Goin’ Contractin’ (Part 4)

“We’re paid more than most permie Managing Directors in this country, you know?” the PM asked, “So we have to make sure we show we’re worth it.  We have to demonstrate value.”

He was right.  The surprising thing was hearing this 8 months into the contract.  A cost challenge had emerged in the business and all departments were being made to look at their resources, specifically contractors, so see where costs could be saved.  I’ve wrote previously about how I dodged this cull as nobody else wanted to make packs or capture minutes (well, I didn’t want to either but it was part of my job).  I had a sense that the PM was worried that he hadn’t demonstrated his value sufficiently, which was unfounded as he had delivered a huge amount of improvements for the business.  He wasn’t so keen on capturing evidence of this though which is why he’d been irritated about me sneakily tracking benefits (when I should have been writing a pack, probably) and was now relieved that I had.  But the case for many in the team had not been made.

Before contracting I’d been given some great tips.  So much, so repeatedly, that I may be a little brainwashed by it.  So here they are:

  • Add value every day.  Accomplish something, anything, that improves things or pushes your project forward every day.
  • Keep track of everything you deliver.
  • Find something that nobody else can do or is willing to do, and own it.
  • They can get rid of you at any time, so find reasons why they can’t.  Always have something that you’re working on, and seek work as you finish each task.  Stay active.

They seem kind of obvious to me, but I had the benefit of working with some great contractors who lived by these rules – so I had some good role models.  Also, I’ve seen these behaviours in permies too, but in those cases the behaviours seem to be more driven by a basic work ethic rather than a need for longevity/survival.

My surprising observation was how few fellow contractors followed these rules.  I struggled to understand it for a while – why were some of my colleagues demonstrating the one of the worst traits of the permanent workforce?  Why were they behaving with a sense of entitlement?  It’s a question that occurs to me whenever I’m doing assurance for a project and find sloppy reporting, poor RAID management and outdated plans.  Why do so many contractors become complacent?

The answer is, in my opinion, due to difficulties with handovers, cliques, personal reputation and the challenges around recruiting.  Put yourself in the hirer’s shoes for a moment:

  • Recruiting – it takes ages to hire anyone.  It takes a long time to get approval to hire someone, agree budget, etc.  Then, despite the multitude of skilled people that are looking for work, most applicants just aren’t suitable.  Either they lack necessary skills, or their behaviours aren’t right, or they interview badly.  Even when the right person is found, the process of getting them onboarded takes ages – especially for industries that require a lot of background checking.  No matter how ineffective the candidate turns out to be on Day One, you don’t want to go back through that.
  • Personal reputation – you’ve just hired someone.  You tell the business you’ve hired a great new colleague.  Then they show up and are hopeless.  Do you fire them and then tell everyone that you misjudged them?  Do you claim they mislead you?  Do you think maybe you’ll be judged for this and that the setback of having to recruit again with the time/costs involved are due to your own lack of judgement?  Does it seem easier to try to keep the new recruit onboard and adjust your team’s approach to cater for the fact that your new hire can’t do what they were hired to do?  Sounds like a winner…
  • Cliques – Even worse, the hopeless candidate is your mate!  But it doesn’t really matter, the business splashes out loads of money on hopeless people, at least your mate is easy to work with.  Just a shame nothing gets done as fast or as well as it should.  Still, at least you can have a beer with them – cheers!
  • Handovers – how much of the stuff the contractor is working on is inside their head?  Is there sufficient detail elsewhere to hand over to a replacement?  Does the bad behaviour of not maintaining records make the contractor safer in their role?  How much time will be lost in a bad handover as the replacement gets up to speed?  Is it just easier to suck it up and keep the poor performer?

I remember the first few weeks of contracting.  I’d left a permanent role for a five week contract, and obsessively counted each day and the amount earned so far.  Not to be smug or go shopping.  I was measuring my time in terms of how many months of rent and living costs have I earned if this job ends tomorrow.  How long can I survive on what I’ve earned before I have to land the next job.  Eventually I built up a reserve that felt like a safe amount – enough to last six months (and no, it wasn’t enough – that’s another story!) – and relaxed, but only relaxed slightly.  Every day I went to work with a thought “They can sack me today, better find reasons for them not to do so” which kept me motivated and driven.  Some may say that’s a shallow motivation, but I’ll take that over having no motivation at all.

I stayed focused on the transactional nature of the relationship between contractor and business.  We are there to deliver something, every single day.  The business has no obligation to find us more work or to keep us a day longer than we are needed.  The day that is forgotten, you risk drifting into the sense of entitlement that will allow you to relax and become a source of waste.  For reasons already described, you could easily occupy a role for a long time despite the diminishing value you offer.  But you will eventually be found out, will attract the resentment of your colleagues, and when the company faces its next cost challenge – almost an annual event at some businesses – they will get rid of you.  Some time later you will be interviewing again and faced with the question “What value did you deliver in your last role?”  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a good but honest answer?


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