How the other half lives

It was introduced in manufacturing industries 20 years ago, but interim management is now raising its profile in the public sector as it becomes a credible option for steering organisations through periods of change.

“The public sector is now quasi- private sector,” says Alan Horn, chief executive of Albemarle Interim Management. “And the main reason is the massive drive for change.”

This change results from a variety of political pressures, from the need for the health service to prove that it is meeting targets in patient care, through to poorly-performing councils that are obliged to implement a recovery process.

“We are seeing two types of change,” says Mark Rawden from Solace, the representative body for senior strategic managers working in local government. Rawden is head of resourcing at its money-making arm, Solace Enterprises, where he has placed many types of staff up to and including chief executives.

“In local authorities there are two types of change that might necessitate recruiting an interim executive,” he says, “the structural changes brought about by the Children Act bringing social services and education together, plus cultural changes about the way things are done.”

At Albermarle, Horn has seen a 50% increase in public sector placements in the past year. Similarly at Robert Half Management Resources, UK managing director Steve Carter has seen significant growth in the past 24-26 months, citing “public sabre-rattling” as the stimulus.

Use of interims in the public sector is fast catching up with the engineering and manufacturing industries. The latest in a series of regular Snapshot Surveys at Russam GMS Interim Management puts the public sector at 13% of all interim assignments, with manufacturing taking 19%.

The same survey also identifies the top 10 reasons for using an interim, with specialist skills, new strategy, special projects and restructuring topping the list, while more traditional views, such as covering temporary absence, languish at the bottom.

Even during periods of change and upheaval, HR professionals are astute enough to use interim executives to bring a new skills set into the organisation at need.

“HR people now understand that interims are a way of getting more bangs for your buck”, says Rawden, “and a great deal of quality for not a great deal of cash.”

So what makes someone who is only going to stay for a few months – and claim fees of up to 500 a day – such a good investment? “A key point to remember is that interims can come in quickly and pick up responsibility. They grasp situations immediately,” says Rawden. At the DTI -sponsored development agency Advantage West Midlands, personnel manager David Onion has recruited interims to fulfil business or project needs and to cover short-term skills shortages. He advises paying attention to the recruitment process.

“Through informal chats and interviews we look for people who are able to inspire and lead people who may prefer to have a permanent person in place. It is a bit of a tightrope to walk because also you do not want them stamping too much of their personal vision on a project, then leaving.” But if you have an interim you can trust they can be consulted about finding their natural, permanent successors.

“We placed someone with a large unitary authority with bad CPA (comprehensive performance assessment) scores. We put someone in for a year. As part of that project, he became involved in choosing his replacement, based on his experience of the job there,” says Rawden.

“Employing an interim finance director meant that we could spend time recruiting the right person for a permanent post,” says Carole Whitaker of her time as HR director of the quasi- public conference and exhibition venue the NEC.

“It was very useful. The business carried on while we were searching for a permanent employee and this gave the staff with the department much more continuity.

“At times like that when there is a gap people can play politics,” says Whitaker, “but we had no instances of anyone trying to grab power in a vacuum. Everyone knew that the vacancy was a short-term situation with the interim doing the job.”

During the upheaval of change interims can be used to provide an objective view and some welcome support, says head of HR at City of York Council Ken Green. He had recruited a number of senior interims to act as directors in his former post as head of HR at Hull City Council three years ago.

The authority had been identified as having a number of weaknesses and it was decided to “restructure the management effort”. Green recruited interims for a number of senior posts, including two operational directors for street services and regeneration projects and one as finance director. “I found that, not only were they keeping the business going during the restructure, they also became good, critical friends,” he says.

“They were fairly robust in terms of comments and advice.” Ultimately the interims played a dual role of housekeeping and advising. “We were going through radical changes and they helped us in defining direction while keeping the ship on course,” he says.

The usual length of an interim contract is three or six months. Green found that this could be flexible. “We were going through such radical change that some people stayed for eight months plus, to help us see things through,” he says. The experience in Hull has given Green the confidence to use interims for specific projects at his new post in York, but he emphasises that interims can add breadth to a management project, as well as depth of knowledge.

“Most interims are experienced managers and are helpful in looking across an organisation. I don’t think that we give enough credit to management skills in the UK,” he says.

How to get the best out of interim managers

Interims at the NHS

At NHS Shared Business Services, operations director David Thorpe has been calling on interim managers in HR and finance to help with change at the outsourcing supplier, which will provide financial services for 50 organisations within the NHS. “We have been going through a process of considerable change,” says Thorpe.

Since 1 April 2005 his organisation is working as a 50-50 joint venture with Xansa, the international business process and IT services company. Xansa will be in joint public-private partnership to offer NHS organisations cost savings which should release more funds for front-line patient care.

“The fast pace of change meant we needed people who could make an impact immediately,” he says. “We couldn’t give them the usual three to six months to settle down so we went to the [interim] marketplace for an operations director and an HR director.”

And when it came to recruiting the HR director for a six-month assignment, fishing in the interim pool allowed Thorpe to home in on certain skills. “We were looking for someone to give us the strategic direction to take us through a period of considerable change,” he says. “The interim also had to have TUPE experience – it is a specialist area.”

Thorpe does not hide his high expectations. “We wanted immediate impact and a quick delivery,” he says. But this does not imply a brusque manner – sensitivity is also on the menu. “It is imperative that interims support their team as well,” he says.

“Unless your permanent staff understand what you are trying to achieve and why the [interim HR director] is there then the whole exercise becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You have to support and empower the interim executive to help them ensure that the changes happen,” Thorpe says.

Interims at Hertfordshire County Council

* “Recruiting interim executives has allowed us to fill skills gaps quite quickly,” says corporate director of people and property Alan Warner at Hertfordshire County Council (HCC). “It has helped us to focus resources to maximum effect.”

Warner (pictured below) cites the particular example of using interims to help with the reorganisation of HCC’s children’s, schools and families (CSF) service.

The CSF service is the biggest department in the county council and serves 1.2 million people, including more than 600 schools and 15,000 teachers, and incorporates family centres and child protection agencies.

“We were already a ground-breaking association for social care” says Warner, “but we needed to make more change in the way we delivered the service. We wanted to set up a one-stop approach. Families of children with special needs, for example, don’t want to bagatelle around separate appointments within the system looking for support. We wanted an approach which focused on the children and their families.”

Warner recruited an interim deputy director. “The fresh thinking complemented the others,” he says, referring to the ongoing work of the permanent staff. He also appointed interim staff to deal with “operational stuff” or the more day-to-day activities. “This gave us horsepower over and above our daily capacity,” he says. “The price comes higher and a real business case is needed when planning and recruiting, but we have been able to focus our resources to maximum effect,” he says.

The pros and cons of using interim managers


  • They can start quickly

  • They bring a wide range of skills and experience of change management

  • They can bring a fresh look at events

  • Senior appointments can add legitimacy to the organisation.


  • There is a risk that development opportunities for other candidates to act up will be lost

  • It is a good idea to try to solve problems from within

  • It could take time for interims to understand the organisation

  • An IM may encounter resistance from other employees.

Source: Pauline Jas, Institute of Local Government Studies, School of Public Policy, University of Birmingham

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