Contact AICPA for permission to reproduce this article., Business Management

The rise of the gig economy finance professional

By Tim Cooper

Companies are embracing a new finance staffing model, which mixes full-time employees with consultants, interims, and temporary workers to meet modern challenges such as digital transformation, according to Robert Half International’s 2019 US Salary Guide. The result is a boom in the market for finance professionals willing to take on specialist or temporary roles.

Specialist interims are particularly popular with companies managing large, one-off events, such as acquisitions, technology upgrades, accounting standard implementations, or building a new shared services centre, the Robert Half report said. But companies also deploy consultants to handle ongoing projects, freeing full-time staff with technology skills to focus on digital initiatives.

Specialised interim staff are valuable on initiatives where timing is crucial since they are ready to go on day one. They can also fill a gap when a company loses a full-time employee, the report said.

Tales from the frontline

Siva Shankar has been a senior interim finance professional for seven years and has worked across Europe and Asia. He said he has seen strong demand throughout that time. That trend has persuaded more people to become consultants, so there is more competition now.

“Often interims are brought in because of their specialist skills — for example, when a company needs rapid turnaround; where they want to grow into new markets; or for a business transformation,” Shankar said. “Companies also sometimes use interims as a stopgap when they need to increase headcount quickly. So there is demand in a variety of economic conditions.

“For example, there is economic uncertainty in the UK related to Brexit, so companies are hesitant to take on permanent staff. Deploying an interim in a challenging market carries less risk, for example, in terms of redundancy costs. And they’re usually robust — having been involved in many different scenarios — so their experience is valuable. But it means that, if you want to be an interim, it’s critical that you can have robust conversations in potentially volatile situations and can convince people to make directional changes.”

His advice for getting work initially is to network extensively and build a profile by posting articles and other useful information on LinkedIn.

Shankar, who also speaks French, recommended knowing a second language, especially as some continental European countries have a lack of consultant talent. He said that, when you start out, you likely will have to travel — so be prepared to be away from family. That can be a strain. As your reputation grows, you can pick and choose more jobs and avoid travelling so much.

The need for specialist skills is growing, he said. Business transformation and data analysis are key skills, and finance professionals with experience in both are at a premium.

Shankar said pay rates are good, but it is important to consider that you will have no company pension, insurance, or healthcare.

Being an interim worker can help you avoid difficult ethical situations and keep your reputation intact, he said.

“Sometimes companies pressure people to compromise their integrity, which puts their future at risk,” Shankar said. “But interims can say no and walk away if they feel a line has been crossed.”

Staying on the bright side

UK-based Graham Lyons has been an interim finance leader for five years, focusing on transformation and turnaround — from setting up or reviving a project to enterprise resource planning implementation.

“It’s regular work because most companies are at some stage in a transformation journey,” he said. “I like being able to bring an independent perspective and being judged on clear deliverables such as targets, budgets, and timescales. This means I can provide organisations with verifiable value for money.”

Job insecurity is not an issue, Lyons said, because even in permanent roles, job security is never guaranteed.

“It is also exciting when organisations value your opinions and advice,” he said. “That feeling of being needed replaces the feeling of belonging that you might get in a permanent role.”

Being an interim professional can mean work in stressed environments, but Lyons said he enjoys the challenge.

“I often see organisations and finance departments in strife, but that gives me a chance to make a difference,” he said. “You just need robust plans to fix them and good people to execute them — then the only way is up.”

One downside is that there can be a temptation to move immediately from one assignment to the next without a break, so you need to be disciplined about taking time off.

Lyons started out by obtaining contracts through recruitment agencies. Eventually, he started getting work through personal referrals and networking.

His advice to budding interims is to specialise, especially in areas of technology such as robotic process automation, as it can be used to get quick wins across all areas of finance.

“Becoming an interim is less risky than you think if you have experience across a range of companies and sectors,” Lyons said. “You can always try it, and if you don’t like it, go back to permanent employment.”

“But I don’t know any interim who’s done that. My only regret is that I didn’t start it earlier.”

In summary, here are three tips for finance professionals considering taking on consultant or interim roles:

  • Toughen up. You should learn how to have robust conversations in volatile situations, Shankar said. It’s possible that a company is bringing in an interim worker because it is struggling somehow.
  • Think globally. Being willing to travel and able to converse in another language, for instance, will make you more marketable.
  • Skill up. Develop strong data analysis skills. Focus on business transformation or technology. Stand out in some specialty, Shankar and Lyons said, and that expertise can get you noticed.

Tim Cooper is a freelance writer based in the UK.

This article was originally published in Financial Management magazine.