Stop fighting outside contractors

Paul Boag

Many internal web teams resent it when an external contractor is brought in, perceiving it as a slight on their abilities. However, perhaps it is actually an opportunity.

I found myself sitting in yet another pitch meeting, presenting to the normal crowd of executives, marketing people and a member of the web team. The vibe in the room was positive as most of the people already knew of Headscape and our work. Although classed a pitch, there seemed little doubt we would be brought in to help improve their web presence.

Unfortunately, there was one notable exception to the general positive atmosphere. This was the representative of the web team. From the moment I walked into the room it was obvious he was not happy. Once he started speaking it was apparent that he was determined to prove we were not suitable to work on the website.

What followed I can only describe as a geek pissing contest. He asked progressively more obscure technical questions in an attempt to prove he was more knowledgeable than us about web related issues.

It would have been easy for me to become confrontational and “put him in his place”, but I had no intention of doing that. Not only would it have been petty minded, I also understood exactly were he was coming from. In fact I had considerable sympathy for him.

A vote of no confidence

In his mind, they didn’t need an outside contractor. He believed that his team was more than capable of delivering the new website and associated strategy. He was angry that management had chosen to outsource this work because the implication was that his team were not competent.

I couldn’t tell you whether this was actually what senior management were thinking, or whether they were just concerned that the web team wouldn’t have time to redesign the site while maintaining the existing version. Whatever the case they had sent the wrong message to the web team.

The sad truth is that this scenario is all too common. Internal web teams often feel resentful of outside contractors, because management has poorly handled the situation.

I could write a post telling senior management how to better handle these kinds of situations, but let’s be honest, those kind of people do not read this blog.

The opportunity that comes with an external contractor

Instead I want to write to those of you who work in internal web teams and have been put in this horrible position. I want to encourage you that the involvement of an external contractor is an amazing opportunity, whatever the intention of senior management.

A good external contractor will recognise that they cannot succeed without your cooperation and knowledge. They will work hard to get you on board and this provides a unique opportunity to set the digital agenda.

Management listen to contractors

The sad truth is that senior management will listen to an external contractor far more than they will you. This happens for several reasons:

  • External contractors are perceived as outside experts with a far broader experience than internal staff. Senior management therefore tends to put more stock on their opinion.
  • Because senior management hired the external contractor, they want to believe that the contractor is right. If the contractor is wrong this reflects badly on their decision to hire him.
  • The cost of hiring an external contractor is much more evident than the hidden cost of an internal web team. Because an external contractor feels expensive there is a perception that their opinion must be more valuable.

I freely admit that the above reasons do not make sense, but that does not change the fact that they work.

External contractors have more freedom

There is another factor at play here. An external contractor is not a part of the company hierarchy. They can get away with stepping over the invisible lines that exist within a company culture. In other words they can say and do things that you as an internal member of staff could never get away with. They can challenge management, question the way things have always been done and ask questions that would be perceived as stupid from the mouth of anyone who understood the organisation better. This freedom is an incredibly powerful tool and one that you should be utilising as an internal member of staff.

One of the first things I do when I’m asked to work with an organisation is sit down with the internal web team and ask one simple question:

What have you been trying to get management to agree to and have kept hitting a brick wall?

The reason I asked this question is that the internal web team inevitably know what is best and yet often need help in getting that approved by management.

Because of all the reasons above I am more likely to find success where the internal team failed before. This likelihood is further increased by me repeating what the internal team has already been saying. If both internal staff and an external contractor make the same recommendations management begin to question whether it is something they should take seriously.

The opportunity to learn

But I do not believe that political clout is all that an external contractor can bring to the table. Because of their experience with a wide number of different companies and different situations, they may well have things to teach you. That is not to suggest that they are in any way more capable than you. I am simply saying that they will have had different experiences.

For example, outside contractors live or die based on their ability to present work and convince others. There is therefore a good chance that you may be able to pick up tips and tricks for better handling management.

In fact an external contractor provides you with the unique opportunity to learn new approaches and techniques in all kinds of areas.

In my experience, most organisations significantly underinvest in their internal web team. There is little in the way of training budget to learn new skills and attend conferences. Having an external contractor working alongside you provides an opportunity to see how other people work and pick up new skills. Again, this is not to suggest they are better qualified than you, but simply that everybody works in different ways and so there is always something to learn.

But what if we don’t get a good contractor?

Of course all of this relies upon a good contractor being hired. You need a contractor willing to work with you and help you, rather than working in isolation.

This means that when management suggest bringing in an outside contractor you need to embrace the process rather than resist it. In fact, you should be so enthusiastic that you offer to put together a short list of companies that could be used. This puts you in control of the situation and makes you look positive and proactive to management. You can now pick companies that you respect and have significant influence over the final selection.

I recognise that as an external contractor myself, my opinion on this subject may be somewhat biased! I am therefore keen to hear what those of you who work internally for organisations feel about this subject. Please post your experiences and concerns in the comments so that us external contractors can learn from you.

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