On-Demand Talent in an Economic Slowdown

January 20, 2023 Sandra Pinnavaia

In today's challenging market, many companies are holding back. We see clients slowing hiring, tightening budgets, and reprioritizing strategic initiatives. At the same time, they’re continuing to strive for growth and watching carefully for moments to spring into action as the economy turns. Trying to do all of this, in a somewhat unfamiliar and unsettled economic context, and with tighter resources, sounds like a really tough act. It is. And, it turns out, it’s a perfect moment to use high-end on-demand talent to help.

Business Talent Group (BTG) has seen a version of this movie before. In 2008, when we were a brand-new company, we prepared for the worst as our clients began to freeze headcount, undertake RIFs, and slow down or hold back on planned investments. We expected that we, too, would be forced to retract and retrench. Surprisingly, our business grew extremely quickly during the Great Recession and the period immediately following.

We are seeing a similar set of phenomena now—although certainly less dramatically than in 2008—as our clients gird themselves for what may yet become a recession. We’ve seen many clients, large and small, slow down hiring processes, trim operating costs, scale back their use of traditional consultancies, and take a rigorous, fresh look at how to pivot or rebalance workflows. Increasingly, clients value optionality and nimbleness as they play out economic and competitive scenarios—and they’re using on-demand talent to help them do so.

Here are three common—and we think smart—scenarios in which clients have recently put on-demand talent to work:

1. Quickly improve bottom-line performance

Of course, in-house management is consistently looking for these opportunities. Yet the day-to-day demands of running the business—coupled with the ever-present challenge for internal leaders of true objectivity—can make it difficult to quickly identify, confirm, and act upon smart, short-term performance improvement measures in any given function or business line. That’s where the infusion of experienced on-demand talent can make the difference. Two quick examples:

Modest but real and quick cost reduction

The US CEO of a midcap industrial client recently needed to find 5% savings quickly. To help, he brought in an experienced former COO for a special project. This “freelance executive” had, as an independent consultant, helped several previous clients tighten up operations. He was brought into a specially designed short-term “Chief Transformation Officer” role and, over an intensely focused four-month period, helped the leadership team find ways not only to cut costs but also to streamline and improve operations.

Pricing improvement during inflation

The CEO of a B2B services company saw the need to abruptly tweak annual contracts as she headed into their fiscal year beginning in June given the sudden emergence of inflation. The company brought in a top-flight independent pricing consultant, formerly of Bain & Co, to quickly assess and propose modifications that enabled the company to deliver against profitability objectives despite rising costs and without losing customers.

2. Protect and grow pockets of innovation

Perhaps counter-intuitively, we’re seeing clients not letting a good crisis go to waste, to borrow a phrase from Churchill. Instead they’re using this economic moment to stoke innovation by pulling up to take a fresh look at how customer needs and pain points are changing in substantial and sudden ways. Others are recognizing and working to capitalize on discontinuities in their markets and readying themselves for fairly dramatic strategic pivots. And some have even made opportunistic acquisitions, taking advantage of depressed prices.

The judicious and highly targeted use of on-demand talent helps leaders make the most of these moments even when resources are limited. How? Injecting skills and expertise exactly where and only when needed, rather than building out all-purpose teams for innovation or business model transformation teams.

For example, we have a client in the food and beverage industry that is exploring entry into wildly new business categories by using skilled executives from these “new” areas to get smart quickly and to pilot concepts. Another example: We have a client in the recreation and entertainment sector staffing a newly-in-seat Chief Innovation Officer with on-demand analysts and innovation consultants until he decides what type of team and processes are needed to drive the innovation muscle throughout the company.

We’ve been impressed with how many of our clients are explicitly attempting to simultaneously batten down the hatches in their core businesses while quietly and selectively upping investment in innovation. On-demand talent becomes a “strike force alpha”-type talent strategy for these critical innovations.

3. Align skills and leadership with the immediate future—and buy time for longer-term talent decisions

Here’s a very common client need we’re hearing these days: “We had planned to build out a [fill in the blank] leader/team…but we’ve decided to wait. Yet, we have a) work building up or b) a number of questions still to answer.”

Woah, tough, but here’s the good news.

There is an in-between solution, one that simultaneously honors the imperative of the moment to hold off on permanent commitments while not putting everything on ice. On-demand talent can be used in any number of ways in short bursts on projects.

If you’ll allow a sports analogy or two here, we are seeing clients use on-demand talent to:

  1. “Chalk the field.” I.e., prepare the way and get things set up in advance of “the big game.” Recent clients have, for example, brought in skilled analytical leaders to complete phase-zero analysis. Others have used on-demand executives to set up underlying systems (e.g., HR information systems, ERPs) that will be necessary regardless of who is brought in as the permanent leader or when.
  2. “Move the ball downfield.” Similarly, we’ve watched clients rapidly switch strategies, from one BIG permanent hire (aka, the long, high-stakes perfect pass on a football field) to a more incremental one involving a series of shorter plays. What do we mean? Clients will take a phased approach, bringing in a temporary leader for one phase of work, often the initial build. This way, they over-index on the skills needed for the immediate work and moment and just get that done. Then, they can either pause or reflect and deploy the best team for the next phase of work. We’ve seen this happen very successfully as one of our top clients in healthcare stood up and spun out a new business, taking this approach with several key leadership roles including the CIO and the CISO roles.

In short, as the purse strings tighten while both opportunity and challenge for the business abounds, we encourage clients to explore how high-end, on-demand talent can be put to use in creative and powerful ways. Preserve your options, stay nimble, prevent work from piling up or burying your permanent leadership team—and get the exact skills and experience you need for what's immediately ahead.


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About the Author

Sandra Pinnavaia

Sandra Pinnavaia is BTG's EVP and Chief Innovation Officer. She brings over 25 years of experience as a business leader, management consultant, and trusted advisor, and she drives the development of the company’s enterprise relationships with top clients.

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