How does one position herself to be considered for Senior Leadership roles without being a full-time employee? Is it even possible or is being a permanent employee of the organization an unspoken requirement? – Change Management Consultant
Group job interview — four members of a search committee vet a female executive
In general, consulting (or temping or freelancing) is a great entry point to a permanent role, and I have written before about strategies to convert your employment from temp to perm. Consulting to an organization can act like an extra-long, interactive interview process, where the prospective employer can get a firsthand look at what it’s like to work with you and how valuable you are to the business.
However, at the senior leadership level – running a department or even the entire organization – longtime consulting can put you at a disadvantage. I once did a search for the top job at a non-profit organization, and one of the candidates on the shortlist had advised several similar organizations over her decade-long stint as an independent non-profit consultant. Her background got the attention of the search committee but she ultimately didn’t land the role.
The other candidates on the shortlist were in-house employees at other non-profits. The search committee had unique concerns about the consultant candidate that didn’t affect the in-house candidates. If you are an experienced consultant looking to move back in-house at a senior level, anticipate and preempt these concerns by addressing these five questions:
1 — Why has no one else hired you?
On the one hand, the consultant candidate was desirable because she had varied experience across the industry. While the in-house candidates only worked at a handful of places (or sometimes just one!), the consultant could bring insights from all over. On the other hand, this consultant had been working with all these places. If she was so good, why didn’t one of her other clients hire her?
Perhaps other clients did try to hire her, and she didn’t want to go in-house at that time. Or the offers weren’t sufficient. Or the roles weren’t right. There are perfectly good reasons why someone might consult for years and not move in-house. Just don’t assume that prospective employers are giving you the benefit of the doubt.
2 — Is your consulting business in trouble?
Another common concern for prospective employers is that you don’t really want to go in-house but you’re forced into it because your consulting projects have dried up. This poses two risks for the prospective employer: 1) as soon as business picks up again, you’ll leave, and they’ll have to rehire for the role. At a senior level, this is costly and disruptive; 2) the fact that your business is in trouble may be due to your leadership. This isn’t a ringing endorsement of your qualifications for a senior role.
You need a good reason for wanting to go in-house. Ideally it is a “pull” reason – i.e., you are pulled forth or called to this open leadership role because it is something you want to do. Anything else is a “push” reason – i.e., you want out of consulting. No employer wants to be the second choice.
3 — How can I be sure you’ll stick around?
Many consultants (and I put myself in this camp) gravitate to consulting because they like the variety of the work. You work at different organizations, with different people and on different projects. Even if you get sucked into one client’s bureaucracy or political dramas, it isn’t for very long. Once your engagement ends, you can leave.
Employers who hire consultants know the allure of consulting and will wonder if you too will just leave when things get difficult or the excitement of a new job ends. Senior roles are always difficult. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fun, rewarding or fulfilling, but leadership always has challenges. Disruption at the top can be a big blow to a strategic rollout or to staff morale. Prospective employers see the temporal nature of consulting as a big risk.
4 – Can you actually do things – or just plan?
Some consultants focus entirely on strategic advisory work. They develop a plan, which the client has to execute. Yes, there are some in-house purely strategic roles, but most in-house roles have a tactical component. A senior leadership role has oversight of a team, a P&L and measurable goals to hit. You can’t just talk a good game and then move onto the next lofty idea.
Hopefully, your consulting projects have clear results, and your contribution goes beyond the planning stage into the execution. If you can show that in-house employees relied on you and saw you as a valuable colleague, even better.
5 — How well can you work with others?
As a consultant, you’re an outsider coming in for a very specific purpose, so you may not be accepted by the in-house staff. Or you may not have taken the time to get to know your colleagues, except for your immediate client contact and other key stakeholders. Sure, you are used to project teams, which form and dissolve according to a specific need, but how often did you work closely with the same set of people for a long stretch?
During the interview process, you have to address these concerns whether you’re asked outright or not
Prospective employers may be thinking about one or all of the above and may not ever ask specifically. Maybe they don’t want to seem combative. Or, they assume these are obvious concerns and expect the consultant to address them unprompted. Or, they interview every candidate the same way, so consultants and in-house professionals get asked the same questions, but then the concerns arise at the decision-table – when you can no longer do anything about it.
Don’t cede control over your messaging to the prospective employer. Don’t expect them to ask the “right” questions that will showcase you in the best light. Don’t blame them for not being direct. Know how to ace your interview, regardless of the questions you happen to get. Address these common concerns preemptively, so your consulting experience makes you stand out in a good way , for all the right reasons.
Get answers to common career questions on my YouTube channel. I am the founder of the Dream Career Club and a recruiter, career coach and media personality on the job