Business as usual

Recession
is usually a time when employees’ anxiety levels start to rise at the prospect
of lay-offs. But however bad the current slowdown becomes, it needn’t be too
much of a concern for interim managers.  By Rob McLuhan

If
a recession does happen, interim agencies say opportunities are likely to
change in character, as the business environment turns from hectic expansion to
retrenchment. Instead of going into a newly-merged company to harmonise
procedures, interims are as likely to find themselves handling redundancy
programmes or helping find ways to weather the downturn.

But
despite an inevitable slackening in the market, there has been little sign that
companies will not continue to be as reliant on the expertise of senior
managers on short-term contracts as they have been during the growth years.

"The
market for interims is likely to flourish in this economic climate,"
predicts Caroline Battson, head of interim at Macmillan Davis Hodes. "When
there is uncertainty regarding budgets, they offer a flexible solution for a
company that can"t maintain a permanent headcount, but needs projects
completing by certain date."

A
straw poll at a recent meeting of the Interim Management Association, which
represents 23 of the 30 mainstream providers, indicated little immediate cause
for concern, according to Charles Russam, chairman of Russam GMS. "Clients
are saying ‘the work has got to get done, so let’s do it’," he says. The
Dunstable-based agency continues to receive enquiries from a broad cross-section
of employers.

The
prospect of a downturn, however, has naturally recalled memories of the last
recession in the early 1990s. Then, Russam points out, the expectation was that
permanent staff would be reduced in favour of those working short-term
contracts.

"In
the event the opposite happened and the temps were cleared out, so one
naturally wonders if the same thing will happen again." He suspects it
will be different this time – companies are much leaner than they were 10 years
ago, so there is less scope for lay-offs, while over the past decade the value
of interims as a resource option has become increasingly recognised.

Employers
that do resort to slashing the payroll could find themselves having to bring in
interims to compensate. "A company that cuts too many positions runs the
risk of leaving itself underskilled," says Patrique Habboo, managing
director of MD Executives on Assignment. "So it needs expertise on a
plug-and-play basis."

Another
phenomenon in a recession is the exodus of talent from failing firms, creating
gaps that temporary managers will be brought in to fill. "Interims are not
climbing the corporate ladder and don’t mind taking on tasks that would not
attract people for a permanent role," Habboo says.

Until
recently demand was strong in telecoms and media, with big CRM projects needed
in the wake of rapid expansion. With the recession affecting those sectors,
that is starting to fade. Habboo says this year there has been growing demand
for experts in finance, and in sales and marketing, for instance in
implementing multi-channel strategies. "That is a sign of the times,"
he says. "If businesses start missing their numbers, the people they look
to are finance and marketing directors to tell them what needs to be done."

Skills
in demand

At
Impact Executives, managing director David Bradford reports that technology
skills continue to top the list of client needs. However, he also notes an
increased demand for project management expertise. "Companies have begun
to realise that interims are ideal for this kind of work and probably more
economical than a management consultancy, which until recently were the main
source," he says.

Bradford
also recognises a strong demand for individuals with turnaround expertise in
rescuing failing companies, as well as for senior executives in marketing, HR
and finance.

And
Macmillan Davis Hodes is starting to experience activity in the not-for-profit
sector of charities and local government, which is likely to be one of the
least affected by the downturn. "These organisations enjoy planning for
the future and have firm ideas of what they need, which means they work to
schedules that don’t change," Battson says.

Among
IMs themselves there is cautious optimism. John Moules, currently on an HR
assignment from Penna Interim, thinks there will continue to be a fair number
of opportunities although they will inevitably diminish somewhat with fewer
mergers and acquisitions. "It is not going to get any easier, but there is
adequate work to tackle," he suggests. "Interims will have to be a
bit sharper about exploring the market – the better people will find their way
through."

There
is no doubt that clients increasingly recognise the benefits of employing
interim managers for specific, short-term projects. "A good agency can
source quality people within days, having already carried out a pre-interview
to ensure they are the right fit," says Malcolm Browne, managing director
of Penna Interim. "That enables HR to meet line managers’ needs quickly."

What
distinguishes the interim from a permanent role is the amount of knowledge
required at the outset. At MD Executives on Assignment, Habboo recalls a City
client pointing out that a full-time recruit would be expected to have 80 per
cent of the required capability and acquire the rest gradually. By contrast,
for an interim posting it would seek an individual with 120 per cent
capability, who could hit the ground running.

In
this case the interim assignment lasted three to four months, which was roughly
how long the company allowed new recruits to settle in. "What this means
is that our people have to grasp the issues, turn the job around, and exit in
the same period of time that permanent people are finding their feet,"
Habboo says.

Overseas
opportunities

Globalisation
has brought an increase in demand for foreign assignments, which require
specific skills. For a four-month assignment in Mexico, MD Executives on
Assignment placed an individual who not only spoke fluent commercial Spanish
but also knew how to deal with Latin American bureaucrats. Similarly, for a
finance role in Italy, the need was for a manager familiar with the local
business culture.

At
Interim Management Services, administration manager Sheila Chalker expects the
proportion of international business to increase in the next few years,
particularly in the European technology sector. With so many opportunities
abroad, any ability in languages should be highlighted on CVs. Yet surprisingly
many managers leave this off altogether, agencies say. Chalker is particularly
critical of the overall quality of their submissions, saying, "It is just
as important for an interim manager to sell himself through his CV as it would
be if he were seeking a permanent position."

Meeting
briefs

This
opinion is echoed by Browne of Penna Interim, which recently placed HR managers
in two French financial services companies. "I would much rather hear
about their languages than their interest in gardening or theatre," he
says.

For
a Japanese electronics firm Penna was asked to recruit an HR expert to carry
out a business transfer operation to another company. This required an
individual with Japanese language or business experience, as well as an
understanding of Tupe and an employee relations HR background.

With
complex briefs such as this it helps if the agency works with clients to define
their needs, in terms of the skills required, the length of the contract, and
the degree of accountability, and specifies the desired timetables and outcomes.

On
the behavioural side, interims need the capacity to join new teams and build
good working relationships as quickly as possible. That too involves a certain
amount of preparation by the client. "We ask them to think about what
basic resources will be available, in terms of access to computer and
secretarial facilities, who will they meet and report to, and what will they
provide in terms of data," Browne says.

Penna
has been doing a lot of work in project and programme management, which Browne
identifies as an underlying core skill for interim managers. One client is
currently going through a huge European rebranding exercise and required
someone to run the project office. That was a challenge, Browne says, as it
needed to find a marketer with an understanding of IT.

The
profile of the interim manager tends to vary according to sector. In IT, the
skills sets are often found in individuals in their 30s, whereas for HR, the
need is more usually for professionals with substantial experience of employee
relationships. "Clients are looking for people with that grey-haired
wisdom," says Browne.

Just
as the activity is being afforded greater respect by businesses, the profile of
the typical manager has changed substantially over recent years. Individuals
tend now to see interim work as a career rather than a temporary necessity,
relishing the variety and challenge offered by different projects. In place of
the stereotype of the senior man filling a gap before retirement, the interim
is as likely to be a woman and can be any age.

The
changing demographic is confirmed by a recent survey from the Interim Group.
This showed that only 5 per cent of interim managers are aged 51-60 compared
with 53 per cent in the 31-40 age range. There are also a substantial number of
juniors in their 20s working in temporary assignments, the research found.

"There
is a myth that bridging managers tend to be in the more mature age
bracket," says Alyson Gilbert-Smith, managing director of Interim Group.
"Our analysis highlights that this is a desirable career plan for
independent executives of any age, whether at senior or middle level. Such
people seek demanding short-term assignments that offer valuable experiences."

This
view is confirmed by Battson at Macmillan Davis Hodes, who says, "Ten
years ago, a lot of managers got involved in interim work having been made
redundant, so the quality was patchy. Now it is more usual for people to do it
because they want to."

Flexible
benefits

Battson
adds, "A few days ago I was talking to the HR director of well-known
organisation. She said she was getting to the stage where she would really like
the flexibility and challenges of being an interim manager, and would be quite
happy to take two months off during the summer."

The
variety is an attraction – as well as changing jobs every few months, some
interims work on more than one project at the same time. For instance, they
might devote five days a week to a principal assignment, and act as a
non-executive director one day a month somewhere else.

An
initial barrier is the perception that working on short contracts lacks
security. But those who have tried it often find themselves quickly settling
into it as a way of life. "What we are starting to find is that people who
have been made redundant twice are turning to interim management and finding it
not as insecure as they thought it might be," Battson says.

For
those who are less keen on its transitory quality, there is often the prospect
of being offered a permanent job. That is not an issue for agencies, who can
profit by charging a fee. Impact Executives says almost a quarter of its
interims end up going full time with a client, and the figure is even higher at
Macmillan Davis Hodes.

But
for those who take to it there is always the prospect of extending horizons.
Having spent 31 years working in the financial sector in HR, Moules recently
embarked on an integration project for a major insurance firm, and is now
helping develop a performance management culture there. However, in the future
he thinks there could be advantages in looking for fresh challenges outside his
sector. In the meantime, a career as an interim has allowed Moules to gain a
much broader perspective of business. Thinking on his feet has become second
nature, he says, as new situations and challenges crop up on a daily basis.

One
of the greatest rewards is the ability to achieve results quickly. "You
live on what you can deliver," says Moules. "The challenge of jumping
into different corporate worlds with immediate feedback on what you do is
incredibly motivating. It often makes you feel more valued than in your
previous life as an employee."

Resources

Association
of Temporary and Interim Management Services (ATIES): www.fres.co.uk/aties/interim-management.htm

Captains
of Industry Survey 2000, BIE/MORI 020-7222 1010, mwood@bieinterim.com

The
Interim Manager: A New Career Model for the Experienced Manager, David
Clutterbuck, Financial Times/Prentice Hall Publishing, ISBN 0 2736 3293 0

Market
Research Report 2000 and monthly Snapshot surveys, Russam GMS, www.russam-gms.co.uk

New
Millennium Survey 2001, Leading Edge Interim Management, 020-7451 0051

Quarterly
Statistics, Interim Management Association, 020-7462 3294

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