Youth versus experience

Is
older and wiser better in today’s interim market? Nic Paton looks at both sides
of the debate

Just
today, I had a conversation with an organisation about taking on an interim
assignment, and they said they did not want someone who was too young. So I
find being older is a positive advantage, people like my expertise,"
explains interim manager Jan Hobson.

Hobson,
49, has been an interim for the past five years, taking the plunge after
notching up more than 20 years’ experience at a high level within HR (see CV).
For her, the fact that, as she puts it, she "has some grey hairs" is
a vital part of being an effective interim.

"There’s
an element of the psychological contract about it. Clients expect you to have
been there and done it, to have the war wounds and survived," she
stresses.

Firms
expect interims to be able to do more than simply shift resources around or
manage a function, she argues, something that, again, lends itself to someone
with more experience.

A
study by interim agency Chiumento in February concluded that interim managers
are becoming more widely used and more respected, with more firms recognising
their potential to fill a strategic hole or take on senior management roles
within an organisation.

Hobson
says employers are keen on interims with plenty of experience, who have
‘weight’. "For instance, if there are problems within the HR team, they
may want someone who can act as a coach or mentor, but who is not doing it from
a corporate political point of view. You need to have had a certain level of
experience to be able to do that," she explains.

For
Hobson, deciding to become an interim was a gradual process. "I had
reached a quite senior position within the corporate structure, so I had to
look at myself and my skillsets and what I enjoyed doing. I was deterred from
moving any higher up the corporate ladder because I did not want to spend any
more time on internal politics," she says.

"Also,
there was the issue of work-life balance. As head of international HR, I was
doing a lot of mergers and acquisitions work, lots of traveling and working all
hours and, as a result, I had some issues with my son."

She
adds: "I networked and spoke to a number of people and organisations,
including agencies such as Penna. But it was still a big leap into the
unknown."

Even
with her seniority and contacts, it still took some time to get established, so
it is vital to plan the move ahead, particularly to ensure you have a financial
cushion in place.

"It
was six to nine months before I got my first big assignment – it’s quite hard
to get started when you are working at a senior level," says Hobson.

"If
you can leave an organisation with a promise of some interim work in the
future, that really helps. I also did some short-term consultancy project work
for a while. The first one is always the hardest to get," she adds.

One
of the issues with getting started is the need to convince the agencies that
you are not just viewing interim management as a stop-gap to something better;
whatever your age it needs to be a definite career choice, explains Hobson.

This
is particularly the case because, as with all interims, you can get down
periods between assignments. "It is definitely feast and famine," she
says.

Nowadays,
though, Hobson is normally very busy – in the past two-and-a-half years there
have been few fallow periods – working particularly on things such as
post-acquisition integration or integration of different business or HR units
and developing HR policies and practices.

Other
key areas that she specialises in include the development and implementation of
change management strategies, policy and strategy development, employee
relations, performance management, compensation design and locum HR services.

Clients
that she has worked for include Scottish Power, Direct Line Insurance,
Prudential-Bache and XL Capital, including many smaller and medium-sized
enterprises. At this level, she commands a rate of around £1,000 a day.

"I
like the flexibility, and being able to use your technical skills. Somebody buying
in an interim is buying your years of expertise," she enthuses. "You
need to be flexible, open-minded and creative."

This
is particularly the case because interims need to be able to pick up issues and
problems quickly, identify solutions or changes of direction and implement
them. The fact that interims implement change is one of their defining
characteristics, and their skills, often gleaned from years in the field, are
critical.

"I
also like that there is usually a high level of clarity about what you are
doing – you tend to know what people want and what they are expecting of
you."

The
range of projects that interims use businesses for has vastly increased in the
past few years. According to Chiumento, again, more and more firms are now
using interims for short-term projects, often the preserve of younger interims.

Whether
this means interims are becoming little more than glorified project managers is
a moot point. But at the top end, with turnaround specialists brought in to
shake up an organisation and then drag it in the right direction, experience is
still a valued commodity.

"You
need to have your technical skills already in place. Interim management is not
about building a career path. You need to have had an established career, but
you do also need to keep your skills updated, which you can often do in the off
periods," she explains.

Indeed,
Hobson is between assignments at the moment, and so is spending some of her
time brushing up on her coaching skills through a series of coaching courses
arranged by Penna. Ironically, such events can also be good networking
environments.

The
fact you are your own boss is both a pro and a con. It is a pro, of course, in
that you decide what you want to do, but a con in that you are always chasing
work and work is always chasing you, which can make planning down time and
holidays somewhat problematic.

Jan
Hobson CV

Based:
Chipping Norton

Career:

July 2000 – 2004Director, Real Potential Ltd support services (interim
management company)

January
1996 – June 2000        Director of
International Human Resources, Prudential-Bache International (UK) Limited
(part of the Prudential Securities business group)

April
1995 – December 1995   International
compensation and benefits manager, Crosfield Electronics Limited

July
1982 – March 1995

European
compensation and benefits manager, HR manager, policy and administration,
compensation and management development manager, UK compensation and benefits
manager, salary administration manager, Pitney Bowes Ltd

September
1977 – July 1982

Sales
and marketing personnel manager, compensation and benefits manager, personnel
officer, Sperry Univac

Last
year, interim manager Andrew Nash was at a networking event for HR and other
professionals. There were around 40 people there. "Five or six of us went
into a group to discuss something within a workshop, and one HR guy in his
early 60s immediately moved away because he said he felt threatened," says
Nash.

Fortunately
for Nash, 36, an interim for the past four years, such incidents are extremely
rare. "In the sort of roles I’m pitching for – head of resourcing or
senior recruitment roles – my age has never come into it."

The
days of the interim market being the preserve of 50-something, ex-chief
executives are long gone. Nowadays, believes Nash, it is a much more fragmented
market, with even the concept of what defines an interim becoming confused both
for managers and interims.

While
many would dispute whether such roles really are interim positions, the
expansion in the market means that older and younger interims can thrive
alongside each other, albeit carrying out different functions.

The
Chiumento Coming of Age report argues that, even if the age of interims is
going down, there are more serious ‘career interims’ coming into the market.
These are often people like Nash, who are mid-career but are still very
experienced in their field and committed to interim management as a permanent
way of working rather than as a stopgap following redundancy.

The
most common use for interims during 2003 was to manage short-term projects (74
per cent, up from 59 per cent), said the report, with just 15 per cent hired to
step into a permanent role on a temporary basis, down from 26 per cent in 2002.

A
similar study by Russam GMS last summer also found part-time assignments were
increasingly popular, with the number of managers working less than a full week
going up by some 5 per cent.

The
expansion in the market has led to a blurring of the interim role. You can, for
instance, find 20-something temporary project managers describing themselves as
‘interims’ or managers who are simply covering a vacant post. While many would
dispute whether such roles should be defined as interim positions in the
conventional sense of the term, this does mean the market is now big enough for
older and younger interims to thrive alongside each other, albeit carrying out
different functions, says Nash.

"It
has never been a factor in the assignments that I’ve got and I’m normally
working with people of a similar age to me," he points out.

Nash
believes that what is important is not whether older or younger interims manage
in different ways, but that their experience is relevant, and that they can
makes things happen. Confidence is a key attribute for any interim,
particularly younger ones, he adds.

"You
have to have confidence in your ability, know that you are the best around and
that you can go in and add value. You have to be sure you are worth the money
you are charging."

Nash
decided to become an interim after spending most of his career in recruitment
and sales. "One of my children became quite ill and it made me look at
things afresh. Rather than go back to working with agencies, I wanted time to
reflect and go off and do something fresh," he says.

"I
did a fair amount of research on the web and in trade journals and I felt that
as I had experience through my recruitment work of quite a wide diversity of
sectors – industry, IT and investment banking – that I could put those skills
to a more appropriate use."

His
first assignment was working within the HR department of a service partner of
BT. It was just a month’s work but he took it to get something under his belt.
"It was then extended to three months and I was on my way," he says.

Since
then, he’s done seven assignments in four years, including working for big
names such as Norwich Union, Egg, Masterfoods and the British Library. His rate
is usually somewhere between £350 and £500 a day.

"It
gives you variety. You are always learning different ways to do things, which
you can then apply elsewhere," he explains. "You also tend not to
have to get involved in the politics [of an organisation]."

The
big downside, of course, is that with flexibility comes uncertainty. Nash picks
up assignments through a combination of his own contacts, networking, and
working through agencies such as Russam GMS, Chiumento and Praxis.

During
the inevitable fallow periods between assignments that are part of interim
working, Nash uses the time to recharge, regroup and brush up on any extra
skills or training that he needs.

"You
have to plan that you are going to survive off eight or nine months a year.
Having said that, I tend to put a massive amount of effort, both mental and
emotional, into my assignments, so sometimes when one is finished, it can be a
bit of a relief. Clients do expect their pound of flesh, and you do tend to put
everything into it," Nash adds.

"But
I enjoy the lifestyle, going in and picking up a new organisation, looking at
what needs to be achieved. When you do a good job, it’s great to be able to
think that you have got that achievement under your belt," he says.

Andrew
Nash CV

Based:
Lincolnshire

Career:

2000
– present day

Interim
manager through his firm Ash Consultancy and Management, specialising in
recruitment, resourcing, HR and general management, and also works through a
range of agencies

1994-2000

Executive
with a regional recruitment agency

1990-1994

Sales
director for an electronics security firm

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