The idea of a job for life appears to be something of a distant memory, a rare occurrence these days, a practice that came to an end a generation ago. More recently, the norm has been a kind of serial job monogamy, working with one company for a few years before moving on to the next, and the next, until it’s time to retire.
Now a different approach to work is emerging. Outsourced roles, once seen as a stop-gap between permanent jobs, are increasingly becoming long-term career plans, and whether in fixed-term interim positions, ongoing part-time roles, or through outsourcing specialists, the scope of opportunities is broad.
Malcolm Bacchus, ICAEW Council member and president of the London Society of Chartered Accountants, has been an outsourced finance professional working at senior level for seven years. “I’m a consulting finance director, or consulting accountant. Someone who rolls up their sleeves and helps,” he explains. “If a company needs a part-time finance director long-term, or if the finance director in a firm needs help at finance director level in the short-term because they have a specific project, I go in and help out.”
He runs his own firm and works with a portfolio of around four to six clients at a time. The finance director of one of his clients, an AIM-listed group, called on him as he is currently involved in a large deal. Bacchus explains: “He’s not spending as much time as he would usually on checking that the bookkeeper does the job properly and preparing interim accounts or reports for the board, the sorts of things he would do in his everyday job,” says Bacchus.
“I’ve taken that off his hands, and before every board meeting I brief him on exactly what he needs to know.”
For Bacchus, there are numerous advantages. “I am juggling about four companies, and I have to juggle my time so that I do what they each need, when it needs to be done. But they don’t tell me to come in on a certain day – I am a consultant working in my own time to my own plan, to meet their deadlines.” He is not restricted to any one sector, so with the exception of specialist areas such as banking and insurance, his work can cover any type of business.
Bacchus had worked in a number of in-house finance director level jobs before he decided to set up his own consultancy, and says his current way of working would not be possible without that background. “What I am being employed for is my experience,” he says. “There is very little a basic company could throw at me that I haven’t seen before.”
This is also why experience is an essential requirement for people looking to work with the FD Centre, a group which pairs up financial directors with mid-tier firms on a part-time basis. “We work with entrepreneurial companies, bringing those commercial and strategic finance director skills to businesses that don’t need, don’t want or can’t afford them full time, but recognise they need the skillset on an ongoing basis,” explains Sara Daw, its chief executive officer.
The client then pays only for the amount of work done, while the financial director builds up a portfolio of clients to work the number of days he or she chooses. The client’s business relationship is with the FD Centre, while all the financial directors are self-employed.
“We invite financial directors to work with us, and we have a number of requirements,” explains Daw. “Firstly, they absolutely need to be a qualified accountant from one of the major institutes. They have to have been a finance director or a CFO a number of times, over five to 10 years, and they must have had blue chip experience so we know they have that rigour and have been trained well. We like them to have worked with entrepreneurial business owners, too.
“I think our FDs really value the freedom and flexibility that this way of working brings, because they are in control of their lives. That is why we set the business up. We were all seeking freedom from corporate life; we didn’t want to have our agendas set anymore. We wanted to be able to control our lives and to fit work around other things that we may do.”
One of the downsides of working as an outsourced professional, though, is that you may not be fully part of the team – put bluntly, working independently can be lonely. “You do have a sense that there is a life in the company that carries on when you are not there,” says Bacchus, adding: “On the plus side, you are not involved in any office politics, which is something a lot of accountants really appreciate.”
Another aspect that puts many off is irregular pay; for some people, exchanging a monthly salary for often erratic or late invoice payments is not an attractive prospect. Working as the employee of an outsourcing specialist offers something of a halfway house, providing many of the challenges and objectivity of working as an external professional combined with the support of an employer.
“On an outsourcing contract, you have a relationship with the organisation you work for, for example Capgemini, which is helping you develop your career, but you also have a relationship with the organisation you are working with,” says Carole Murphy, expert in operations, consulting and transformation at Capgemini.
Her job frequently involves coming into organisations and making significant changes to the way they operate. “Accountants can drive a lot of interesting projects and bring about change, and really understand how you can affect a company’s fundamentals. I guess it’s this idea that their back office is our front office – that’s our business and we love it,” she says.
“I have had the privilege of working with really interesting teams and really forward-looking clients. Often what makes the difference is when some clients see this outsourcing relationship as a strategic partnership and want to understand how they can use that to enable their finance function.”
But of course, working for an outsourcing firm still involves permanent employment, and that is precisely the approach to work some accountants are rejecting. And while working independently as an outsourced professional is not for everyone, for those who choose to build a career this way, the advantages are clear. They are willing to sacrifice a regular salary in return for variety, flexibility and ever-changing challenges. “It’s the new way of working,” says Daw. “The old employed model might be one way to do it, but it’s not the only one. This is the future of work.”
Liam Collins has been an interim finance professional for five years, during which time he has worked in two different companies. Both of those jobs began as two-month contracts. “I chose to work this way because I wanted more variety,” he says. “You get more exciting roles, more interesting roles, more problematic roles. If you are interested in tough situations, you get those more often.” After all, companies often call for extra help when there are issues that need ironing out.
Collins held in-house roles for a number of years before beginning in the interim market, and it’s a move he doesn’t regret – though, he says, it’s not for everyone. In his current job, for example, he has relocated four times in six months. “It doesn’t bother me, I’m being well-paid for it, but none of the permanent staff wanted to do it.”
There is uncertainty, too, although Collins turns it to his advantage. “I have long since got over wanting the security of a regular salary. What you lose in security, you gain in remuneration,” he says.
“As a contractor, you are always thinking, ‘if this doesn’t work then I will be out’. You know you can be let go at a week’s notice. You are a lot more motivated to work and make yourself indispensable, whereas if you are permanent and you know they have to give you three months’ notice, you can be more complacent. I have had five years of this and I have never not been motivated. It’s a mindset.”
When a job is drawing to a close, Collins starts to plan his next move, which may be elsewhere or within the same company: “You look for opportunities and look for where you can add value.” What’s more, he says, working on shorter-term contracts is also a good way to break into new industries or come back into finance after some time in another area. “Employers are slower to take you in a permanent role, but in an interim role they might take the risk,” he says.
Collins was offered a permanent position at the end of both of his recent jobs, but he refused without hesitation. “In the past, I think working in interim roles was seen as something you’d do when you couldn’t get a permanent job, but I know a lot of people who just would not take a permanent position. Things have changed completely and people are happy being professional contractors.”
Career ladder: Meg Whitman
She didn’t get the top job at Uber, but don’t write her off
1956: Born, America. Education: A degree in economics, Princeton University
1979: Meg Whitman started her career at the Cincinnati office of P&G and went from there to Bain & Company, the Walt Disney Company, Stride Rite Corporation and Hasbro, where she successfully brought the Teletubbies to US TV.
1998: Headhunted by eBay, she joined as CEO when it had just 30 employees. In 10 years it grew to roughly 15,000 employees and $8bn in annual revenue. She described it as “endlessly interesting”.
2009: Whitman ran for governor of California, reportedly spending $144m of her own money on the race. She lost, and in September 2011 became CEO at Hewlett-Packard (it split into HP and HP Enterprise in 2015, when she became CEO of HPE). She said: “These big, iconic companies... you have to reinvent yourself.”
2017: Whitman joined the board of Dropbox, the cloud storage company moving toward an eventual IPO.