When HR director Sharon Willis was offered voluntary redundancy by her previous employer in 2007, she decided to make the switch to working as an interim HR consultant. “I’d always said that at some point I was going to move out of permanent corporate life to give myself the flexibility to have more of a portfolio career,” she says.
Since early 2008, Willis has worked for Co-Operative Financial Services (CFS) on four different assignments, and says the rewarding mix of flexibility, variety of work and the short-term focus of project work means she is unlikely to revert to a permanent role. “It works well because I’m very delivery-focused,” she says. “Every day I like to ask if I’ve earned the fee. In corporate life, you don’t think like that.”
Another who made the switch to a freelance career is Mark Edwards, who trades under the name Co-Create. “I wanted to focus on the things I’m very good at and can add value on rather than being a jack of all trades,” he says. “I have a greater sense of achievement when I’m given a huge level of responsibility, with a clear budget and a clear set of deliverables within a finite period of time. I find it rewarding to go in, make a big change, and then go on to the next project.”
Willis and Edwards are part of a growing number of HR professionals who are becoming interims, either for the lifestyle benefits that come from not being tied to a permanent position, or as a response to redundancy or the scarcity of full-time positions in the sector at present.
“The number of HR professionals looking for jobs has increased, and specialist or career interims now have to compete with senior HR managers who are finding it harder to secure permanent positions or may be forced to consider interim work as a result of redundancy,” says Heidi Waddington, managing director at recruiter Hays Human Resources.
Signs of growth
Yet while the interim recruitment market slowed down in 2008, there are signs that demand for interims is growing. Waddington reports organisations that would previously have looked for a permanent employee are now turning to interims, while Jo Blissett, director, HR sector, at specialist recruitment firm Interim Performers, has also seen a steady increase in enquiries since the start of this year.
“What most companies need is somebody independent who can go in and give a quick but comprehensive view of what the organisation needs, and then implement the solution,” says Martin Smith, director of talent at recruitment services provider Ochre House. “That’s what an interim can do.”
Not surprisingly, recruitment agencies report that roles which tend to feature prominently during tough times – such as organisational development, change and talent management, TUPE and redundancy – are most in demand, while there is also an increased need for reward specialists as organisations seek innovative ways to retain top talent and increase morale.
“The roles in greatest demand are usually ones requiring specific skills that existing HR professionals within the business do not have, or where there are permanent headcount freezes in place,” says Michael Oliver, associate director at HR recruitment firm Strategi Search and Selection, which placed Willis with CFS.
“At more senior levels they are increasingly used to design and implement strategy, and in some cases they then go on to recruit a permanent person to take over.”
“This is proving a really tough period – perhaps not surprisingly – for those interims seeking learning and development or resourcing assignments,” adds Ian Gooden, director of resourcing solutions at HR consultancy Chiumento. “Whereas 18 months ago recruitment expertise was at a premium, the demand has undoubtedly switched towards generalists and employee relations experts.”
There are certain characteristics – both professional and personal – that are needed to build a career as an interim. The ability to hit the ground running is vital, says Carole Harden, who has been an interim executive for the past 14 years and has worked for a diverse mix of organisations including HM Revenue and Customs, Transport for London, Laura Ashley and Thales Aerospace.
“I’m used to arriving and performing on the day,” she says. “You don’t go in there on a learning curve. You’ve got to have the experience and confidence to move in and advise some very senior people.”
“Interim is a career in its own right, but only for the right people,” adds Chloe Watts, managing consultant at interim management services provider Alium Partners. “Typically, interims are change-oriented, motivated by challenge, variety and delivering sustainable results at pace.”
But working on short-term contracts may not suit everybody, warns Raj Tulsiani, chief executive of Green Park Interim and Executive Resourcing. “Interim HR professionals will often not be around to experience the full benefit of the changes they instigate, and some new entrants to interim management will miss this,” he says. “They are unlikely to get the same emotional satisfaction from a career in interim as they would in a permanent role.”
A successful interim will also need to be able to deal with the uncertain nature of temporary assignments. Stephen Huard counts himself as a generalist HR director and has undertaken 14 assignments in the past 10 years, but has currently been looking for another position for six months. “Being an interim is not for the faint-hearted,” he says. “At the moment there’s a surplus of interims, and for every job you face a negotiation over your rate.”
Those wishing to move back into permanent employment could face questions about their motivation, says Huw Jenkins, a director at specialist recruiter Artis HR. “Under normal economic circumstances, it is unusual for a successful interim to go back into permanent employment,” he says.
Nevertheless, for an increasing number of HR professionals, working as an interim provides the perfect mix of a fulfilling career with the lifestyle flexibility to match. “In addition to the professional challenge there’s also the personal freedom,” says Edwards. “I feel quite deserving of taking long breaks in between short and intensive assignments.”
In May 2007, Nicola Blatch decided to leave her permanent post as HR director of Ford Retail to embark on an interim career through her limited company The Leading Way.
“I recognised I was results-driven, solution-focused and that I worked at a very fast pace, so I’m probably not really suited to a maintenance role in a steady operation,” she says. Two years on, Blatch has undertaken assignments at Circle Anglia Housing Association and Anglian Water, and doesn’t envisage returning to a full-time role.
“I love the challenges and the variety, and I’ve had more experiences in the past couple of years than many would get, because you do things so fast,” she says.
HR interim management statistics
According to the Interim Management Association, HR professionals are paid slightly below the average daily rate for an interim manager of £612. But their pay increased by 6.5% between June and December 2008, from £558 to £597 a day.
Executives Online saw candidate registrations increase by 37% in the first quarter of 2009 compared with 12 months earlier – a 20% rise on the previous quarter.
A survey conducted by Green Park Interim and Executive Resourcing of 350 senior HR personnel and interim managers found that 40.5% thought the use of interims was increasing in the HR sector during the economic downturn, and 45.5% thought it was holding steady.