Choosing an interim agency

It can be difficult knowing which is the best agency to choose when looking for an interim. Adele Kimber discovers how some employers are tackling the problem and offers some helpful hints

When an organisation decides it needs a critical injection of expertise, there is no time to waste. Recruiting an interim manager demands a speedy and efficient process to find just the right level of experience, and this normally means hiring an agency with good contacts and knowledge of skills on the market. An agency often plays a critical part in getting the right person on board fast.

But the rash of new entrants into the interim supply market over the last couple of years has made it difficult to find the right supplier. HR professionals are faced with a bewildering choice from established market leaders through to small specialist start-ups and an array of recruitment companies offering interims as an extra service to their main business.

Attempts are being made by the industry to sift out the best performers, and differentiate them from inexperienced providers and agencies who do not offer a fully-fledged interim service. Interim provider Executive Grapevine has published an overview of the UK’s interim management marketplace. The first survey was published in 2002, and named those interim providers who had the largest share of the market, based on the rate level that their interim executives and managers worked at. The aim was to provide corporate recruiters looking for an alternative resourcing option with a navigable overview of the interim providers at the top end of the market (see chart, p17).

Such moves are welcomed by established players like Patrique Habboo, managing director of Praxis Executives on Assignment, who says the market, and therefore the choice for employers, has increased dramatically over the last few years. In 2000, he believes there were 32 interim managers providers – now he can identify more than 250.

“The phenomenal growth of the market has made it even more important to focus on best practice. It is confusing – the traditional interim market is for board and sub-board level positions but now interim managers are also taking on a wider remit,” he says.

Habboo stresses that it is important not to be tempted by permanent agencies into recruiting one of their candidates into an interim job.

“When you are looking for a permanent employee, you want someone who will grow into the role and can do 85 to 90 per cent of the job. But for an interim post, you are looking for someone who has already achieved those goals. Interims have got to hit the ground running and you need a very different process to select that person,” he says.

Martin Wood, managing director of BIE Interim, points to three types of models used by providers to source interim managers: the practice partner model, the quasi recruiter, and the CV broker.

BIE and many of the leading interim agencies follow the practice partner model, where one or two handpicked candidates are presented to a client, following an agreed brief. The interim agency normally attends the interview and gets involved in clarifying objectives.

Other interim agencies, defined by BIE as ‘quasi recruiters’, hold large databases and match a client’s brief with likely candidates from the database. The agency supplies a shortlist of up to six candidates, after a screening process, and the onus is often on the client to make its own selection after a number of interviews.

The third model, internet-based services operating as a CV broker, are new to the interim market. Client inquiries are used to search a database of would-be interims who have rarely been interviewed by the agency. The onus here is on the client to sift through the CVs, select and match the best interim to the task.

Experienced interim agencies have a wide network of contacts on their side. “Our contacts with experienced interims have to be better than any informal network. We must know all the experienced interims available. We have interviewed maybe 20,000 people but have a gene bank of 800 to 1,000 skilled managers,” says BIE’s Wood.

He says that the type of interim is defined by price. “Always think carefully about what level of interim you need – if it is more than £500, then its a top level, senior post and is a true interim assignment. Anything paying below £500 a day is really contract temping,” he adds.

Interim recruiters stress the importance of testing the experience of an agency. “Ask how long an agency has been in business and if it is their core business or just an adjunct. It is very easy to have a fancy address, e-mail, and website, but really be a one-man band with little experience,’ says Habboo.

“Investigate substance and structure. Most importantly, ask who they have worked with – ask for case studies with named references,” he adds. Habboo points to detailed case studies of his own, such as work with Electrolux and DeLaRue, where clients are happy to talk about the success of interim assignments. If an agency can’t offer you a similar list of satisfied customers, proceed with caution.

This may seem like a time-consuming task, but making sure a company is reputable is getting easier. The trade body for agencies, the Interim Management Association, has tightened up its membership rules and code of conduct in an attempt to raise standards. New rules ask members to demonstrate that they have been in business for at least three years, are dedicated to interim management and have carried out a significant number of assignments at rates over £500 a day.

IMA chairman Richard Lambert says that raising the bar for membership is key to pushing up standards across the market. “This is the only way to win credibility with employers. Interim management needs to be seen as a strategic decision where external skills add value,” he says.

Alison Suttie, interim HR director at Allied Bakeries, argues that long-standing relationships with an interim supplier are vital. She says membership of the IMA or other bodies is not as important as a rapport with the client.

 “An agency needs to have a good relationship with the business. If they understand the fit and culture then you have a better chance of recruiting the right interim. I have a long-standing relationship with BIE Interim and it’s usually quicker for them to tune in and find a candidate to fit,” she says.

It is also important to find out how the interim supplier approaches each assignment. The best agencies will help interims and clients to work together effectively, spending time with both sides in the early stages of the process, rather than simply brokering a deal and walking away. Bill Penney, managing director of agency Ashton Penney, argues that while an agency doesn’t manage an assignment, it should manage the relationship between interim and the client company.

“If an agency does not insist on coming to meet a client, I would be less than happy. If you are going to use an agency, then they need to do the bulk of the work and be confident about handling the task,” he says.

“Once we have found the right person, we sit in on interviews and make sure the relationship is going to work. The first month is critical and we make sure in the first few weeks that we keep a watching brief and audit how it’s going,” says Penney.

But no matter how good an interim agency may be, it can only be truly effective if the HR director using its services is clear about the role they want an interim to fill, and they tackle the search in a systematic way. A scatter-gun approach will just waste time and create confusion.

Deanne Lee has just begun her role as interim HR change director at Portman Building Society, where she will be recruiting interim HR and project managers as part of a change programme. Lee has used interims in the past and advises HR professionals to give an assignment to one agency on an exclusive basis.

“You will get a much better service, and it helps your profile and image with the candidate. If you try to play the agencies off against each other, the candidates will get a poor impression of you,” she says.

Lee says that niche suppliers can be useful to fill a very specific need, for instance, a supply chain specialist or HR manager.

“A niche interim agency may have a larger database of the specific skills required and will be able to offer a quicker turnaround,” she says.

Lee warns that efficient recruitment of an interim depends as much on the professionalism and understanding of the concept from the HR manager.

“You should only end up seeing a couple of people and then the decision must be swift. Never hold several interviews to decide on an interim,” she says.

She argues that while an interim agency can go some way to defining the role of the interim with a client, good candidates will play their own role in clarifying the brief.

The IMA’s Lambert agrees there is still an education process going on with the HR community to help them understand just what interim managers can do and how they should be managed.

Lambert’s interim agency, KPMG Interim Management, has introduced a formal system of monitoring assignments to demonstrate just how well individual interims perform.

“Clients often say that the interim has done a good job, but the reaction is intuitive and they think that’s good enough. We want to set clear criteria, measure performance and use the information to inform future assignments,” says Lambert.

Ian Donald, group personnel director at ABB until recently, argues that a confident HR function is important to make relationships with interim suppliers work well. “HR directors must have confidence in their own role in an organisation to suggest bringing in outsiders and be able to convince others that an interim manager is a better idea than recruiting a long-term person for a short-term role,” he says.

Donald says he looks for an agency that will challenge his assumptions and be prepared to slow the recruitment process down. “I want an agency to ask difficult and searching questions – do I really need an interim and, if so, what for? Is it really in the interests of the business? The agency must help me to think through and justify my decisions.”

Choosing an agency

Remember there is more to ask than finding out the agency’s margin. Ask a range of questions to give as much information as possible about the agency’s level of service.

Added Value

Make sure the agent is adding value. A list of names is not enough. The candidates need to have been chosen carefully.


Understand that you have a choice and recognise the difference between agencies that offer a pre-selection service, and those that concentrate more on the size of their database.


It is worth considering the merits of agencies that offer pre-selection advice with project definition as a standard part of their service.


A good agency will spend much of its time interviewing. Beware those who do not demonstrate much rigour in the way they select people for their lists. Look for experience and reputation.

Market share

Rank                Company name                                                                        Market share

  1                    BIE International                                                                       6.6 %
  2                    Praxis Executives on Assignment                                                6%
=3                    Albermarle Interim Management                                               5%
=3                    Odgers Interim                                                                         5%
  5                    Ashton Penney                                                                         4.2%
  6                    Project Partners                                                                        4.1%
  7                    Impact Executives (UK)                                                           3.9%
  8                    Executive Interim Management (UK)                                        3.3%
  9                    Boyden                                                                                    3.2%
  10                  EC International                                                                        3.1%
  11                  Heidrick & Struggles Interim Executives                                    2.9%
  12                  Veredus Executive Resourcing Interim Management                  2.7%
  13                  Penna Interim Executive                                                            2.5%
  14                  KPMG Interim Management                                                     2.4%
  15                  Hoggett Bowers Executive Interim Management                        2.2%
=16                  Interim Performers                                                                    2%
=16                  Barnes Kavelle Interim Executive Services                                2%
=16                  Calibre One                                                                              2%
=19                  Brooklands Executives                                                              1.9%
=19                  Archer Mathieson                                                                     1.9%

Key questions to ask potential interim providers

Are they a specialist service or an add-on to a permanent recruitment or management consultancy?

How long have they operated?

How many successful interim executive placements has the individual consultant made?

At what level? In what industries? Across what functions? Over what period?

What processes of selection do they use – a ‘hand-picked’ register or a database of unseen candidates?

Do they meet the client?

Do they develop an assignment brief prior to identifying candidates?

Do they identify one or two appropriate and recommended candidates, or present numerous CVs?

Do they present candidates who work with them regularly?

How well do they know their candidates?

Do they attend the interview meeting or treat the process at ‘arms length’? Are candidates fully briefed before the interview?

How much do they supervise or keep in touch once the assignment is underway?

Have they preferential supplier status with reputable organisations? Can you talk to current and past clients?

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