As Business Talent Group’s Chief Knowledge and Innovation Officer and a true thought leader on the future of work, Sandra Pinnavaia leads BTG’s business innovation work, building and nurturing key channel partnerships and enterprise relationships with top clients. Sandra has been with BTG since the company’s launch, bringing over 25 years of experience as a business leader, management consultant, and trusted advisor to her work transforming the way clients access high-end independent talent for critical business priorities.
In this episode of the BTG Insights on Demand podcast, Sandra joins Jennifer Napier, Chief Marketing Officer for BTG, to talk about a few of the biggest leadership and resourcing trends shaping organizations today. Listen to the episode or read our lightly edited transcript of the chat below.
Hi Sandra, it's great to have you on the podcast today.
Hey Jen, it's great to be here. This is going to be fun.
Let's start off with what seems to be on everyone's mind right now: hiring. We're hearing that many companies across a range of industries just can't seem to hire fast enough. What do you recommend organizations do if they need skills and roles filled in what is proving to be a really tight labor market?
Well, you're totally right. It is suddenly a very, very tight labor market. And it's fascinating how fast it changed. It was literally only a couple of months ago where companies were still dealing with very high levels of uncertainty that made them unwilling to commit to permanent hires and restart certain initiatives.
Things have changed very, very quickly. What we're seeing now across almost all industries is a drastic reopening of permanent hiring, the re-initiation of major change efforts—and just, wow, the flood gates are open. It's true. We are having both large and small clients tell us that they're back in the market trying to hire all the way from the factory floor up to the C-suite.
They're trying to hire for at least two reasons. One is to accommodate the rapid growth that is happening as the economy recovers. But they're also trying to hire in order to take advantage of some of the structural changes that have happened as a result of the last year of the pandemic: changes in customer behavior, changes in product offerings.
So there's both a recovery and a sort of modernization of businesses that's going on, which is challenging companies to bring in new kinds of skills in new proportion into the company. Our colleagues on the permanent search side of the business are seeing this in the form of unprecedented levels of new permanent hires going on. And we at BTG are seeing this in terms of unprecedented levels of demand for on-demand talent, or freelancers, being placed into companies.
The recommendation that we would have about this moment is that companies can accelerate this hiring challenge by turning to on-demand talent—by bringing in people immediately to bridge to the permanent hires and to have the skills that they need at hand immediately as part of their acceleration strategy.
I like what you said about the two vectors: that it's accommodating the rapid growth as the economy recovers, but also to take advantage of structural changes. That's really an interesting way to think about it.
Are there particular skills or roles that are most in demand, particularly when you're thinking about those two vectors? What are you hearing?
I'd probably break it into two segments: smaller and mid-cap companies versus large corporations. On the smaller and mid-cap company side, there's just no question. The demand is for primarily HR and finance talent that allows companies to scale to the next level of sophistication or capacity.
A lot of companies have been getting by, for example, with a head of HR, who's been doing the basics. But as they're looking to literally double or triple in size over the next year, they need to create a whole HR function that can grow that fast and really build the infrastructure to support the organization going ahead.
So bringing in really skilled people on demand in order to create, for example, online hiring processes for factory workers; to build out policies and culture change that will support the integration of several acquisitions. Huge amounts of acceleration in the maturity of these companies, which is about taking the business to the next level. The same is true on the finance side, and increasingly on the IT or information side of these smaller and mid-cap businesses.
In contrast, in the major corporation world, we continue to see a very strong demand for unbundled management consultants. But really what's happening inside the big companies is the resumption of important strategic initiatives, the implementation and execution of strategic initiatives.
Some of which were paused during the pandemic. Others were started, but now need to be rapidly brought to completion, because there's just so much else going on. On the corporate side, we're seeing a lot of demand for what I'd call very skilled, high-end strategic initiative leaders or project managers who can help with product launches. They can help with supply chain restructuring—that's been ongoing now for a year. They can help with getting that completed and really transforming businesses for the new era.
You're saying in mid-cap, it’s HR, finance, and some IT. And in the large corporations, it's those project managers who can really fuel the key initiatives?
Yeah, I like to think of it as kind of the grease between the gears. On the corporate side, maybe you have terrific assets in the company, you may also be working with top consulting firms—and yet there are still gaps and places to knit together all of the resourcing that's being applied to some of the changes and transformations that these companies are undergoing.
For example, we have a client that's a major North American grocery chain, which a year ago really had to become an online business overnight. Obviously they still have grocery stores with milk on the shelves, but they also had to stand up the ability to be able to serve customers online. That transformation started with a bang last year in the pandemic, is continuing today, and needs to be brought to a full completion.
It's not hard to imagine why this is challenging. There are in-house teams, there are consultants involved—and even so they needed the on-demand talent, the expertise that was there, to come in and play these temporary roles that are so critical to completing that transformation.
We talked about skills and role gaps, but we have seen organizations who need help translating those gaps into projects. How do you recommend companies turn those needs into defined projects where you can really leverage on-demand talent?
Well, the simplest advice I offer clients probably four or five times a day is: embrace the short term. This is the trick to unlocking some of the talent needs out there. If you can focus only on the work that needs to be done in the next three months, the next quarter, you are suddenly liberated from the long list of must-haves and nice-to-haves for the permanent long-term position.
This allows you to over-index on what is really critical to the work that needs to be done immediately. Instead of pulling everything into a one-and-done permanent hire, it’s very simple to define the first thing that needs done. It's literally saying, “What aspect of this work stream, or this function, or this job description that I'm looking at here are really must-haves for the next three months, versus what am I going to need six months from now and beyond?”
When clients can do that, they literally feel relief, they feel liberated, and they can focus on just bringing in what is needed now—with confidence that they can get what's needed later, later. This is, I think, the definition of agility with a lowercase “a.” It's about being able to break things apart and move quickly and confidently from priority to priority.
That's the first thing that I would recommend when trying to projectize work in a way that's different. Everybody knows how easy it is to add on to a job description or add on to your worries and criteria for major initiatives. That laundry list can get pretty long, pretty quickly.
So when we say to clients, “Well, let's actually try and simplify. Let's just look at what do you need before Labor Day.” It gets a lot easier. I love that part of this job because it is about making it better for clients.
We also give advice to companies to just break off pieces of work that are sitting on their desk. Executives have work sitting on their desk that they just can't get to, but it's bugging them. They know it has to be done. Every day they get up and they're feeling worse and worse because they haven't been able to give this particular project that's sitting on their desk enough time and attention.
If you can carve that off and say, “You know what? If I just had a clone of myself, or if I just had a specialist in this particular thing who could take this off my plate for six weeks and just do it, it would make all the difference in the world.”
That is a very practical suggestion to busy executives. What is nagging you at night that's sitting on your desk and not getting enough attention? How can I turn that into a project and bring in someone just to help me with that?
A great example of that recently is with a major asset management company where the senior executive literally was saying, “I know I have to get to this comp and benefits issue that I have. I am behind on embracing this issue. If I could just lift it off my desk and give it to someone else to advance it to this point, I would be so grateful.”
In that case, we were able to drop in a comp and benefits person on a special project—not as a formal interim head of comp and benefits—but literally just to push this project forward analytically and in terms of the vendor relationships for a couple of months. Again, providing immediate relief to the client. Those are two examples of projectizing: focusing just on the short term, and secondly, lifting stuff off your desk that's been sitting there and not getting the attention it needs.
This feels a lot like we're moving into business and talent strategy to build agility, resilience, and flexibility into the organization for growth. Where do on-demand talent fit into that overall business and talent strategy?
If I can make it really simple: it's a new talent acquisition channel that, for the most part, major corporations have been slow to adopt at an enterprise level. There's a lot of our experiences with real line managers who see the value and have immediate needs, but have a hard time translating this through the traditional HR function who are trained experts at turning everything into a permanent hiring situation. So I think the opportunity for businesses is to recognize that this is really real—that it's been tested now for almost 15 years.
But in actuality—and being a little bit provocative here—in many ways they have been late to adopt this at the senior levels. There are some movements at the more outsourced task levels to use the human cloud and to use platforms to offload work to others outside of the company. But at the senior levels of business, at the management tiers, at the leadership levels, we see a lot of mystifying hesitancy from talent leaders to embrace this channel of talent.
It's a shame because not only is the quality of the talent fantastic, but as we've been talking about, the business benefits of being able to move more quickly, de-risk situations, experiment with new roles, and generally accelerate your objectives—because you can really bring people on in a couple of days, only for as long as needed—those are powerful business value propositions.
What we are seeing now is a rapid change in posture from even a year ago, where talent acquisition heads and CHROs are starting to recognize that this is not just the future of work, but this is a solution to immediate pain points in the business—as well as a really valuable tool for their business partners and leaders who are all feeling incredibly overworked and stretched in this recovery.
If this is really about the business benefits of moving more quickly, and de-risking, and accelerating objectives, how do you compartmentalize the ways that on-demand talent should be and could be used within an organization?
Oh, well, that's fun question to ask a management consultant.
That's why I did it, Sandra.
Well, of course, the right answer is there are three ways.
Do you want to draw? Can you draw on a podcast?
I would like to. Could you have a whiteboard here? Audio whiteboard, we need one of those.
A lot of people, when they think about on-demand executives, they default to interim executives and the formal interim executive role.
“I have a gap. I'm going to market, and I'm trying to hire a permanent person for fill in the blank. It's a permanent head of pharmacovigilance for a pharmaceutical company. It's a permanent Chief Information Security Officer. Fill in the blank. I have a gap, and so I want a version of that now as an interim.“
And it's true, that is something that on-demand talent can do. But I think that's only the beginning, right? We should be able to do interim placements, not only at the C-suite, but down at the functional levels.
In a major corporation, you might think about that all the way through the L2, L3, L4 layers of the organization, or roughly equivalent to senior vice presidents, vice presidents—and maybe in some major corporations—heads of functions or divisions with different titles. That's the interim bucket, right? But then I think there are these two other ways that really stand out in my mind.
One is something that we haven't talked about so much in this conversation so far, but it's around using some of the best management consultants in the world, unbundled from the traditional structures of a traditional management consultancy. Bringing in the small molecule team of heavy hitters who have just the expertise that's needed, but they're geared at a smaller level to solve a problem where perhaps the full force of an Accenture or McKinsey isn't needed.
We see a lot of that going on right now, and it's a total solution for the smaller and mid-cap companies that traditionally can't afford and don't need the full bang solution from a big consulting firm. But even in major corporations, we see very high levels of demand for that as the right-sized expert consulting for projects that are, let's say, less than a million dollars, where it's hard to get the attention of a big consultancy to do those projects. So that's the second way.
Then the third way is in this category of what I'd call creative and special projects, where it's neither interim nor consulting, but it's someone who's hands-on, who's coming in, and maybe that role is defined as temporary by design from the beginning. It's going to go away after this executive comes in and e.g. stands up the supply chain for PPE.
Once that's stood up, the ongoing supply chain team can run it, but we needed an executive to come stand it up. Not to advise on it. Not to be the interim Chief Supply Chain Officer. But just to come in and put their hands on the situation and fix it. So there's a whole range of those kind of special creative projects that we can structure together with on-demand talent to meet different business situations.
Do you see that as a growing opportunity? This idea of scrambling to stand up a business or a function—maybe it's because you're in the middle of a transformation or there's a new opportunity—do you see that happening more and more?
Well, I have been astonished. I mean, everybody's talking about SPACs this year, so I guess I might as well also. The number of conversations that we've had recently where a company is saying, "We are going to go public through a SPAC, or through an IPO, in the next X months, two months, four months, nine months." Nobody is talking about waiting longer than that at this point.
But they're like, we have got to be ready to basically stand up a whole new level of business, right? Sometimes that is a new business unit, sometimes it's new function. We have got to do it almost overnight in order to meet the demands of being a public company. In addition, we see—as a result of the disruptions of COVID—so many really interesting new businesses just taking off.
Earlier this week, I was talking with a company that literally had a million dollars of sales in 2019, had $10 million of sales in 2020, and is expecting $100 million dollars in sales in 2021. I mean, that is almost exponential growth, and in order to do that, they have to stand up so much. There are different product lines. There are different go-to-market models and business units. There are new functions in the organization. So yeah, I think there's a ton of that going on right now.
Then in the major corporate side, we continue to see companies doing really interesting things. Businesses that have information that they’re trying to monetize, or standing up a business unit that is about monetizing the information—that asset that they've built from the core business—and based on the customer marketplace, their own pace of willingness to invest in this business stand-up, they recognized that because of on-demand talent, they could play out the line a little bit.
They could get started. They could start building some of the key pieces of it. They could explore and test while they were building—all without having to commit either to the skill profile or the compensation package for some key executives before they were ready. They could avoid having to commit to that too early in the process. So this allowed the company to actually move faster in their pilot and test phase, and then transition very quickly into the early stage of operations simultaneously with going-to-market to bring on the permanent executives for those roles.
And then transitioned beyond that to the permanent state where a lot had been defined, and they were able to index the skill set for the permanent hires a little bit more towards the build-and-grow dimension—rather than the initial explore and stand-up dimension. So it accelerated things enormously in terms of the actual launch. It also de-risked the launch and the hires in both the launch itself and the permanent hires that they made.
Here's the other one. We've seen a huge number of clients recently that have traditionally been B2B companies now standing up B2C businesses. In some cases, even preparing to carve those out and spin them off. One client said to me, "Well, we're ready to go on this business, but it's like we've carved out a business that has no arms and legs. It doesn't have any of the corporate functions. We need to stand up all of the corporate functions around the core product offering." I think there's a lot of that happening right now, and no signs of it abating anytime soon.
Do you see on-demand talent and interim leaders as a way to go for all of those scenarios? What's your advice?
Well, it's tricky. I think, probably the universal answer is of course you need both. Of course you need permanent people who are going to ride through the transition, and who believe in the vision, and are going to be working toward that vision now in the immediate term, and the mid-term, and the long-term. Of course you need that.
But there are going to be pieces of that which are either not possible to get fast enough, or that it might make sense to experiment with and accelerate by bringing in sooner. I think it's a both/and strategy. Yes, make permanent hires. Yes, use traditional advisory resources through consultancies and specialized business firms. But also go back to that grease between the gears comment, and think about on-demand talent as a really necessary component of the machine.
I want to go back to interim, because I've heard you talk about how the idea of interim leadership has really changed and expanded over time. I’d like to understand a little bit more about what that means, and how the concept has evolved.
I'm not the best historian on this, but what I will say is that we know that the interim executive marketplace is quite mature in areas around the globe that are outside of the US. For example, in Europe, for a variety of reasons, the interim executive world exists. It exists primarily as semi-locally based boutiques that are matchmakers to retired executives who might go in and be a steady hand on the rudder in a number of situations.
If you're in Italy and you need a temporary Chief Operating Officer, because you've had a sudden departure, there are boutiques who can sometimes offer a solution. Interestingly, in the US, we don't have a mature interim executive marketplace. Because of our labor laws, etc., it just hasn't emerged as a service category.
So here in the US, there are a couple of myths that I would suggest trying to dispel. One is that interim execs means C-suite. In reality it can be much deeper in the organization than just an interim CEO or an interim CFO. It's about, as I said earlier, bringing in folks who are leaders and management-level people down several layers in the organization. That's one myth that I would dispel.
The second one, which is interesting, is that it's not a mini version of the permanent hire. It's not magic. It's not like we can do a fast search and drop in the perfect long-term person who's an exact clone of the executive who left. It is an opportunity—and in fact, I would argue a serious strategic advantage—to think about the gap as the chance to do something different and better, that's focused in a really serious way on the short term.
I think we want to move beyond interim execs as a sort of steady hand on the rudder to, okay, you have a gap, maybe that's actually an opportunity to approach the situation quite differently and over index on some skills, some priorities, in order to make the best use of the crisis, essentially.
As we talk about leadership, I've also heard you speak a lot about leadership liquidity. So what is that and why should executives care?
Well, it's interesting, I think change is the only constant at this point. I mean, sorry, that’s like trotting out an old trope—but the pace at which businesses are evolving has never been faster, right? I think everyone would just agree with that. And there are ultimately limitations to humans’ capability to deliver against constant levels of change, right?
While you can have the sort of strong leadership team that you're developing, that you're planning for succession—this is not suggesting that that's not important. Let me just be really clear, that's always going to be important.
And yet on top of that, the number of things that happen that are unforeseen, or opportunities that emerge—especially right now coming out of a pandemic crisis—where there are competitive opportunities that emerge, there are customer opportunities, there are acquisition opportunities that emerge, all of this demands a level of responsiveness throughout the organization.
A lot has been written about that more down in the bowels of the organization: how you are more agile when creating teams in the organization, how you in some cases deal with the staffing industry differently. Companies look at this from both a cost and a change basis kind of below the leadership levels, but they've never looked at it all the way up to the top.
What we're really talking about is the idea that you can start to match the company's changeability more holistically across the organization with the opportunity or the threat that's immediately at hand.
Everybody's been talking about digital transformation for a very long time, and of course you have to build that out with permanent hires in lots of different functions. People have been talking about that with regard to data analytics, and how does that change the business, and what do you need to invest in long-term to have the right skills in house, and the right priorities in the business. And yet on top of all of that, there are going to be things that happen in businesses that require additional levels of leadership, and changeability without abandoning other things.
It just becomes this, again, more modern organizational capacity to respond to the realities of business today. That's leadership liquidity, not replacing, it's just enhancing the permanent leadership team.
Sandra, you've mentioned a couple of times now about seizing on opportunities that have been created because of what has happened over the last 15 months, where consumers are changing their behavior in a number of different ways and organizations are changing their supply chains. I'd love to hear an example that you have encountered where a leadership team or an organization has really seized upon an opportunity and a change in consumer tastes and rapidly.
This is kind of leadership liquidity in action, right? One example that comes to mind is with a Fortune 100 food and beverage client, where because all of a sudden everybody was eating breakfast at home, it really changed demand for some of the legacy breakfast products that the company had.
And there was already stress and strain on the business, but they needed someone in the midst of everything that was going on to come in and really focus on the opportunity created by the fact that now the entire world was eating breakfast at home. So how would they take advantage of this sudden and completely unforeseen spike in demand for a legacy category that had been kind of coasting along.
So they created a special SEAL team of operators. There was not time to be doing strategy around how to revive this brand. It was about pulling it together really, really quickly to take advantage of the opportunity and to make sure that not only the marketing and the front-end—the commercial opportunity—was satisfied, but that the backend supply chain was able to meet that demand as well.
That was a real-life example of suddenly there's an opportunity in front of you where you may want to redirect some of your internal resources, but even that may not be enough because you've been running lean, and you just need to bring in the expertise that can help seize that opportunity. I think right now there's just been so many examples of this happening as a result of unprecedented levels of change in consumer behavior brought about by this pandemic and economic crisis. On top of what has been structurally just an incredibly profound change with regard to digitization and digital IQ everywhere.
Businesses becoming more direct-to-consumer. We have industrial clients looking at things like customer loyalty programs for the first time. We have financial services carving out wildly different kinds of products that are direct-to-consumer, and all of this is sort of icing on the cake. The companies did not resource expecting those opportunities to be presenting themselves, so using that sort of special SEAL team to go after these opportunities is another trend that's just very real right now.
I like that, a SEAL team or a special team to tackle a problem.
Exactly, and it's assuming where you're borrowing that talent from outside often, from outside your industry even. If you're a traditional industrial company that doesn't have any customer loyalty experience, it's just such a cool idea to bring that in from the hotel industry or from the airline industry. And to think about how to translate it into an opportunity immediately without committing to a long-term hire in that area.
It's not just the resourcing level, it's the chance to really creatively compose that SEAL team with just the special ops that you need, just the special operations folks that are really going to add to the mix.
Do think that there's an opportunity there also to experiment or to innovate? Is it really about just a problem or some experimentation with a role or team?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. There's just no question. I mean, the way in which healthcare is evolving right now, for example, is just a continual level of innovation—and has been for going on 20 years now. But just in the last week, I've talked to a couple of clients, one that comes from a traditional health insurance background and one that is more of a primary care online startup, where the moment is presenting itself as just a wildly different opportunity.
How do you look at doing and insuring healthcare in yet another wildly different way as a result of the changes that have happened? I think it's very opportunity rich, and it's about growth. It's not about just trying to drive savings and EBITDA.
It’s so refreshing that we're talking about growth, right? The last 15 months have all been uncertainty and now we're actually talking about growth again. It feels so liberating, right?
It is totally liberating. It really is. And I think it's going to be wildly interesting as we get to the back half of this year, because we know that there are so many permanent searches out there right now. All of the recruiting firms are reporting record high numbers. It will be really interesting to see how it goes as those are filled—if they can be filled. Are people really going to be as willing to pick up, and move, and take on new roles?
How many more people are going to want to be working from home and maybe embrace a different way of working? I think this is all going to play out in really profound ways. And it's not going to be a snap back to the pre-pandemic ways of working for individuals or for companies.
I guess in closing one of the things I would just throw out there, Jen, and I don't know what you think. It's like the time has come really for on-demand talent to emerge from the hazy future of work to holy cow, this is really here. It's here in a way that's not just quantity, but it's here because business demands it. It's that the level of change, the set of opportunities that present itself, the scarcity of some forms of talent—it all demands that companies think more creatively about resourcing at the leadership level and embrace the ability to move more quickly.
Well, Sandra, I could not come up with a better close than that. With that I just want to say, thank you so much for your time today. It is always so much fun for us to get together and chat. It has been a delight. So thank you so much.
Well, thanks, Jen. This was really fun, and the only thing I'm sad about is we didn't get to the horse and the narwhal example.
Well, let's do that right now. Horse and narwhal, horse and narwhal, what is that story?
Sorry. We've had some good laughs about this, but I actually think it's not a bad visual to give people. Everyone knows about the proverbial purple unicorn, when folks want a perfect solution of someone of whom there exists exactly one in the world of this incredibly magical purple unicorn talent that combines all of the best features needed in the industry experience, their functional experience, where they're located, the color of their hair. It just goes on and on.
Those purple unicorns—it's kind of a labored analogy—but we try and break those down all the time, so that we can be pragmatic, and we can deliver on it. We try to break them literally into horses and narwhals, where we say, "For this part of this person's role, would a horse do?" And by the way here are three really nice examples of terrific talent who can do this piece of this role or attack this part of this problem or opportunity.
And then we save the part with the unicorn horn for the narwhal, who maybe comes in on a more limited basis, bringing particular areas of expertise or emphasis to the solution. So you are able to take the impossible and turn it into something that is doable—and by the way, may also have savings associated with it.
That's my somewhat fanciful analogy, and I think the more companies can try and do that and let go of visions of purple unicorns coming into their organization with a one-and-done kind of magical resume, the faster they'll be able to move. I don't know, is it bad? You can give me three stars on that out of five.
I like it! Horses, narwhals, impossible, doable, with the savings. I mean, it's perfect. Thank you, Sandra.
Alright, have a good one.
Read more of Sandra's thoughts on the role of on-demand talent and interim executives or reach out to start a project with one of thousands of independent talent and interim leaders with today's most in demand skills.