Have you ever wondered whether contracting could be the perfect fit for you and the right next step to take in your HR career? And by contracting, I mean taking on a role that isn't a permanent position. Perhaps you're getting itchy feet in your permanent role, or maybe you've never looked into contracting before but you're curious to know more about it.
However you feel about the topic, and no matter what you know about it already, this episode is here to help you learn more. I haven't done HR contract work myself, so I'm feeling lucky to have the fabulous Eleanor Minsall on the show today to share her experience and advice with us all.
Eleanor has taken on several contract roles over the past few years. She shares her career story explaining how she made the switch from permanent employment to contracting and she talks us through the upsides of contracting, the downsides to be aware of, useful skills to have as a contractor. How to get a contract role and how to set yourself up for success once you've got one.
I really hope you enjoy hearing what she has to say and that it helps you decide whether or not moving into a contract role would be the right career move for you. Let's go ahead and meet her now. Welcome to the show, Eleanor. It is brilliant to have you here.
Thanks so much for having me, Fay. It's great to be here.
Oh, you are very welcome. And, before we dive into all the questions I have for you today, it would be fabulous if you could just introduce yourself and tell us all a little bit about you and your HR career.
Sure, thank you. So, I'm Eleanor Minshall. I've worked in HR pretty much for most of my career since university.
So, I kind of fell into HR. I started off in recruitment, falling into that because I walked into a recruitment agency one day and said, I'm looking for a job. And they said, have you ever thought about recruitment? And I said, well, what, what do you do? And quickly found out because I took that and then that sparked my interest in in house HR because I was dealing with lots of HR people in my day to day sales calls and visits.
So I started studying then. I did my, what was then the Certificate and Personnel Practice with the CIPD, so showing my age a bit, and was lucky enough to be offered an in house recruitment role with one of my clients, so I took that. And then again, I think through sheer luck, we happened to restructure the department, and I was then able to apply for one of the vacancies that had been freed up as an HR advisor.
Which was a very steep learning curve for me because it was now having to apply the theory I'd learnt in real life. But I had a very good mentor and I was also then supported to study further, so did my level seven at that point as well. So again, quite lucky to be able to do all the studying early in my career.
And then I left there to go to work for British Telecom or BT, within their Open Reach division, which was really a baptism of fire, in the world of a real big commercial FTSE 100 organization. But again, I had an incredibly inspirational leader there who really challenged me, pushed me outside of my comfort zone to become a business partner there. So did a few years there in HR business partnering. And really loved that, but lots of personal things were going on at the same time, so I decided to leave there.
And actually wanted to look into studying psychology further. So started to study some psychology and took a part time job to support that. Still in HR, but in the charity sector, working for a drug and alcohol charity, which was really, again, really inspirational. Really loved that type of organization.
So then later when I got an opportunity to join a large national social care charity as a business partner, I jumped at the chance and that's where I think my career really went from strength to strength. So I spent nearly six years there. We were going through a huge transformation. I think we'd grown quite large, but not caught up with our internal processes and our HR practices.
So I was really able to get involved in lots of exciting stuff and lots of big projects there. And I did about, I think, six different jobs in that time. So it became known for Eleanor will go and do that, which was great for my own experience. I do get bored easily. I like lots of variety in my job, which is one of the reasons that I later became a contractor, which I'll come on to in a minute, because that's what we're talking about today.
I actually stepped into learning and development when I was in that organization. So, more in a project role because we needed to transform learning and development from being very outsourced and very small team internally to quite a large internal team that covered all the elements of learning and development from training, delivery, compliance to leadership development, talent, early careers, digital learning, all of that great stuff, and we were quite innovative. So I was really lucky to be able to lead that team, who were incredibly talented, to create a learning offering for the organisation for about 6, 000 social care workers, which as you know in the pandemic, became at the forefront of everybody's kind of knowledge.
So yeah, with, with kind of sadness, I left that organization, but it was the right time to go for me. There was no real progression available for me, and I've always wanted to progress in my career, but I also dipped my toe into the world of being self employed at that point. So I left to set up my own consultancy business in the middle of a lockdown.
Um, Which in hindsight was perhaps not the best decision because I'd gone from having a large team of people, a great peer group and all the support of an organization with an IT department and a finance department to just me and my spare room in the middle of a lockdown. Now whilst I did develop some good business and I've got some great clients I've still got relationships with.
After around three months, I decided actually, I really miss being part of an organization and part of a team and fixing things and changing things. So I started to look for contract work and that's really, I think about two and a half years ago is where I took my first contracting role. So I was a, an HR director for a housing association for about 12 months because it was a maternity cover.
And I couldn't have asked for a nicer first contract, I don't think. So that's, you know, really great experience. I've got an opportunity to, to support lots of change and support lots of projects as well as support the team. So I really enjoyed that. And then since then I've done a mixture of contract work and project work for different clients.
So that's very whistle stop tour.
And now that you're fully into your contract roles, is that where you want to stay? It's really interesting because obviously you had decided you wanted to set up your own business and then thought, oh, actually, I'm going to take on a contract. So you have me wondering, have you fallen in love with contracting?
Or actually, at some point, do you think you will go back to a permanent role?
So, I think... Perhaps I will get a permanent job again at some point, I have ambitions to be in property as well. So I have a very small property, I wouldn't even say it's a business, but a property on the side that I do things with and I'm, I'm yet to find where I want to live permanently.
And actually, one of the disadvantages of being a contractor is it's more difficult to get a mortgage. And certainly in these times when mortgage rates are so high, it's not impossible, but you will get a mortgage at a higher rate. And I think, again, a slight disadvantage of a contractor is you don't get as invested in the business that you're working in unless your contract's a significant length.
Sometimes that can be an advantage as well because you're that, critical friend, you're that completely objective viewpoint. But other times I do miss having that kind of camaraderie, I guess, and that investment in an organisation. So never say never, I would say. But I really do enjoy contracting at the moment, and it's certainly been what I've needed for the last couple of years.
I think one of the huge benefits of it for me has been to experience different environments, different sectors, and actually really reinforce the fact that HR is the same regardless of your sector or your business. The people issues are generally the same. And a lot of businesses are facing very similar challenges, following the pandemic.
And yes, you, to be commercially aware, you need to understand how that business operates, how it makes its money, what the key processes are and the outputs, but ultimately people are people. And I do think it's added to my career development, having that blend of experience because I can quickly just switch from one environment to another, I've found.
I think that's a great insight for so many of us, and even for anyone listening who's never thinking of doing contracting ever. That can be quite reassuring, especially for when you're thinking of moving on to a new role or perhaps going to work in a different sector or industry. You're right, people are people, aren't they, Eleanor?
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it builds your confidence as well because... Ultimately, when you're working in quite senior roles in different organisations, you have to quickly build relationships to be successful. And once you've done that a couple of times in different environments, you learn to do that quicker.
So that then can only benefit moving forwards. And one thing that I've sort of found, it's probably quite hard to get your first contract because you have to try harder perhaps to, to find that opportunity. But once you have and you build those relationships and you build your reputation, the work will follow.
So my next contract I got from a referral from somebody I worked with in my first contract, which is really nice.
And I know from when we were chatting before, when we first met each other and were talking about you coming on the show, you mentioned the fact that you now know quite a lot of other people who are also HR contractors.
Yeah, that's right. So, um, I've employed them myself, or I've worked in businesses where they've been employed. So, it's good to have that network as well, because sometimes I'll get approached about a contract that really isn't within my core skill set, or something that I just wouldn't want to do, but I might know somebody who would be good for it.
Depends on the location sometimes, depending on whether... the business wants you on site or not, but equally post pandemic, I think it's opened up the world of contracting to be a lot more flexible because we don't always have to be on site to do our work. So that's also a benefit.
That really resonates with something that a guest recently was saying on the show, Yvonne Walsh.
She came on episode 101 to talk about networking. And that's one of the things that she mentioned, the power of networking. And the fact that it can be a really good thing to make sure that you are networking because then you can refer work on to other people or you can recommend other people for roles.
And it just, it's a lovely thing to be able to do, isn't it? Rather than say to someone, sorry, actually that contract isn't right for me, good luck. Being able to say, actually, I can still help you because I'm going to recommend you to someone else.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think recruiters who you're working with as well will really appreciate that.
And that helps you develop your relationship with them. It's, it's like anything in business. The more you help, the more you give out, the more you get back, in my experience anyway.
You've already given us a couple of great tidbits then about setting yourself up for success with contracting.
The first is about building relationships quickly, the other is about having that network. I'd love to hear what other advice you might have for us all on really setting yourself up for success if you want to start a career as an HR contractor.
I think you've got to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.
So, and what I mean by that is, I had three months earlier this year where I didn't have any work. I spent one of those months in Thailand, which was a great benefit, but spent quite a lot of money in that time as well. So then I had two months where I really had to be careful financially with what I spent.
And with contracting, yes, you may earn a higher rate, but you've got to put some of that money away for such downtime. Because as you know, working in the kind of world of recruitment and careers, people recruit at certain times in the year. Sometimes you will get quiet periods and you have to, I think, so learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, but also have the confidence and the faith that something will come along.
My latest contract I'd actually turned down an interview for because I'd been offered something else. But actually when I looked at the terms for that other role, it didn't add up to what I'd been told, and the culture didn't feel right, so I turned it down, but then went back to ask for an interview again, which was probably quite cheeky, but ultimately it led to me getting the contract.
So, again, believe in yourself, have faith that something else will come along, and when you are in those kind of dips really do try and exploit your network. Again, actually, this contract was through a referral thinking about it. Yeah, something someone I used to lead went to work for this organization and referred me in so it really does emphasize the power of, of your network.
Once you've got your name out there, more work will come, but it's being able to hold your nerve sometimes through, through those troughs, shall we say.
It's great to have those practical tips, Eleanor. And I know that you talked about some of the things you really enjoy about contracting. That just came across naturally whilst you were talking to us.
But can I actually ask you the specific question? What do you think All of the benefits are in contracting. What makes it a great career option for someone who works in HR?
The benefits are you get to experience lots of different types of workplace, you meet lots of different people, you'll come up against lots of different challenges.
So if you like variety. It's definitely for you. Obviously, the money generally is slightly higher paid than if you were employed on a permanent basis, but that's because you don't reap the benefits that you would as a, as a full time permanent employee. So if you're employed directly by the employee, you will still get their terms and conditions.
You may get, you know, a pension, um, the holidays, those kinds of things, but you won't get the long term benefits of working there. So, for example, you probably won't get a bonus because. Invariably, you won't be there long enough for the, for the bonus to happen if you're in the private sector. If you are employed on a day rate, that work is kind of like gold dust really nowadays because of all the IR35 legislation.
But if you're employed on a day rate, you'll get paid incredibly well. However, with the reward comes the risk of they probably, if, if it doesn't work out or if they have no, no need for you any longer, you could lose that quite quickly. Generally the notice periods are a lot shorter. I think really for me it's, it's the big variety.
It's working on specific projects where you can really see an impact quickly as well is quite satisfying for me. Sometimes when you're in a more permanent role it takes longer to realize the benefits of what you're doing. And another benefit is if you really enjoy specialising in something, and particularly something that other HR practitioners either only know a little bit about or don't really like doing, like TUPE or redundancies or restructures. Or a specific sector such as the NHS and you've got experience with that sector, then contracting can be really beneficial because, you know, you'll be in high demand.
People want that skill, particularly for, those really tight projects that are time bound, where they just need you to come in for a set period. I think I'm a bit different in that I don't necessarily specialise. If I specialise in anything, it's leading teams, to deliver great projects, depending on what that project is.
So yeah, there's some of the real benefits.
While you were talking through that, you mentioned some of the downsides. In fact, you've mentioned a couple of the downsides, one of which I hadn't really even considered that you said right at the beginning, which is it can be harder to get a mortgage. And you've also told us about the fact that you're more dispensable because you're not actually, a full employee on a permanent contract.
What are some of the other downsides that anyone listening who's thinking about this as a career path, it would be helpful for them to be aware of?
Sure, I think sometimes you can be asked to come in and do some work where there's been a real, cultural issue or, something has happened and the, the substantive postholder is no longer there.
So often, if that happens, you've got to pick up some pieces to a certain extent, and it could be that that cultural issue still remains, but you've kind of got to work through that anyway. So you might end up doing something that wasn't necessarily what you expected to be doing. So I've got a good example, a contract that I took for, I think it was six months.
I was, told they would recruit the post permanently during that time, and it was really sort of bolstering the HR practices and the offering to the organization, but nothing major coming along. I think within six weeks of starting, they announced a huge restructure, which affected a very large proportion of the organization, and we didn't have the resource within the team really to support that.
And it wasn't my primary skill set, I would say redundancies is I've done them, but it's not really what I'm about. I'm more of a generalist and an OD practitioner. So I found that quite challenging because the goalposts moved and I had to run with it. And I actually employed other contractors to support because we were very much down on our resource within the team, but it, it was quite challenging, from a resilience perspective because it suddenly got a lot busier than anticipated and a lot trickier than anticipated. And then there's I guess another downside is sometimes you'll get asked to do something and it's not necessarily that well defined. So there's a lot of contracting that you have to do with stakeholders to really understand well what is it that you want delivered? And is it going to land properly? How will it work? Because you don't want to be there as a a spare part, so to speak.
You want to know the work you're doing is worthwhile and going to add value to an organization, particularly because you're there for a short amount of time, generally. So yeah, there's some of the downsides. Financial instability is the biggest one, I would say, but there are benefits, pros and cons to that.
You do get time off where you can go and go abroad for a significant amount of time if you want to, if you plan properly. And I, I've certainly benefited from that. You know, I didn't think I'd ever have that time in my life where I could do that. So in my working life anyway.
You're making me want to go and do some traveling, Eleanor. It sounds like you've been to some fantastic places.
Yeah, I went to Thailand and Bali for a month. That was fantastic. I'm itching to go back.
For anyone listening who's thinking, oh, I want to do that too. Eleanor has me completely sold on contracting as the way forward.
What would your advice to them be for actually making that switch from permanent employment to contracting?
I think it's quite difficult to go from permanent to contracting straight away. I mean, you have to have probably left your permanent job because most people would not employ you on a contract if you're in a permanent job.
So there has to have been some kind of, I don't know, redundancy situation or a decision where you've, you've made that leap and gone, I'm going to leave and I'm finished. I think the advice is. It is a new world for you. It is different. You'll find your feet. But going back to what I said earlier, believe in your skills and abilities.
A lot of it's about timing. So the amount of times I've been rang about what sounds like a great contract when I've just accepted a contract. I can't, I, there's too many to count and that's where your networks come in obviously in referring other people to that work if you can. And I think really being, taking a look at what your skills are and what you've learned because I think we take them for granted very often when we're in a permanent role.
We grow and develop so much in the time we're, we're in a permanent role in an organization. Sometimes we just, you know, don't really take a good look and say, well, what have I learned in that time? And what are those skills I've got that are transferable? And it might not necessarily be the technical stuff.
As HR you have to be a certain level of technical practitioner, but it's probably the people skills you've developed that are actually more commercial and saleable, if you like, and will get you a good reputation as a contractor, because that's what you need to be able to do it successfully, quickly.
What about the role of recruiters? So it sounds as if all of your contract work has very much come through your network. Do you think that recruiters have got a part to play in this? Do you know of any other contractor friends who do rely on recruitment companies to help them find their contract roles?
So I got my first contract through a recruitment agency and I do still speak to them regularly and I do know other contractors who do get a lot of their work through, through agencies because they are perhaps more specific about the type of work that they will, be focused on. I think you need to do both.
I think it's networking and speaking to agencies and there are, you know, lots of agencies out there. I've worked in agency recruitment myself. Some agents are better than others. Some will keep in touch with you just periodically. Some will think of you, but ultimately you need to keep talking to them and keep that dialogue open because it's very easy to forget about your candidates when you haven't got a job on, on your books.
But as soon as that job comes on, they'll do a search of the database. But if you've just spoken to them a couple of days before, you're at the forefront of mind. So yeah, there's, there's networking with agencies that you need to do as much as networking amongst your business network.
I guess it's the same really then as progressing into any role, that's definitely always the advice I give Eleanor, which is that, especially as you become more and more experienced throughout your career, that your network is often where the fantastic jobs that you really enjoy come from, and where it can be easiest to move, but it's always then worth also speaking to recruiters as well.
And like you say, there are some fantastic recruiters out there. I know they can sometimes get a bit of a bad reputation if people have had a less than good experience, but that definitely shouldn't put anyone listening off at all. And in fact, there are two episodes of HR Coffee Time, where I have interviewed recruiters on the show, had them on to give their firsthand advice.
One of the interviews, which was actually one of my very first episodes of HR Coffee Time was with Tansel Omer and he talked about really how you can build a good relationship with a recruiter and how you can work well with a recruiter. And then I also had Craig Elvin on the show and that was really interesting hearing his tips as well for anyone who's interested in moving to a new role and wants to use a recruiter to help them.
So it's great to hear that this advice really goes across all kinds of roles. It doesn't just have to be permanent ones. Thank you, Eleanor. And I'll make sure actually that I link to those episodes in the show notes as well for anyone who's listening and would like to look them up. But now it's time for me to ask you the question that I ask almost every guest who comes on the show.
And I did warn you beforehand that I've changed it slightly, so you get to choose between two things. You can either give us a confidence boosting tip, or otherwise, would you like to share a non fiction book recommendation with us?
I would like to share a non fiction book recommendation, because I think that's easier.
e Sydney Olympics in the year:
If you have a goal that you want to achieve. All of the tips in there about belief, motivation, breaking things down into small chunks, they're all really relevant. And I just find it a very readable book. It's written very, accessibly for, for anybody. So that's my recommendation.
Wonderful. That sounds brilliant.
I've actually just read a book about sports and the translation of a successful team into leadership as well. I now can't remember if it was recommended to me on the show. I know who recommended it. It was actually, weirdly enough. Craig Elvin, one of the guests I just mentioned to you, and I don't think that I've mentioned him in ages.
It's called Legacy by James Kerr. I'm not a sporty person at all. I wish I was. In fact, we were saying just before we hit record, hadn't we, Eleanor? I think you'd had a personal training session and I was deeply impressed. I just had a... Sitting down at my desk all day session. And so I've never been that keen on actually reading sports books that are then linked to business.
But I think Legacy has changed my mind because it made me realize, actually, this is really good. So I think I'm going to have to add your recommendation to be my second ever sports themed book that I'm going to read. Thank you so much for sharing it with us. I'm sure lots of other people will be keen to read it as well.
Yeah, thank you Fay. No, I, I'm not a, uh, I wasn't a sporty person until I was about 28 and I discovered rowing. So I think it's true what people say, everyone can be sporty, but you just need to find the right sport for you. And that might be something that's perhaps not as sporty as, as many of these books are written about.
But I wouldn't generally buy a sport related book and read it, but this one I would recommend.
Eleanor, it has been wonderful to have you on the show today. Thank you so much for coming on to talk to us about all your experience within the contracting world. If anyone listening, if you decide, right, that's it, I've decided I'm going to become a contractor, please do let me or Eleanor know.
It's always wonderful hearing from people who listen to the show and even extra exciting when we know that it's had a real impact. So thank you again Eleanor, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon.
Thanks very much, Fay.
As soon as Eleanor and I finished recording this episode, Eleanor said to me, oh gosh, there was something else that I'd meant to mention that I think is a real positive about contracting.
So I said, don't worry, if you tell me what it is, I'll make sure I include it at the end of the episode. So what Eleanor had to say was that flexibility works both ways. You can often negotiate contracts when you are going for a contract role and they want to offer you the position. So she personally has negotiated lots of four day a week contracts, which meant that she gets to have a day off to work on other things as well in her own time, which she really values.
So that's just something to think about as well. And she also pointed out that that the flexibility not only means can you negotiate contracts to be a number of days that you'd like to work, but also because you're not tied in, it's not the same sort of commitment as if you're in a permanent role. It means you can leave if a situation isn't working for you much more easily than if you were to actually take on a permanent role and realize it wasn't the right fit for you.
Of course, the downside of that is it means that the organization can also let you go more easily. But I guess there's a pro and con to that one, isn't there? So I'm pleased I was able to add that on. I thought that was a great insight from her. And as always, I really enjoy hearing from you. So if this episode has been particularly helpful and it's made you decide, yes, you're going to go and try to get some contract work, or it's made you think, actually, no, you know what?
I'm really happy in my permanent role. Then please do let me know. You can always reach me on LinkedIn. I'm there as Fay Wallis. That's Fay without an E on the end and Wallis spelt with an IS on the end instead of A C E. I'll also pop a link to my LinkedIn profile in the show notes for you, along with Eleanor's book recommendation.
And if you have been listening to HR Coffee Time for a while and are finding the show helpful, I would be hugely grateful if you could either recommend it to a friend or rate and review the podcast on whichever podcasting app you're listening to it on, because recommendations, ratings and reviews are such a big help in getting HR Coffee Time on the radar of people who haven't come across it before, and I would just love to help as many HR and people professionals as I can with this free weekly show.
Thank you so much and I look forward to being back again next Friday with the next episode for you.