Try before you buy – how four HR directors use interim managers

Why use interims?

Interims are essential for Paul Gaskin, HR and change director at services company Serco Science.

“Fluctuating demands on resources mean that interims are very valuable to organisations such as ours which are in a state of change,” says Gaskin, who uses as many as 30 interims at a time across a range of roles including finance and HR.

“The way we grow our business is by responding to invitations to tender and winning bids. We mainly use interims as a support to our bids. We’re usually looking for a specific skill,” he explains.

John Silverwood, group personnel director at PZ Cussons (a manufacturer and distributor of toiletries and detergents in Africa, Asia and Europe), also sees interims as a flexible resource, mainly recruiting them for short-term projects.

“We use interims either where we need to cover an absence or, more usually, when we have a project with a defined timescale that needs specialist input or project management skills,” he says.

Filling a gap while looking for a permanent hire is one reason for using interims cited by Mike O’Dell, HR director, strategic markets, at business communications services provider Colt.

Colt’s HR team has recruited five HR interims in the past 12 months, four of whom have now been hired on permanent contracts.

Initially recruited as an interim himself, O’Dell came to Colt on a nine-month contract, but was asked to stay on permanently after five months – a month later, he agreed.

“If you’re looking for permanent staff, using interims can be a great way to ‘try before you buy’. It gives both sides the chance to suss each other out,” he says.

Fiona Evans, HR and communications director at PentaHact, a charity and social care provider, also sees this as a positive advantage.

“Our interims often end up staying – we’ve just found one a job-share,” she says. As a result of rebranding, PentaHact’s HR and communications department now has 20 staff, four of whom are interims.

“Importantly,” says Silverwood, “interims allow you to access resources and skills that are not present in your organisation.”

Evans also cites this as a real benefit. “Our interims are made up of a good mix of people – they’re often from the commercial sector so bring experience we might not otherwise get,” she says.

Silverwood believes that the challenges of using interims centre on finding the right skills at the time you need them and ensuring that you get full value for money by using their skills effectively.

Recruitment challenges

According to Gaskin, the challenges of finding the right interim are the same as when recruiting generally. But he is adamant that you need to be clear about what you want from the outset.

“The selection process has got to be appropriate,” he says. “You have to accept that you’re not recruiting for a permanent role – so you’re not looking for a rounded individual, but a person that is specific for that job who will then move on.”

But getting the specification right in the first place can be tough and, as Evans says: “It needs to be very task focused.”

Benefits

Once you have the right interim recruited, the benefits they bring soon become apparent, says Gaskin.

“If you get the right one they can hit the ground running. They have a specific job to do within a specific timeframe and they just get on and do it. They usually bring with them a wise head and a range of experience.”

Evans agrees: “They tend not to get distracted – they’re very focused on the task in hand and usually deliver on time, whereas permanent staff can get caught up in day-to-day office politics. Also, from a budget point of view, using interims is great because they’re not an overhead like permanent staff,” she adds.

As well as usually being very professional, O’Dell says you don’t have to worry about them integrating in the same way as permanent hires. Also, if you have made a mistake in recruiting them, then it’s easier to terminate their contract.

Interestingly, Silverwood believes that interims can often have a greater impact on an organisation because they are able to express views to the senior management team that permanent employees would be reluctant or afraid to put forward.

Managing interims

That said, managing interims and their time can be a challenge in itself, according to Evans.

“Because interims are so used to working for themselves they can be tricky to manage – they usually like a lot of freedom,” she says.

O’Dell concurs: “Interims are usually very independent. In some ways this is good as they don’t need much direction, but the downside is that they may not work as hard as a permanent member of staff.”

Holding regular meetings and one-to-ones with interims to ensure everything is on track is important, says Evans.

O’Dell says one of the key challenges for HR when sourcing interims is finding an interim consultancy that understands your business and its culture.

“Some consultancies insist on sitting in with you in interviews, which I think is a good idea.”

In fact, interviewing interim candidates with the interim provider present is a practice that Gaskin follows at Serco Science. “Either the HR person or the manager who is recruiting does this with the interim provider. You need to build a strategic relationship with the interim provider,” he explains.

Evans agrees that building a good relationship with the consultancies is crucial.

“They need to spend time finding out about our business and manage our expectations,” she says.

Despite many positive reviews of interim consultancies, interim placements are not all good.

“We had one interim who didn’t fulfil his contract and left half way through a really important assignment. The consultancy didn’t bother coming to see us and never compensated us,” says Evans.

“Another downside is that consultancies don’t usually send a batch of candidates in one go but over a long period of time instead. This can make life difficult and to know whether you are judging like for like,” she adds. “They don’t always do proper checks on references either.”

The quality of candidates can sometimes be a problem too, says Gaskin.

“Lots of people have now jumped on the interim bandwagon and we are finding that the selection process can be a long one,” he explains. “It took eight interviews before we found an interim for a director post recently – although, typically, it takes about three interviews before we fill an interim manager post.”

Similarly, O’Dell says that, while unusual, it took nine interviews before Colt filled its latest interim post.

The future

Despite these difficulties in selecting the right candidates, the changing way in which business works means that the outlook looks good for the interim manager market.

“As organisations get smaller, there will be a continuing requirement for interims that will probably increase over the next few years,” says Silverwood.

Gaskin also sees this as a growing market. “As we grow, we need a flexible approach,” he says. “Changing demographics mean that we’re not likely to have the same flow of people through the organisation. So using interims will be a good way to utilise the skills of mature and experienced people.”

O’Dell also says he will definitely continue to use interims. “In the past, interims tended to be older,” he says, “but I think that is changing and there will be a much wider age profile of interims readily available.”

How to get the best from interims



  • Get the job specification right to ensure the best match
  • Give clear briefs, defined timelines and objectives
  • Hold meetings with interims to ensure projects stay on track
  • Build a good relationship with interim consultancies
  • Consider interviewing interim candidates with your interim consultant
  • Check references – although quality providers should do this for you

For more on interim management go to:

Interim market overview: Demand is anything but temporary

Employing interim managers: The right person for the job

It’s a lifestyle not a job – what it is like to work as an interim manager




 

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