A fresh eye on proceedings

One benefit of employing an HR interim is that they can draw on their experience in a variety of organisations to bring a new perspective to problem solving. Nic Paton meets one successful exponent of this potentially enlightening art

Interim managers may not yet be like police officers, seemingly younger every time you see one, but sometimes it feels that way. Once, when you hired an interim, you could confidently expect someone in their 50s, or at least late 40s, to walk in the door. Now an interim is just as likely to be someone in their 30s.

According to the agency Russam GMS, whereas l0 years ago most interims were probably at the upper end of their 50s, now more than half are aged between 45 and 55. Yet for the HR professional looking to make the leap into interim management, waiting to get a few grey hairs is still a good option.

Russam says that while the HR interim’s average age is now 51, those aged 40 and above can generally expect to earn more and win more assignments than their younger colleagues.

One interim who is a firm believer in the value of experience is Stan Felstead, 52. Currently, interim HR director at Babcock Naval Services in Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire, he’s been an interim since 1993, with a client list under his belt as diverse as Defra, Devon County Council, the British Library, the Qualification and Curriculum Authority, the National Magazine Company and the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. He mostly sources work through specialist agency Odgers Ray & Berndston.

Prior to becoming an interim, he held various roles in higher and further education, including reorganising the management centre at Thames Valley Business School, and senior HR roles within Abbey and Essex Social Services.

“A lot of interim management is now just about running a function,” says Felstead. “Some organisations are using interims as a substitute for consultants, but real interims are people who take a critical and fresh look at the organisation and either clarify things or come up with alternatives,” he explains. “These are challenging questions that a younger person might not be able to answer.”

His decision to move into interim management was itself age related.

“I was quite conscious in my early 40s of age discrimination creeping in, and I did not want to be marginalised. But I also did not really want to be a consultant. I wanted to do something where you took full responsibility for putting things into place,” he says.

A big attraction of the job is its variety. “You tend to find interims thrive on making sense of something and moving it forward, providing sense and direction.”

The fact that you can also choose the jobs you want to do, the challenges you want to tackle and, crucially, the people and organisations you want to work for, is also important for interims.

“You need to be more experienced as a manager and coach, a developer and leader of a team. It is not just about the technical knowledge, but leading and directing where people should be going,” says Felstead.

“In my current position, I have 90 staff, and you have to take them with you. A younger person may not have that presence or influencing ability,” he argues.

Yet, he also adds: “The main question is what is an interim manager and what do you expect them to do, rather than one about age. Clients are more interested in tailoring solutions and where you are going.

“They tend to look for the attitude, the style and the problem-solving ability. But they would probably have some reservations if you have not been round once or twice.”

Perhaps inevitably, someone who is older is likely to have a wider range of experiences on which to draw. Similarly, they will know more cultures and organisations and be able to use that knowledge more effectively, he believes.

“A flexible and more fresh approach can come with age. You tend to react to the chemistry and expectations of the client, either slowing things down or speeding things up. I normally very quickly go to solutions. It is usually a few weeks rather than months,” says Felstead.

Experience also counts when it comes to implementation – the hardest part of any management or interim role.

“You’ve got to know what works and what does not; the politics, the culture and where to place the emphasis. It is about what fits rather than the latest fad. It’s about having the ability to pick up a situation very quickly and understand it. It’s about creativity and problem solving, being flexible, engaging your client and coming up with a diagnosis. You have to be challenging and questioning. The key word has to be implementation and being able to put things in place,” he stresses.

“It is much harder to convince battle-hardened managers of the need for change. It can be quite stressful so you need to be fairly resilient and autonomous. You are largely on your own,” he adds.

While some interims at this level can command rates of up to £1,000 a day, it’s more common to charge around £500-£600, as Felstead does. The big downside, of course, is that between jobs you can go for months without anything coming through. But you can use these down periods you to your advantage.

“I spend around 300 to 400 hours updating and trying to expand my portfolio. The danger is being stereotyped, not by age but by specialism. I see myself as a manager and director first, who just happens to be in HR,” he explains.

“There are so many people who have got fired or have been written off and have gone into interim management work, and that worries me. There have been a lot of entrants into the market.”

Having a few grey hairs, and the right experience under his belt, Felstead believes, makes it much easier to sell himself in a crowded market.

“You may be able to read the politics of a situation in a way that a younger interim has less experience of doing,” he says.

“Sometimes you do have to bang heads together and deal with outspoken, very capable people. Often you find team morale has collapsed and you need to take a firm line. A younger person may parachute in with hobnail boots on.”

Felstead’s CV 1998-2004

2004 HR director, Babcock Naval Services

2003 Strategic business partner, HR, Defra

2003 Head of scrutiny and performance management, Devon County Council

2002 Advisory role, local government

2002 Change manager, Arts Council, Creative Partnerships Initiative

2001 Strategic HR manager, British Library

2001 Head of HR and development, Qualification and Curriculum Authority

2001 Recruitment project, Adult Learning Inspectorate

2000 HR director, Readers Digest Assoc

2000 HR director, Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

1999 Head of HR strategy\policy development, Charity Commission

1998 Management and director development project, Comax Ltd

The younger HR interim

Mark West may only be 38, but he’s pitching for jobs that an older interim could be doing. He left school at 16 and has worked all his adult life, giving him, he estimates, an extra four or five years on someone with a first degree.

An interim for the past 14 months, West came to the market from a retail and distribution background, most recently as director of a large distribution centre, responsible for 500 staff.

As an HR interim manager, mostly working through the Praxis agency, he has worked for firms including Aquascutum and Hamleys Bear Factory, at a rate of between £650 and £800 a day.

“I have worked with some very, very good older interims, and I think it is more about the skills you have than your age. But it does, of course, depend of the role,” he says.

“It is also about how you conduct yourself and the experiences you’ve had. You could be 60 and not have had as many life experiences as someone in their 40s.”

Whenever you choose to make the move into interim management, persistence is the key, he advises. “Some of the agencies do not want to know you because you have not done an assignment. There are a lot of people out there who just want to do it because they just do not have a permanent job.”

Should I consider an interim HR role?

After a bad day in front of the board, many HR professionals would be forgiven for thinking interim management might not be such a bad idea. But before making that change there are some key questions to ask yourself:

  • Do you have skills that make you marketable – do you have a wide range of sectors and experiences under your belt to draw upon?
  • What are your networks like? Most interims get the majority of their work from networking and personal contacts, so how would your’s stand up?
  • Do you have the financial cushion to survive setting up, and do you have the discipline to survive the fallow periods?
  • Do you like the idea of working independently or do you rely on office support networks?
  • Do you have the flexibility of outlook, and the focus of mind, to thrive as an interim, constantly driving new situations and organisations forward?
  • Are you doing it as a conscious career decision or because you can’t think of anything better to do?

There’s never a right or wrong time to become an interim, but if the answers to most of those are positive, then maybe it’s time to get out there and sell yourself.

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