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Independence over employment: the new talent revolution

There is a new talent revolution afoot, according to Jennifer Woollford is the Founder and Director of NEON Leaders.

Amid the noise of the great future of the office debate and where we work, there’s a quieter yet arguably more significant change afoot around how we get work done as a growing pool of experienced talent to choose independent working over employment.

Almost every day another company is making clear where they stand on getting everyone back to the office, getting rid of office spaces altogether, or the more tempered somewhere in between. No doubt those who fail to build flexibility into whichever model they chose will erode their talent base. Progressive employers will accelerate approaches that allow their teams to effectively collaborate whilst also providing flexibility. Those that do this successfully will have their pick of all the top talent. Or will they?

This assumes that all the top talent is available for ‘ownership’. Or indeed that it’s affordable to engage all the skills and experiences that a business needs through permanent employment or traditional third parties such as agencies and consultancies who also own talent.

For a long time, engaging independent talent has been seen as a stop-gap or a temporary fix rather than a core part of a talent strategy. Permanent employment has dominated as the preferred way to engage. This has been shifting at a snail’s pace for a number of years, slowly evolving, but its time has come.

The mentality of both talent and businesses is changing rapidly with a model of open talent emerging, strategically complementing permanent resources with agile talent on demand when teams’ capabilities or capacity need to be rapidly scaled or expanded. Procter & Gamble articulate this as a three-pronged “build, buy, borrow” talent strategy. Forward-thinking brand leaders have voiced it as “skills and speed over vacancies”. I like to call it “heads without the overheads”.

Fundamental to the success of open talent is the quality of talent available. In a working world where salary and job titles defined success, employment and climbing a linear career ladder was the de facto choice. But this too is a-changing. Some of the best talents no longer want to be continuously employed for the duration of their careers. We will live and

work longer than ever before, stretching careers that used to last 30 years over 50 years plus. We’re seeking different ways in which we can learn and grow, both personally and professionally. We’re more mindful of the importance of our mental and physical health. For some, they want their careers to be a marathon rather than a sprint to the top and independent working provides an opportunity to continue to deliver, develop and advance as it becomes more valued as part of a talent ecosystem.

Alongside emerging talent strategies and the growth of top talent choosing to work independently, there’s a third game-changer driving this quiet revolution. Collectives. The big problem with open talent is for companies it can be disparate, pot luck and short-term, and for talent, particularly those who have thrived in corporate environments, it can be lonely and not conducive to delivering their best work. Collectives are changing all that. By bringing independent talent together, companies can build long term, strategic partnerships with talent communities and those in the communities can work, learn and thrive together. When faced with a brand or business challenge that needs solving quickly, the skills and experiences needed are just a phone call away. If those differ for the next challenge, then so does the team. For many talents, when independent working is a career stage rather than a final flourish at the end of a linear corporate career, collectives enable them to build a strong identity and presence and develop their networks and relationships for whatever may come next.

As our industry seeks to build diversity, equality and inclusion, the realisation is dawning that challenges lie not with the talent, but with our work structures. Traditional employment models and linear career paths are not designed for diversity or to foster diverse thinking. Open talent brings an exciting opportunity for change that can drive the growth of brands, talent and our industry.

Jennifer Woollford is the Founder and Director of NEON Leaders, a collective of senior marketing leaders with in-house expertise. The article was written as part of a series of thought leadership pieces penned by members of The Marketing Society Asia.

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