Know your interims

Understanding the qualities of interim managers is increasingly becoming
part of life for HR departments, By Stephen Overell

Whether you are intrigued by the 25 per cent-plus growth figures a year or appalled
by the £2,000 a day fees some senior mangers can make, the fact is that more
and more firms are turning to interim management executives. They may be the
ultimate symbols of the disposable labour market but there is no doubting the
demand.

The task of finding the right one for a particular assignment is almost
certain to involve HR departments at some level. But before moving on to the
qualities all agree are essential in the best interims, it is necessary to
consider four inter-related controversies that all have a bearing on choosing
the right one. They are issues to do with age, redundancy skills sets and job
security.

Age

The optimum age for an interim is a subject of fierce debate between those who
equate interims with experience and who regard anyone less than 45 as something
of an upstart, and those who say interims can be anyone from 30 upwards looking
for a varied career. There is little doubt that as a breed, interims are
becoming younger – in HR as in other disciplines.

Ian Daniell, chairman of interim management trade body the Association of
Temporary and Interim Executive Services, says that as little as five years
ago, all the CVs he received were from people in their 50s and 60s – the restructured,
the downsized and the early retired. Now, he says, they are a decade younger –
40s or 50s, choosing an alternative to the drudgery of the daily grind.

Many are far younger than that. Most IM supply companies say they have one
or two people on their books in their late 20s or early 30s. These people are
either choosing interim management as a career or, more likely, they are
deliberately using it to acquire new skills, put more blue-chip names on their
CVs or broaden their appeal. This most flexible of labour markets means they
have the option of dipping in and out of interim management, permanent
employment and contract work at different times of their career.

But the preponderance of opinion says that most interim management
executives are at the very least in their late 30s. According to a survey by
supply company IM&M, 30 per cent are aged 25-34, 43 per cent are aged 35-44
and 24 per cent are 45-54. But there are wide discrepancies of view. Some firms
take a liberal view of their clients’ preferences, believing age questions to
be irrelevant and skills questions to be all-important.

Chris Waite, managing director of HH Group favours this view: "It is
depth of experience, breadth of experience and personality of the
individual." Others have a different slant. "I would not look at an
interim without at least 10 years of senior management responsibility and
preferably upwards of 15," says Nigel Corby, managing director of Global
Executives. "So 45 is pretty much the minimum age."

Loraine Cardell-Williams, manager of Interim Performers, agrees: "Below
the age of 45, you could not guarantee that they were a serious interim
manager, and that is something the clients want and that we try and guarantee
to them. Interims exist to plug a skills and experience gap. They are a skilled
pair of hands needed for temporary business reasons."

While people still getting assignments in their 60s might count themselves
lucky, it has to be remembered that in many offices, apparently run by
children, the grey hairs of wisdom are an absolute asset. "Some clients
want someone who is almost an uncle figure," says Daniell. "A lot
depends on the attitude of the interim."

Redundancy

The relationship between redundancy and interim management is a delicate
one. Mentioning the two phenomena in the same sentence is enough to antagonise
some companies in the field who are keen to position interim management as a
career choice, as valid and sensible as any other, made entirely without
coercion by talented and able people. Redundancy is certainly more associated
with the early pioneers of IM – those operating 10-15 years ago – and less a
universal feature of the backgrounds of today’s interims.

"It is absolutely not an alternative to a real job," says Daniell.
"It is not about marketing the services of redundant executives. Those who
do it want to operate in this way as a professional undertaking. It is a
conscious career choice people make about an alternative way of working."

And yet it remains the case that from speaking to the interims themselves,
redundancy of some description has often featured in their past. Carole
Boddell, managing director of Human Resources International, a company offering
both contract and interim HR specialists, reckons that about half have taken redundancy,
although many of these will have done so voluntarily. In an age when there is a
near-universal consensus that mergers destroy value and squander talent, there
should be far less of a stigma attached to redundancy than there is. There
cannot be two of everyone in a merged organisation; inevitably some talented
people have to go. But the stigma endures.

While redundancy is often cited as a spur for people to change their lives,
companies hiring interims ought to adjust their prejudices: some highly
sought-after operators have been made redundant.

The skills sets

Clients will often want an interim to have a background in an associated
field. Others will see the person as more important than the particular
sectoral provenance. But while the full panoply of assignments is as varied as
the interims themselves, it is clear that a group of situations is emerging
when the services of an HR specialist interim might typically be called upon.

First, the technical skills in recruitment and retention and, at the other
end, lay-offs and redundancy selection, remain fertile ground for interims.
Jobs might involve setting up a unified compensation and benefits system after
a change programme or reviewing existing practice and implementing reform.
Equally, there is a fair amount of demand from call centres – either for
individual projects to set up whole HR systems or to begin and oversee
recruitment exercises.

Assessment centre expertise is often needed by medium-sized firms. And
finally, advising on the safe sale and disposal of factories or parts of
businesses is another boom area. People who really understand Tupe are
inevitably few and far between as are experts in particular payroll software
applications.

In the strategic HR arena, many companies say mergers and acquisitions are
invariably good news for interims. A whole new HR structure may be needed. A
company might have undergone a period of acquisitions with the interim required
to review existing organisation design and then set in place a unified structure.
Equally, interims are needed for individual change projects or, conversely, to
keep things ticking over while in-house HR staff handle a new project.

Industrial relations skills, which are in very short supply among HR
managers younger than 55, are powering up the agenda, according to some
companies. Particular jobs mentioned by Penna Interim in this regard include an
assignment trying to involve trade unions in a change programme and a job where
an interim was drafted in to mentor and coach an existing HR director who had
no industrial relations experience. Malcolm Browne, head of the interim
practice at Penna, says recent legislation is behind the rising demand.
"People with industrial relations experience are few and far between these
days," he says. "And those with a real depth of knowledge in trade
union issues are even fewer."

Similarly, the hottest issue in HR – the growth in employment tribunal cases
– has not escaped having an impact on interim management. Tribunal experience
is highly valued, according to Waite. "The demand from tribunal issues is
huge," he says. "And many companies, particular medium-sized ones,
just don’t have the experience and often start to panic about the possibility
of £50,000 payouts."

Nicholas Wood, managing director of BIE/Board Level Interim Executives, a
company specialising in senior interim appointments, says skills are normally
needed in the following areas: crisis, departures, outside objectivity,
mentoring, acquisition, integration, a safe pair of hands, management buyout
and poor performance. "But that said, one role can often become another.
An interim may go into a company in one role and then leave the company in
quite another."

Job security

"A lot of them don’t need to work." So says Chris Waite. Nicholas
concurrs. "It helps if they are financially independent," he says. A
surprising number of IM specialists come from money accrued in their former
lives when many of them were in very senior jobs. After all, the former top
brass of several household names are operating in interim management on fees of
up to £2,000 a day. This group of executives is better able to handle the
periods between jobs because they are not so important financially. They may
even relish them, with the prospect of more energy to hurl at the next
assignment.

"The working hours are long – often 10 to 12 hours per day," says
Wood. "The assignments generally require working away from home in the
week or longer – living out of a suitcase – so in some senses it is not ideal
for people with a lot of domestic responsibility."

The client normally pays accommodation expenses. Freedom, variety, good
money and new people are the obvious advantages of the life of an interim. But
some commentators believe it is not suitable for people with heavy financial
responsibilities. Some, but not all, have near-continuous employment.

Other evidence suggests IM can be a reliable career move. Supply company
IM&M, which specialises in the HR field, found that 74 per cent regarded
being an interim manager as "a long-term option" or "a career
path". They went into IM to "widen their experience" and
"for a new challenge". Of the 176 surveyed, 92 per cent were
confident of continuity of assignments, while 82 per cent had carried out at
least one assignment in the past year.

Alyson Gilbert-Smith, managing director of IM&M, argues that the growth
of IM chimes with Charles Handy’s predictions about the
"core-periphery" employment model and the growth of project-based
work. "Companies have been under relentless pressure to cut costs for
years now but it has got to the stage when they simply cannot cut overheads any
more, so they look to interims to provide a new way of attracting high-quality
management ability and experience."

The interim’s view

Paula Rayer-Dyson is stoical. When her firm Hunting Aviation was sold, she
was made redundant from her job as HR director. As someone who needs to be
busy, with many years of senior management experience, she initially tried to
seek another permanent appointment, putting her name about and enquiring
through all the usual channels.

There was just one factor against her – her age. She was in her late 50s.
Gradually, getting nowhere, she was steered towards interim management.

It would be a good way, she thought, of "finding a proper job".
Besides, she was no stranger to the field. As an HR director she had used
interims, battling internal hostility against hiring them – all the "No,
we can’t possibly do that", and "How much?". It worked out well,
with the interim bringing in genuine expertise and resolving problems no one
had ever dared tamper with before. It was the first of several occasions when
she employed them. Now, on the other side of the fence, she resolved to give it
a go, albeit with a few reservations.

Several years on, she has found it a very positive experience. "I am
realistic and, at 58, I know my chances of another permanent appointment are
limited. It has been a very good experience and I have found that I am someone
who is suited to regular upheavals in employment. I appreciate the variety."

There have been assignments varying in length between four months and 18
months. For some of the work, she has been rather overqualified for. But she
singles out other assignments for being very stimulating.

In one case, a client with a messy acquisition and disposal history wanted
her to define what kind of HR function would be suitable for the new
organisation. An interim career has also given her a taste of other sectors –
from manufacturing she has experienced telecoms and others she had little
knowledge of before.

On the downside, she concedes the breaks can be a bit unnerving.
"Because of my personal circumstances I can ride periods of time without
work. But for someone with commitments, I think it would be too insecure to be
happy with. There are absolutely no guarantees about future assignments."

Equally, there is often a little frostiness at the start of each assignment
in a new company. "When they discover that there is actually some benefit
to you being there and that you are not a threat, the attitude changes I am
very pleased. If it had not been for this, I would have been going mad in my
garden."

Ms Reyer-Dyson, having seen IM from both sides, is a rare authority on the
qualities of the interim. Here is her definitive list:

        
You really have got to be good. If you don’t deliver from the
moment you arrive, you cannot survive in interim HR, because your reputation is
everything and word will get around.

        
You must not have an ego or be after hierarchical glory, or
indeed expect credit for what you do.

        
You must be very flexible and take time to understand the
people you are working with."

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