As the holidays approach I’m reminded of one my favorite scenes from a movie ever, in the classic It’s a Wonderful Life. Early in the movie, George Bailey is a youngster working in Mr. Gower’s drugstore. Mr. Gower makes a mistake with a medication and orders George to go deliver it pronto. George has seen a telegram letting Mr. Gower know his son has died from the Spanish flu epidemic, and he sees that Mr. Gower is upset and not paying attention to his work. He’s pretty certain Mr. Gower has filled the capsules with a poison, not the medication. He tries to question Mr. Gower, but Mr. Gower gets angry and yells at him to get going. George decides to ask his dad what to do about it, but he doesn’t get the help he needs and returns to the drugstore just as Mr. Gower receives a phone call wondering where the medication is. He sees George, gets enraged, and starts boxing George’s ears. Crying out in pain, George gets through to Mr. Gower, telling him there’s something wrong with the medicine, and he knows Mr. Gower didn’t mean it, he knows he’s upset about his son. Mr.Gower opens a capsule, takes a tiny taste, recoils knowing what he almost did, and when he goes to grab George again, it is to hug him and thank him.No matter how many times I see this scene, I cry. And I always think about young George, so serious, so committed to doing the right thing, so fully invested in protecting both the customer, and his boss, so able to forgive his boss’s mis-steps because he understands there’s more to his outburst than meets the eye. All this from a kid doing a little after-school work for a non-family business making pennies an hour.
The scene is a powerful lesson in empathy, commitment, trust, and pride.
Weirdly it was the first thing that came to mind when I sat down to write about how my company successfully employed a layered workforce that included seasonal and fractional workers. When I think of those workers, I think of fully-invested, highly-committed colleagues, who took pride in their work and being a part of our story, and I think of how that approach helped us have the right resources to do the right things at the right time.
Here are three scenarios when fractional workers can be a perfect fit:
1. Fractional executives are the new hot thing
We had a fractional CFO for four years before we hired a full-time CFO. Executive hires are high risk hires. Get it wrong, and you may have an expensive separation coming. Make the hire too early, and you’re investing too many dollars into an under-utilized resource. There are many high-level executives who have put out shingles to be consulting executives. There are also many start-up execs who have achieved an exit and may not be quite ready to jump into another 24/7/365 role, but want to keep a hand in without requiring their full-time rate and full-time work. Sure, consultants charge more if you break it down to a per-hour charge, but consultants don’t require the kind of additional cost load that hiring a full-timer requires (we used to estimate a 40% upcharge on any employee salary to account for benefits, taxes, and other financial commitments attached to full time workers). You may eventually convert your fractional exec into a full time employee. Or you may simply have strategic support as you grow and someone to coach whoever you do hire. If you offer equity as part of the compensation for your fractional exec, they are going to be that much more motivated to help you succeed.
2. Early HR help saves you headaches later
Most companies don’t want to hire a full-time HR person from the outset. You’ll often hear that when you hit 50 employees a bunch of new HR-related requirements and regulations kick in, and that’s when it makes sense to hire someone. I agree, but I don’t think you should make the mistake of doing little HR-related work until you hit that milestone. By the time you’ve hit 50 employees, your company has a process and culture. Starting from scratch at that point to formalize policies and create frameworks is an uphill battle. Instead consider bringing in HR folks to be with you as you grow. We hired someone to help us recruit. We hired a different someone to help us craft an Employee Handbook that would serve as a living document for us throughout our company’s existence.We did wait to hire a full-time person until we were approaching 50 employees, but that didn’t stop us from tapping our networks to bring in excellent HR guidance and advice from the beginning.
3. Seasonal employees can be annual employees
Do you have projects that are cyclical, where the workload is feast or famine? Where if you hired for the resources required at peak times you’d have people twiddling their thumbs at slow times? Consider building a team that comes back to work on your project every year and knows they have that business to count on. For us the cyclical work was our events line of business. We did one big annual event and a couple of smaller events every year. We had a full-time team working on selling and programming and planning the events, but there are other tasks that are recurring and labor-intensive, but only for a month at a time before, during and after the events. We pulled together a team of at least a dozen people with whom we worked with for every event annually for years. This included our food & beverage manager, our A/V technicians, our stage manager, our head of security, our volunteer wrangler, and our special event coordinator.. We got on their schedules for the year ahead, which gave them a revenue foundation for their year and solidified our relationships with them all as dedicated team members. For us it was events, for you it might be recurring research projects, editorial sections, awards programs, developer or customer care initiatives.. What many companies probably do now is ask their existing team to absorb extra work for weeks at a time, but imagine how much more effective and less stressful it would be to line up recurring assistance via seasonal hires that get to know your business, project, and team.
What inspires a fractional employee to be fully-invested?
It comes back to the same things that drove young George: Empathy, commitment, trust, and pride. Your fractional employees will be fully invested in your business when you:
- Respect their time and contribution
- Compensate them well (and with skin-in-the-game compensation like equity or commission whenever possible)
- Give them feedback and credit and an appropriate level of autonomy (and encourage the rest of the team to do the same)
- Communicate with them during the “off-season” so they remain connected
- Include them in celebrating big wins connected with the company or a specific project
If you invest in them, they will invest in you. And be an integral part of your scale story.