Posted by: Dominique Seal

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Jenny Cahill: The differences, challenges and some advice to consultants looking to make the transition to an in-house role

On a late Friday afternoon at the trendy Hospital Club in Convent Garden, celebrating the launch of Jenny’s latest book, we entered into a fascinating discussion around the world of management consulting and transition into an in-house role.

Jenny, an experienced Management Consultant specializes in business transformation, change & communications has provided a full take on the differences, challenges and some advice to consultants looking to make the transition.


How would you define the term management consultant?

"The focus of management consultancy is always on innovation, growth, business improvement, transformation and change. Consultants provide an objective point of view, innovative approaches and tools, and best practice methodologies that are honed and improved over time. A management consultant is someone who has considerable industry experience."

What is the difference between consultancy and operating in-house?

"They are completely different! There is a totally different culture and way of working in a consultancy. You are employed by the company, but work for external clients. In-house there is no external client. Contracting is a good middle ground between the two, you still get to work as a consultant, but you are working directly for the client on whatever project you happen to be working on. You also choose your clients, as opposed to the client/role/location being chosen for you. There is constant training and innovation in big consultancies. You need to take responsibility for your own training and learning when you are a contractor. A lot of big corporates do have mandatory training, but it all depends on who you work for, and when they roll out training programmes."

How do you become truly successfully within the world of management consultancy?

"This is a difficult question to answer as the industry is constantly changing and the KPIs (for individuals) will change with it. I would say that it is a combination of utilisation, attitude and expertise. As a consultant you need to know your subject matter inside out, you need to be able to fit in to a variety of different business environments/industries/sectors and sometimes countries effortlessly. Having a positive attitude, and being able to deal with constant change is essential for this. Utilisation is also really important, it’s a key measure. Utilisation is the amount of hours that you are billing per client, over a period of time."

Why did you decide to move away from consulting?

"I had no work life balance at all and was spending lots of time in hotels on my own in remote locations. That was the only thing that I didn’t like about being in a big consultancy. As a contractor, I now do the same job, but I manage to have a life outside of work. Now I pick the client, the location and when I work. I also get to plan gaps in between projects to do other things like write and travel, without having any impact on my career. I’m also lucky enough to have worked on contracts in some of the Big Four, so I have definitely lost nothing by moving to contracting."

What were the initial challenges you faced when moving into a contracting role?

"I was really lucky that my first big contract was with a fantastic client, with great people. One of the big four had just rolled off and had designed the HR Transformation plan, so the programme was set up really well, with lots of (necessary) governance and great people running it. Generally speaking, the gaps between contracts can be a challenge, but I’ve learned to manage them over time. I find other contractors really supportive and I’m the same towards them. We share tips and guidance all the time. Lots of business clubs, and flexible workspaces like WeWork have popped up since I started contracting. These are really helpful to manage the gaps while you are getting your next role, stopping you from being stuck at home for up to three months. It’s really good to have a place to work when you are not on a contract, as looking for a job can be like a full time job. In an ideal world we’d all love to swan off to South America for three months in the gaps, but that’s not how it works in reality. It can take a few months to get a new role, and you need to be fully focused to secure one. Having a work space to use can make a big difference between contracts."

Any tips/advise as to the type of questions one should be asking when starting a new interim change role?

"Every assignment is different so it’s important to have a checklist.

Here are my top five:
I always ask where they are in the transformation programme, i.e. just beginning, in the middle, or cleaning up after chaos. Change and transformation can be very challenging. In the Big Four you follow the methodology, it’s unrealistic to expect change to be managed this way client side. As part of this I usually ask if they’ve had any big consultancies in to work on the programme, then I know what methodology will have been used to set up and manage the programme.
I also ask about the culture to get some early indicators. If possible I try to find out how 'contractor friendly' the client/programme is. This usually comes across in the interview, as opposed to having to ask about it. Some clients love contractors, other clients are not as used to having contractors on site, and that can be a bit of a challenge.
I like to ask if the role is new or replacing someone.
Always ask about holidays i.e. whether you can/can’t take them. I’ve been in both positions of not being able to take annual leave (over Christmas) and having to take mandatory leave, which as a contractor can put a bit of dent in your income. You need to know this in advance so that you can plan/budget accordingly.
I usually ask about remote working for the same reason as above. It’s usually prudent to ask about this via the recruiter. It can be seen as a red flag in interviews if an interviewee asks about it. I’ve been in positions where it’s not allowed, and/or the rules change when you start the role. I’ve also been on programmes where working from home once a week was mandatory. I don’t mind working from home occasionally, but it’s not for everyone. It’s also important to be set up properly if you need to work from home, and not to be pitching up shop at the kitchen table once a week. As a contractor, there is not always space for you, so you may need to work from home more than permanent employees. It’s always work keeping this in mind, and asking early on so that you can plan for it."

What are your thoughts as to how change and comms are interrelated?

"For me, comms is an essential part of any change strategy and approach. It’s the key part, as pro-active, future focused messaging is essential. Change comms isn’t the same as comms, it’s a different mind set and should be planned alongside the programme plan and transformation curve. You need an in-depth understanding of change, on the ground, to be able to plan and execute change communications."

How do you go about managing challenging stakeholders?

"This is simply part of the job of a change/change comms lead. The nicest person in the world can become a very challenging stakeholder under pressure and when undergoing change and transformation i.e. in their team, department, company or role. It’s important to understand how people experience and deal with change, to manage challenging stakeholders. This also comes from years of experience working on big programmes and understanding the stress response and some of the more common personality types through Myers Briggs etc. Empathy is also very important when managing challenging stakeholders. You need to try to see it from their point of view, and see where their resistance is coming from in order to manage it."


Top tips to building out your interim HR career and network?

I stopped meeting people with a similar skill set when I started contracting, so going to recruiter events is a great way of building up this network.

How does the market and economy affect ones interim job search and would you say there are specific times of the year one should be looking for interim change role?

Thankfully change is always busy, when times are challenging, people like me are needed even more. There is no set pattern but following the money is usually a good idea. When company budgets are either being signed off or used up is a good time. The market changes all the time, but I usually find January to Easter, and then September and October good times to be looking. I’m very mindful of bank holidays, half term etc. If line managers are out of the office you may not get the role signed off. You need to start looking for your next contract before you finish your existing one, so I wouldn’t suggest that anyone bases there search around the time of year. Shock events can throw a curveball. Dare I mention the ‘B’ word, Brexit. That was an absolute shocker and lots of clients froze budgets particularly around hiring while they were processing the shock, and trying to plan for it.

If you could go back in time is there anything you could have done differently?

I would have loved to have known then what I know now. The list of questions is the key thing. Asking simple questions like holidays, remote working etc. can make a huge difference when you are working on a challenging programme. I also would have gone contracting sooner if I could travel back in time.

You would be surprised as to how many times I’m asked for tips and advise from both permanent employees and management consultants transitioning into the interim market. The senior HR interim market can be quite unpredictable and unexpected at times, one always needs to be fully prepared for anything that comes their way. Asking the right questions is key to ensuring that you are taking on the right roles suitable for yourself and your skills; and enables you to deliver when on an assignment.


Thank you, Jenny Cahill, for your kind words of wisdom and congratulations on your book new published book called One. Jenny is a true example of how the interim market allows you to manage your working career effectively and enables you to be the master of your own destiny.

Twitter @JLCAuthor

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The number of companies looking to recruit interim managers rose 15 percentage points in the first quarter of 2014, according to figures by the Interim Management Association (IMA).

The survey also found that enquiries about hiring managers rose by 18 percentage points across the same period, taking it to the second highest level since IMA records began in 2006.

There was also a significant shift in the proportion of interim managers in the public and private sectors. Almost half (44%) of appointments are now in the public sector, up from 30% in the last quarter of 2013.


We are very excited to release our Permanent & Interim Executive research for 2018!

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