Despite being outsiders with no personal connections or networks, increasingly contractor-managers are doing a terrific job, according to a study by the Center for Human Resources at Wharton School.
When Wharton management professor Peter Cappelli ran into a former student who worked at A-Connect, a management consulting firm, he was so intrigued by the topic of their conversation he instigated a study around it.
The alumnus noticed an increasing number of managers being hired on contract.
“These weren’t consultants or people angling for full-time work, but contractors who were being handed over control of company employees to execute a project or tackle a problem,” said a Wharton article on the study.
“There’s a view in the world of management research, and by extension practice, that the way to be effective in leadership is you need all this social capital, all these relationships. The idea of having a contractor-manager sounds bizarre because they don’t have any of those things,” said Cappelli, who is director of Wharton’s Center for Human Resources.
“How does it work? Because it shouldn’t work, according to all these management theories, and yet it does work,” said Cappelli.
The professor conducted a survey-based study that found successful contractor-managers leverage their outsider status to get things done.
The study, which was co-authored by Bocconi University management professor Tracy Anderson and MIT Sloan Management Review, challenges long-held assumptions about how to build influence in the workplace.
“We think the reason to pay attention to this is that it’s an evergreen question: What makes managers effective?”Peter Cappelli
“We don’t know to what extent contract-management is a trend,” said Cappelli, noting that the pandemic-related rise in remote work likely will result in more independent contractors. “But we think the reason to pay attention to this is that it’s an evergreen question: What makes managers effective?”
Here are some key takeaways from the study:
1) Don’t Be a Jerk
Contractor-managers are hired because they have specific skills to get a specific project done and potentially without the drag of inter-office politics. While the Wharton study noted that these contractors may lack historic social capital about those they will be working with, they can overcome that with “diplomatic skill”.
- They build credibility with employees by sharing, not hoarding, their subject-matter expertise.
- They gain employees’ trust by emphasising that they have no stake in the outcome except a job well done.
- They don’t care about office politics and will even provide opportunities for talented employees to shine.
- The best ones are open-minded, good listeners, and respectful of both boundaries and internal expertise.
Cappelli’s advice: leave the passive-aggressive behaviour at the door.
“They don’t have anything to gain by taking credit from you,” Cappelli said of effective contractor managers. “You can trust them much more than you can trust your own boss by revealing problems. They’re not going to punish you for that, but do you trust your own manager not to do that?”
“What you have to establish is that you’re not a selfish jerk, that you’re willing to listen to people, and that you have enough confidence to take advice,” he said. “One of the things the contractors said to us is that they saw their jobs as making individuals look good. They’re not trying to hog the credit.”
“What you have to establish is that you’re not a selfish jerk, that you’re willing to listen to people, and that you have enough confidence to take advice.”Peter Cappelli
2) Understand Boundaries
Contractor-managers are not employees. They have chosen this career path because they can pick and choose the projects they work on and capitalise on their years of knowledge and experience. In essence, and within reason, clients cannot tell them how to perform their tasks. They are hired so politics can’t get in the way of progress, according to the study’s authors.
That said, they know their limitations and those of the client.
The study warned that companies should aware that contracts are specific and binding, so the objectives contained in them should “hold fast and not become moving targets”.
“Understand the boundary is something that, for regular managers, they’re not necessarily so great at,” Cappelli said.
“The idea of bringing in somebody like this is that you want them to tell you how to do it. If that’s not what your intention is, then you’ve got a real problem. There’s no point in having this contractor come in,” said the professor.
Peter Capelli, is Director, Center for Human Resources at Wharton. He was named by HR Magazine as one of the top 20 international thinkers.
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