The Odd One Out

Previously I had contracted in project organisations, brought together to deliver a long term project.  These organisations were made up mainly of contractors, with staff employees definitely in the minority.  The ratios were around 80:20 in favour of contractors.

But what happens when a contractor is parachuted into a staff organisation.  A company trying to deliver lots of mini projects as part of their ongoing business plan.  The projects need to become “business as usual”.

It doesn’t take long for the inevitable resentment to come to the surface.  They suspect your day rate is obscene.  They therefore think the money you get in your pocket is obscene.  Of course experienced contractors are aware that once you have paid corporation tax, income tax, your insurances, and put money aside for time off and to protect yourself between contracts it is not that much different to what the staff members are taking home.  But they don’t want to understand that.

Then there are the practical challenges – staff members have more freedom in restricted buildings, and usually more access to the IT systems.  So it’s easier for them to get things done.  They also know the company procedures and policies, and crucially, they know who to talk to to get things done.  They know the shortcuts and the back doors.

And then there is the office politics.  Having worked in mainly contractor organisations for such a long time I had forgotten what that was like.  The power struggles – people and departments vying for power, pulling in different directions.  Some of this is genuine, and comes from the organisation’s inability to set departments coherent and related targets.  And some of it is just people being people – seeing opportunities for themselves.

Coping Strategies

These need to be tailored to your specific situation.  It depends on the objectives of your assignment and the duration.

If you have clear objectives to achieve in the short term then create your own shortcuts and backdoors.  Smash through obstacles (literally).  People don’t like being embarrassed or challenged but it works in the short term, and it can create change and improvement in the long term.  6 weeks to sign off a purchase order?  Come on, it can be done in a couple of days.  The MD needs to sign off on something, and she’s playing golf?  So you phone her, and you explain the consequences of a delay and she signs it.  I’ve found that the most powerful and feared people in organisations are human beings too, people just don’t approach them.

For longer term assignments you need to build relationships, and show you are in it for the long haul.  But never stop challenging things and do not get sucked into the “that’s just the way it is” mentality.  I found it very useful to sit down with the key team members and understand their personal objectives.  Very often staff in Procurement departments have objectives to reduce price during a tender process.  They are often only measured on the contracted price, and not on the delivered price.  I’ve encountered Engineering Managers who are measured negatively on project changes, stifling continuous improvement.  If you know what motivates people, you know how to work with them.  And you know how to get them to do what you want.

Office politics – three coping strategies.  You can simply keep out of it, making it clear you wont get involved in the complaining and criticising.  You can challenge it, expose it and try and solve it – this works when the politics are based on a real issue, like a weak team member, or a department not supporting a common goal.  The third option is to become the focal point for it.  Like wolves attacking a sheep (the best metaphor I could think of) nothing brings people together more than having a common enemy.  You can be that enemy.  Make people hate you (I seem to be able to do it without even trying!) and you might find they work more closely together and stop moaning about others.

And never forget the golden rule.  As a contractor in a staff organisation you are going to be replaced one day.  When that day comes simply shrug your shoulders, smile, and move on to your next contract (with an even more obscene day rate!).