The freelance interview – the client perspective

In the second freelance  interview in this series, we look at the world of freelancing from the client perspective –  chatting to Adam Davey – the Co-founder and Director of Petaurum Solutions; your trusted partner for tailor-made HR solutions, Benefits and Pension Auto Enrolment.

Adam, thank you for giving up your valuable time to talk to us today. Can you start by telling us a little about Petaurum Solutions?

We’ve been operating for around 3-years now, and we’re specialists in employment-related services and products – ranging from the provision of HR-related services for any size of business (in any sector); through to the products we provide – such as employee benefit schemes, pension auto enrolment, and commoditised employment packages for small and micro enterprises.

We’re about people; about adding value to a business that is looking to grow or change – or one that requires access to some skills or capabilities that they don’t have in-house.

Our strap line is ‘your springboard to success’.  In fact, Petaurum (Pet-or-um) is Latin for springboard and this encapsulates what we are about; providing all our clients with a springboard to move them towards their business goals.

You clearly use freelancers a lot.  Why is that?

There are two main reasons – firstly to provide additional capacity, and secondly to acquire a specialist capability that we don’t possess in-house.  When contracting freelancers for capacity, it tends to be for HR generalists – more of the same skills that we already have within the business (general HR, employee relations, employment law, training and engagement etc.).

When we contract for a niche skill, it tends to be for ‘reward specialists’.  On some of our projects we need someone to take a ‘vertical slice’ down a reward stream and carry out an in-depth piece of work – such as the development of an employee reward strategy, a pay and grading structure, salary progression principles – linking the reward strategy with a performance framework that we’ve developed elsewhere, or the benchmarking of remuneration packages.

We often contract out for such specialist freelance roles, as it is not something we always have enough of within the company – and it isn’t something that we need to retain more of on a permanent basis.  In essence, the type of freelance services we contract out is dependant on our clients needs and/or size of the project in hand.

In terms of bringing in specialist HR freelancers, which niche capability do you tend to require the most?

Reward specialists.  Closely followed by learning and development specialists and health and safety experts.

When recruiting freelance HR generalists, is there a minimum skill set or experience that you want to see on CVs?

The industry standard is the Chartered Membership of the CIPD (MCIPD or FCIPD); but it is certainly not the case that you HAVE to be a member of that organisation (or at that level) to be a good HR practitioner.  I know good HR practitioners who aren’t members at all. Although membership of the CIPD is your ‘obvious’ indicator, for me it’s much more about the types of roles, organisations and sectors that a person has worked as and within.

Very often, people who have worked in a very large organisation have typically done so within very tightly-defined boundaries, and have carried out a very, very specific role.  Within a smaller organisation, you tend to be ‘more things to more people’ – you tend to have ‘more strings to your bow’ – and freelancers with this type of experience tend to be far more useful to us.

As we tend to focus on the SME market, we require more ‘adaptable people’ and I find that good HR generalists are exactly that – they can turn their hand to lots of different things; whereas if you have worked in a very large organisation – even as a generalist – you may have been focussing on one niche capability.

In essence, we’re looking for depth and breadth of experience.

There are increasing numbers of people who are opting for freelance work straight from University.  Would you be interested in contracting such a freelancer?

We tend to rely on an individual’s broad set of experiences.  Although there is undoubtedly a need to understand theory (through qualifications), this work is not formulaic; it’s about applying your professional expertise to the situation that’s in front of you, and being able to demonstrate to that business owner, that manager, that FD – or whoever you’re talking to – that the solution you’re proposing is going to drive the outcomes that they’re interested in.

Although I would never say ‘never’ – those skills and competencies required to demonstrate professional aptitude tend to come from experience; with a proven track record across a number of different facets of HR.  However, someone who has undergone a graduate training programme within a large organisation may undoubtedly have that experience we require.

So in terms of qualifications, is a degree essential?

No – not in my opinion. It isn’t essential, although it is an easy indicator of a relevant intellect isn’t it?  There are various degrees in Human Resourcing, and in specialist elements of HR but it isn’t essential.  There has been a definite shift in the status of the profession; not least since the CIPD achieved a Chartered status, and I think things will evolve off the back of that – with the required skills sets to achieve MCIPD morphing as they become more subscripted.

What are the main attributes that you look for in a freelancer?

In terms of the individual, the ultimate test is ‘would I trust this individual to represent my business in front of a client?’

It’s about their credibility, it’s about their approach and personality – how they come across; are they an engaging, credible, and articulate individual?  It sounds almost clichéd, but I want them to be flexible, and whilst they are working for me I expect the same high standards and service levels that I give.  Whether you call it chemistry or personality – they need to gel with the team and be effective consultants.

I guess when it comes down to attributes of a freelancer; I’m looking for ‘my type of people’.

Where do you tend to recruit freelancers from?

There is a dedicated Careers Page on our website that any freelancer can submit their CVs through, but we tend to meet many of our pool of freelancers through networking.

Interestingly – at recent networking event I attended – there were 4 or 5 independent freelance HR specialists; and as soon as they found out my business most of them ‘closed up’ and didn’t engage further!

One of the attendees was a really dynamic ‘benefits’ specialist; and we’re already discussing how she can be contracted on our projects.  The others, however seemed to see us as ‘competition’ – and I was genuinely shocked that they didn’t seem to grasp the ‘collaboration’ potential.

There seems to be an inordinate number of ‘one-man-bands’ out there – seeking to engage with clients on one-off work packages such as grievance or disciplinary issues.  That kind of work is so far off our radar and is at the bottom of our lists of interests.  I’m not going to compete with them for that work.

So my advice to these guys is simple – don’t shut up shop; come and talk to me.  I’m not one of your competitors; I’m a potential client!  The first thought that goes through my mind as I meet other HR professionals is collaboration – not competition.

This again comes down to talking to like-minded people when networking – and with this closed mind-set they’re clearly not ‘my kind of people’.  Put yourself out there – have a conversation; many will go nowhere, but what about that one conversation at a point in the future when you realise there’s synergy…?

With your freelancers, how do you remain engaged with them – and moreover; how do you expect them to remain engaged with you?

There is no magical formula to this stuff; the reality is you just have to work at it.  95% of engagement is nothing more spectacular than picking up the phone and talking – regularly.  When you know your paths are going to cross – meet up.  Make the effort to sit down over a coffee and have that all-important face-to-face conversation.  It really is no more complicated than that.

We do have an online portal – a client facing portal used to host our employee benefit schemes, and part of the technology within that is a tool for newsfeeds, and for hosting directed communications etc.  We use that technology with our freelancers as well.

So whose responsibility is it for effective communication then – yours, or the freelancers’?

It’s joint – undoubtedly.  If it isn’t effective two-way communication, then it isn’t going to work for either party in my opinion.  Each party has slightly different objectives in terms of communication; but ultimately you have to bring that together.  The freelancer may be more interested in how we are going to be placing the work with them; what the payment and contracting terms are – or they may be seeking some clarification in terms of work package sign-offs.

From our perspective, it’s about their availability – making sure we keep ourselves at the forefront of their minds for work and availability.  Then your priorities are based on account management and project management of the work they are delivering for you – maintaining a clear picture of the work they are undertaking.

If there is a single tip on any matter that you could give to a HR freelancer out there, what would it be?

Actually – I have two equally important tips for freelancers.  Firstly, be clear about what you are – and promote yourself accordingly through your CV and portfolio.  Next, be agile in how you communicate with people:

“The key to effective networking is maintaining light touch relationships with a large network of people”.
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The worst thing is to only hear from people when they actually want something.  With certain people, I know exactly when their contract is coming to an end – because I get an email or phone call from them.  There is nothing more depressing from our perspective.

Adam, thank you for your time.

To find our more about Petaurum Solutions and their range of products and services, head over to their website at www.petaurumsolutions.co.uk

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