There is no shortage of calamities in today’s business climate — be it a CFO’s unexpected departure or a massive product recall. For decades, a firm’s go-to solution for such difficulties has been to hire a consultant or consulting firm, but more recently another equally valid option has emerged: an interim professional or contractor.

Contractor vs consultant

First, let’s look at the overall difference between a consultant and contractor, or an interim professional. A consultant or a consulting team advises leaders on how to best execute their business strategy. An interim or contractor, on the other hand, fills a specific role within a company for a finite amount of time to address a particular business need. Neither one is on a company’s payroll, and both can help drive lasting organizational change.

Indeed, interim roles are becoming a common strategic fixture at firms, with Financial Times reporting that the number of contract job openings increased 26% between May and November of last year compared to the year prior. And a Korn Ferry survey shows that 52% of interim professionals report a rising client demand.

“The choice to utilize interims and contractors is certainly growing in acceptance in the minds of people running major corporations globally,” says Bob Carlson, President of Korn Ferry’s Interim Executive practice in North America. The task now is for companies to determine how to balance consultancy — which continues to be a robust business solution — and an interim talent strategy into their evolving framework. Simply put, when should a firm use a consultant vs. contractor?

At Korn Ferry, when we say 'Interim' (with a capital 'I'), we're referring to our specific offering. When we say ‘interim’ (with a lower case ‘i’), we’re referring to what you may already call a contractor; someone who steps into a role for a finite amount of time to deliver a specific outcome. For the purpose of this article, and in our other content, you’ll see us refer to ‘interim’ instead of contractor. 

We took a look at how both approaches compare across the following four factors, as outlined below:


While a consultant may not have served as the CEO of an airline themselves, for instance, they come to a situation with years of experience in helping top airline CEOs implement strategy.

“A consultant can say, ‘I am a master of the types of CEO challenges I see surfacing and how to overcome them,’” says Jamen Graves, Korn Ferry Senior Client Partner and Global Co-leader of CEO & Enterprise Leadership Development.

An interim, on the other hand, would be tasked with stepping into the leadership role itself and developing a strategy to solve a firm’s particular problem in real time. This usually requires an interim airline CEO to have served in the role before, giving them the domain-specific experience needed. “The typical interim has recently left a big job doing exactly what you’re asking them to do for your client,” says Carlson.


Crises are inevitable. Imagine a firm issuing a major product recall but not having staff with sufficient expertise to handle it properly. An interim leader and team of contractors is likely to be a company’s best bet to come in quickly and hit the ground running to save the company from incurring huge losses down the road. The time limit set on an interim position also limits the dollars a firm will spend on compensation — then the interim steps away when the issue is resolved.

Working with a consulting firm, however, is often a long-term partnership that provides the support to address issues that arise, as well as receive organizational coaching and develop internal talent for the long term. “You can get coaching on whatever your professional development issue might be and can pivot when opportunities or challenges arise,” says Lisa Peterson, Korn Ferry’s Senior Vice President of Global Consulting Operations in North America.

In the example of a recall, a consultant who has been working with a firm for a number of years - sometimes outlasting multiple CEOs - may have the institutional knowledge to coach a new leader through that difficult patch. A consulting firm may be able to bring in additional experts to provide guidance during a turbulent time. These services tend to be part of a larger, multilayered contract rather than a standalone offering in a crisis.


A key differentiator for interim professionals is that they come with industry-specific business networks that they can apply to quickly solve a problem. A food and beverage company that’s looking to rapidly expand into a new market globally might need to hire key local team members and also address supply chain differences in a new region.

An interim who has previously dealt with this very issue would be ideal to help rapidly onboard the right people and reach out to the best third-party providers in the area. The advantages of hiring a consultant, however, stem from the diversity of their connections, which is useful in forging linkages across industries that are facing similar challenges.

“We can connect our clients so they benefit from lessons learned in strategy implementation,” says Graves. Rather than working with one high-level individual, a firm is exposed to a consultant’s entire network of partnerships.


Different kinds of problems demand different levels of urgency. Revenue at a software firm being slightly down for a quarter might not raise blaring alarm bells, but a consultant whose primary role is to generate sales can help tweak an organization’s game plan over time to avoid a more serious issue down the road. The CEO suddenly exiting that firm, on the other hand, requires a more drastic intervention.

“We have clients come to us and say, ‘one of our market leaders is leaving in two weeks and our hair is on fire,’” says Anya Baron, Managing Partner at Korn Ferry’s Interim Accounting and Finance practice. An interim or contractor can be the perfect answer in such cases, given that they know the industry-relevant issues inside out and can be placed within a matter of days.

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The bottom line: Consider your organization's hiring needs

So contractor vs. consultant – which do you go with? It depends. Both can evaluate problems quickly and implement processes to get your company on the right path. But they do so from different angles. Korn Ferry can help you identify the right tool for the right job based on the right data and insights, whether it’s bringing in a consulting team, an interim professional or contractor, or even pairing these two strategies for both immediate and long-term results.