Mercenary Managers

So I’m wondering whether I’ve found a niche in the market here, for what are effectively freelance managers. I’ve noticed every company or organisation has particular projects or tasks which fall outside the company’s core business, but have no resources available to assign to them full time. So what happens is they either don’t get done, or they get handed to someone to do in addition to their normal role, and often that person isn’t fully committed or doesn’t have the skills to do a proper job.

Say for example a medium-sized company making widgets wants to increase the size of its goods yard. Who would manage that? The operations manager? Doesn’t he want to concentrate on making widgets? Does he know anything about project management? Perhaps they have a project manager sitting around doing the odd project here and there, but if not, they need someone to manage it. Now the obvious response is you get a contractor in who can take care of the whole lot, but how does the widget company tender the job? Who writes the scope of work? Who manages the bids, deals with the clarifications? And once the work starts, who is responsible for managing the contractor, especially the hundred and one interfaces which require somebody to be making decisions on a daily basis. Who ensures the works don’t interfere with ongoing operations?

You can expand this problem to lots of one-off projects, especially those which pop up unplanned, such as damage repair. Looking back at my career, I ran a fair number of projects which were one-offs and nobody career-minded wanted anything to do with them, and were handed to me because I volunteered to do them. One involved making a crane to replace flare tips on an FPSO. Who, even in an organisation the size of an oil company’s, would managing such a task naturally fall to? The answer was nobody, hence it circulated for months before landing on my desk, and I did it mainly for fun.

The next obvious answer is you hire a consultant, but that’s not the same thing. A consultant will come in and give advice to the manager accountable for getting the task done. But what if there is no manager to begin with? I saw several instances of consultants hired to carry out activities without any manager being accountable, and they represented a waste of time and money. Look at ISO 9001 certification, for example. You can only hire consultants to come in and implement a quality management system once you have someone in the company with the authority to modify the business process as per the consultants’ advice, but what if they have no quality manager and all the other senior managers are 100% devoted to other tasks?

What these companies need is a freelance manager who they interview and assess like any other senior member of staff, but who they employ for a specific, finite task and who will take ownership and be responsible for getting it done, after which he moves on. Of course, there are difficulties with doing this, not least to do with incentives and accountability for both the hired gun and the firm’s existing management, but there’s a demand there, I think. What about you?

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27 thoughts on “Mercenary Managers

  1. I think you’ve just described my job as a contract Project Manager.

    Plus a mate of mine is a contract “Interim Manager” which is also pretty much the same. Mostly he goes in as a hatchet man, culls a bunch of staff, gets the blame for it and leaves.

    It works for him, plus the pay is excellent. He charges a flat rate (i.e. including UK domestic expenses) of £100 per hour plus VAT.

  2. Worked that way for 20 years in City IT projects. Its widespread there. Usually the term Contractor was used… as opposed to the Contractor in your example.
    Also “Interim Management” roles can be as you outline.

  3. This is not new. There are scores of agencies for ‘Interim Executives’. I even placed a few of them in my time for specific projects/short term roles.

    The danger was that, with the good ones, the hiring company would invariably ask them if they would like to come and work for them permanently and then invent a role for them.

    Oh, and get your pricing worked out, unless you just want to do what a lot of people do and keep it simple: make your per diem a 100th of what you would want to earn in a year

  4. Yup
    Interim manager.

    Plenty about and plenty of demand. In HR frequently the hachet man as John Galt says but there are plenty of projects in other areas that are more positive in outlook 🙂

    Friends of mine have worked that way. Anything from 2 months to a year in their case. The advantage seems to be that they can’t foist other shi**y stuff on to you. You go in, do the job, take the wedge and move on. Notches on the pistol grip are vital.

  5. Been doing it for nearly 20 years.

    Can’t complain. Money is good and you get to say “No” to a lot of meetings and other bullshit that are of no value.

    Plus HR is very digital “Fire me” or “Don’t fire me” + “extend contract” or “don’t extend contract”.

    As long as you’ve got money in the bank and low cost of living to survive between contracts you’re fine. That’s what fucks most people who live the contractor lifestyle and generally the reason they go back to wage slavery.

  6. Thanks everyone, especially for letting me know the term Interim Manager. As is often the case on this blog I thrash out an idea only to find it already exists, which at least makes me pragmatic if not a visionary.

    I’ve spent the past few weeks working out what I’m going to do once my course finishes in June, and this is looking like a good option. The other is to join a small, specialised consultancy doing something such as post-merger integration in mid-size oil companies.

  7. Isn’t that what the late lamented TNA does?

    Yes, but he hanged himself when Wales won the Grand Slam and England couldn’t even manage to beat Scotland.

    More seriously, yes, I think that’s what he does. I’ve emailed him.

  8. Plus a mate of mine is a contract “Interim Manager” which is also pretty much the same. Mostly he goes in as a hatchet man, culls a bunch of staff, gets the blame for it and leaves.

    Yes, I’ve heard of hatchet men. Maybe my HR major will come in handy?

    It works for him, plus the pay is excellent. He charges a flat rate (i.e. including UK domestic expenses) of £100 per hour plus VAT.

    That does indeed sound good.

  9. Worked that way for 20 years in City IT projects.

    Ah, that would make sense, yes.

    Usually the term Contractor was used… as opposed to the Contractor in your example.

    Right. Seems terminology is different in IT compared to other industries I’ve worked in.

  10. This is not new.

    I had a feeling it might not be. 🙂

    Oh, and get your pricing worked out, unless you just want to do what a lot of people do and keep it simple: make your per diem a 100th of what you would want to earn in a year

    Yup, that would need careful consideration. That’s an interesting metric. Is this widespread?

  11. Notches on the pistol grip are vital.

    Yes, starting might be tricky. My guess is I’d have to knock on a fair few doors before getting my first gig.

  12. As long as you’ve got money in the bank and low cost of living to survive between contracts you’re fine.

    Fortunately, that’s me.

  13. Yup, that would need careful consideration. That’s an interesting metric. Is this widespread?

    It’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy / rule of thumb. New contractors are always worried about “How much should I charge” when going from wage slavery into the world of contracting.

    The two measures I’ve heard and used are 1/1000th of your annual salary per hour or 1/100th of your annual salary per day. Both give similar answers with a minimum charge of 1/2 day (if you’re into charging by the hour).

    Fairly common-place and stops time-wasters as well as ensuring reasonable overheads / margin are covered. Once you’ve found a rate you’re happy with, stick with it (i.e. don’t bid lower unless you are desperate)

    I’ve had numerous roles where they’ve said “Love the CV, but they can’t do the rate”, to which my response is “Plenty who will pay it”.

    Agents are chancers and will do anything for an easy life and to pocket some of YOUR margin. Don’t let them.

  14. Our customers keep hiring dedicated project managers for some of our complex integration contracts.

    Largely speaking, they manage to hugely delay things (timescales, roughly, double) by (1) trying to extend the scope of what has been bought, (2) knowing absolutely nothing about the project background, market, or (in our case) web technology, and thus (3) needing to pull in all of the “too busy” resources anyway. There are other sins, but these are the major ones.

    Please don’t be that guy.

    DK

    P.S. One of the worst offenders, currently, is used to managing oil and gas infrastructure projects. I’m sure they’re great at that, but that has not prepared them for a (relatively simple) IT project which is already manned by experts who know, having done it many times with exactly the same systems, precisely what they need to do.

  15. Please don’t be that guy.

    Heh, I’ll try.

    One of the worst offenders, currently, is used to managing oil and gas infrastructure projects.

    Which idiot employed him?

    IT project which is already manned by experts who know, having done it many times with exactly the same systems, precisely what they need to do.

    Indeed, most people do and if they don’t bringing in a manager won’t help much. What normally causes problems is bad management.

  16. Maybe my HR major will come in handy?

    Good News! Yes, basically hatchet men have to know the ins-and-outs of getting rid of people without opening any of the legal bear traps (sex or other discrimination, failure to follow TUPE regulations, redundancy rules, etc.)

    It’s a shitty job with lots of anger and crying involved, but if you are able to view it dispassionately (you’re doing a job that somebody has to do), then it can be very well paid and there’s always lots of demand. Pretty soul destroying though.

    My mate David that does this is the world’s most cynical bastard, although whether it is the job which made him cynical or the fact that you have to be cynical to do the job is unclear.

    Plus, apparently some people will attempt to sleep with you to save their jobs. Ignoring that sort of moral conflict is one of the harder aspects of the job.

    Who knew! 🙂

    P.S. Watch George Clooney in “Up in the Air” for the kind of bullshit I mean.

  17. A lot of companies basically run all their IT projects this way now, as they don’t want to pay a high enough salary to keep good project managers on staff

  18. “That’s an interesting metric. Is this widespread?”

    As John Galt said: Yes.

    You need to figure that you are always going to need to do prep work before a gig, which you will not be paid for, and probably follow-up correspondence after. Nor will you be getting holiday pay, pensions, health insurance and all the other myriad benefits that employees get. They won’t be paying any employer taxes either.

    There are c.220-230 working days in a year for the typical office monkey. Given voids and all the above, a 100th is a pretty good reflection of what you should be charging.

    One other tip: don’t charge too little. There is a strong superstition along the lines of “you gets what you pay for”. If they think they’ve got you cheap, they will treat you accordingly. Make them respect you by charging a respectable amount, so nothing with three figures for a per diem.

  19. Thanks Recusant.

    One other tip: don’t charge too little. There is a strong superstition along the lines of “you gets what you pay for”.

    Oh yes, I guessed that already. The same is true with books: it’s better to sell at £4.99 than 99p because people assume a 99p book is dross.

  20. You might be interested in our business model which was that we’d all been senior engineers or senior managers in the telecoms industry. Management consultants liked us because we had experience and their clients liked us for the same reason. We’d often end up staying on projects long after the management consultants had been sent packing.

    The benefit was we got to charge management consultants fees and expenses. The downside was that we often ended up working crazy management consulting hours.

    As always with the consulting/contracting business getting your first good contract is the hardest part. Once you’ve established a reputation in the industry it gets much easier. We did a shortish job in the Netherlands and this was picked up by their country manager in India and we ended up getting a lot of work their.

    As others have said, don’t undersell yourself, especially if you’re in a consulting company. I lost track of the number of special favours we did based on the premise that it would lead to more work – it never did, but the salesman always seemed to get his bonus.

  21. Interim Manager is one of many titles; others include Consultant, Contract, Emergency, Task, Troubleshooter…

    …and in HR “The Sacker” – See Margin Call

  22. “Interim Manager” is useful as a job description, no doubt, but I caution against using it as a title if you set up as a company, because you may run into a monster called IR35.

    If your Accountant is of strong character, he can tell you what this means without breaking down.

  23. I am finishing up in my current role in a fortnight and will then be taking a very long spell out off and away from, the workplace, before I consider my next professional steps.

    At this early stage, opportunities are presenting themselves that I am interested in exploring further when I am ready, maybe towards the end of this year.

    I have had some fairly solid discussions with potential new clients, around:

    – employee relation negotiations with mine workers;

    – brokering arrangements between big contractors and trade unions;

    ,- investing in and being the Australian owner in the establishment of a former colleagues, now growing rapidly, international training business into Australia; and

    – consulting back to my previous firm.

    Most of these leads came from my existing industry network and are in areas that I have significant experience and wider exposure to.

    I am thinking that I would prefer to stay local to Brisbane, Queensland & Australia in that order, although, a short term assignment overseas for a mission impossible situation, in a decent location, is okay too and something that I have always been attracted to.

    My last week with my current firm will be spent in Munich, meeting and greeting, demonstrating our offerings, business networking and generating leads for my firm. I am sure that I will also make some additional and personal type connections up there as well.

    There is also a potential opportunity for me to assist a Portuguese contractor, that I have worked with before, to become established in a big way in Australia, the demand for their offerings down under, and everywhere for that matter, is huge.

    Then there are my two sons, that I should somehow help more with their career and becoming men kind of things. My youngest is looking very promising, he has been trading for a long time and easily makes 100% and far higher margins on his transactions, that he self finances. We have never ever given him a brass razzoo or pocket money, unlike his older brother, and he has made loads of money and is still at school. Depending on what he wants to do, particularly with respect to further education, me and him as a business team would be unstoppable.

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