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The Consultancy Growth Network

Optimise the balance of associates and employees

Being able to rapidly respond to the changing needs of clients whilst maintaining high-quality delivery and avoiding carrying a costly bench of resources is an ongoing challenge for consultancies.

To ensure they have the right resource available to them when they win a contract, how do consulting business owners set the strategy for the resourcing model that’s right for their business, and how do they implement it?

I have over 20 years of experience in recruitment, resourcing and talent management. Below I explain how to implement your optimum associate-employee mix and what best practice looks like when it comes to managing resourcing, as well as managing an associate network. 

Employee or associate?

The optimum ratio of permanent employees to associates within your consulting team will be determined by the strategic objectives that you have for your business. As David Bailey, one of the Network’s Growth Experts, puts it: “Factors such as your long term ambitions, the level of control you want over client delivery and the impact of covid on your pipeline will all play a part in determining your employee/associate mix.”

Bear in mind, too, that your ratio of employees to associates is likely to change as you grow. What has worked in the past may not be what you now need to achieve your goals.

When you are starting to build out a permanent team, the key roles to focus on are typically those at the top of your grade structure (people who can lead engagements, manage teams, and own client relationships on the ground) and those at the bottom (versatile junior resources who can be deployed on a range of projects at a low cost to the business). By contrast, mid-level delivery consultant roles can often be more flexibly held by associates, particularly where specific subject matter expertise is needed.

However, it is not simply a case of flipping associates into permanent positions. The level of contribution that you will expect from your permanent team, and their expectations of you as an employer, make employment a very different proposition.

It’s therefore important to stop and reflect on what you are offering employees before committing to permanent hires. Attracting and retaining great people as employees means thinking about your employee value proposition. Why would people want join you and what will they get out of it?

The expectations and needs of permanent employees when it comes to both career development and team culture are far greater than those of associates

The expectations and needs of permanent employees when it comes to both career development and team culture are far greater than those of associates. Until you’re committed to building a firm and a culture that people want to be part of and can offer opportunities for learning and personal development, you’re probably not ready to have permanent employees

How to make the associate model work

Whatever the right balance is for your firm, there are some real advantages to having a proportion of Associates within your team as you scale. But doing so is not without challenges. How do you ensure the right person is available when you need them? How can you maintain consistent quality of delivery as your team grows?

I have outlined below the 5 key elements of best practice resource management when using Associates.

1. Demand forecasting

The more that you can do to align your resource planning with your sales forecasting, the better. So in the same way that you would have a weighted pipeline for sales, you can have a weighted prediction of required resources. This will enable you to identify the capabilities that you need in your Associate network.

It’s important to bear in mind that for every role that you want to use an associate for, you can assume you will need to multiply by at least 3 and probably 5 to have a pool large enough to ensure someone is available when you need them. Remember, you need to keep refreshing this.

2. Attraction and selection

You need assessment exercises that you trust to identify high-quality performance and these need to be deployable

Design processes to support both proactive and reactive resourcing. This means sourcing and selection processes that enable you to make effective decisions about the capability of previously unknown individuals. You need assessment exercises that you trust to identify high-quality performance and these need to be deployable, both proactively and reactively.

If you know in advance that you will need a bigger pool of individuals at a certain rate or in a certain area of capability, then proactively prepare and start to build that pool. Run regular assessments and effectively pre-certify those people that you’d want to use so that then you’ve got them and you can deploy them quickly when you need them. However, often client requirements come unexpectedly so you need to have the process in place to implement it at pace and not take shortcuts and compromise on quality because of the time pressure.

3. Induction

It is important to have consistent onboarding processes in place to ensure the quality of your service delivery. So set the time aside at the outset rather than throwing people in at the deep end, making sure that your associates and employees are well prepared and make a great impression with the client. Share tools, templates and methodologies to ensure consistency of client experience.

4. Relationship management

You need to think proactively about how you manage [associates], make them feel part of the team

Regular planned communications with your associates is worthwhile. When they’re on assignment you need to think proactively about how you manage them, make them feel part of the team, capture their feedback, and provide feedback on their performance. If they’re not working with you, it’s about maintaining a relationship and keeping the data about them accurate and fresh. If you do this, you will build loyalty in that network and be able to use it as a source of referrals.

5. Systems

Proactively building core internal processes and systems to manage resourcing enables you to react swiftly to client demand when it arises and maintain high-quality delivery by both permanent employees and associates.

Questions to ask yourself

To achieve the optimum employee/associate mix, ask your leadership team these questions:

  • Is your current balance of permanent employees and associates going to enable you to achieve your strategic goals for your business? If not, what changes do you need to consider?
  • Are there key roles within your current or future organisation structure that should be locked into employment contracts? What is the risk of not doing this?
  • Is your firm ready, willing and able to react swiftly and effectively to recruit associates or replace associates with employees to maintain the growth and profitability trajectory?

I asked Marc Jantzen, The Consultancy Growth Network’s founder, about his experience of working with consulting owners. “Few consulting businesses have a clearly defined and documented resourcing strategy,” he said. “Mostly their strategy is reactive and short term focused to fulfil a project. This is at odds with the fact that in most cases our people are our product. If you want to achieve sustainability, part of the solution is an effective resourcing strategy, and optimising your mix of associates and employees is an integral part of this.”

I shared this insight with The Consultancy Growth Network’s members at one of their events. For access to the full recording of that workshop, become a member of The Consultancy Growth Network.

Article | OperationsPeople and talent

Written by

Caroline Boston

New Minds