Four secrets of top notch interim management

Interims aren't just tough fixers waiting in vain for a real job. It can be a rewarding career option - if you can handle it.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 Jun 2016

Across the country, hundreds of thousands of young people are subsisting on short term contracts while they try to get a ‘real’ job. While temping can pay okay, it gives little promise of progression and no security whatever. It might surprise those seeking the holy grail of a secure position then, that at the other end of the job market senior executives would choose to give it all up for the short-term life.

Interim management is the Monaco Grand Prix to temping’s traffic jam on the M4, its high-octane, high-stakes cousin. Senior executives and management consultants – usually interims have substantial experience in both – voluntarily ditch security for the life of a nomadic ‘fixer’ or transformation expert.

The rewards can be great – often upwards of £2,000 a day. But are you cut out for it? Here’s MT’s quick guide to getting interim management right.

Know what you’re getting yourself into

‘Interim management is about driving an outcome, making improvements from week one and then moving on. Interims have typically seen and done it all before, and that's critical as our clients haven't got time for dress rehearsals on the job,’ says Steve Rutherford, managing partner of Interim Partners.

It’s essentially becoming self-employed – you have only yourself to rely on and will spend much of your time seeking out your next gig (or, more properly, engagement). ‘Interim isn’t a lifestyle choice,’ Rutherford says. ‘Think really hard about it, and if you still need help to make up your mind then think of something else to do.’

Don’t rush in

Given that your engagement could end tomorrow, the expectation to prove your worth quickly can lead to a temptation to act before thinking. Resist it, says Angela Smith, who’s been an interim for ten years following a career as a partner at KPMG’s risk and strategy consultancy and a six-year C-suite stint at HBOS.

‘The important thing is listening,’ she says. ‘Typically firms are very bad at leveraging the resources that their staff give them. By talking to lots of relevant staff, there’s the opportunity to find out what the problem is, and often what half the solution is.’ Even then, don’t expect miracles overnight – it can take a week to get a working hypothesis as to how to solve the problem, Smith says, and a month to get moving on it.

Handle confrontation carefully

Despite their reputation as hard-as-nails fixers with an Alan Sugar-level penchant for terminations, interims would do well not to pick a fight at every juncture. ‘Occasionally a full frontal assault on the walls is required, but very rarely am I confrontational,’ says Smith. ‘What I do is assemble all the information I can to create some new facts.’

It’s like the amusing (but probably apocryphal) story of the standoff between a US Navy aircraft carrier group and a lighthouse. ‘When the lighthouse said "we’re a lighthouse", the US Navy quietened down and got on with it because the facts were known,’ Smith says.

Though senior staff can often be defensive (don't be surprised - you have just been parachuted in to fix a problem they’ve failed to fix, usually at a significantly higher wage), remember they do have the same ultimate goal in mind.

'I feel that your opinion as an interim is always valued; evoking change is what interims do, achieving change is difficult as a permanent member of staff,' says Sandra Basaran, who became an interim after 20 years in the insurance sector. 'In my experience people respond well to the changes as they feel they are needed and interims are highly respected within organisations.'

Build a great reputation

How do you actually get interim work, you might ask? In part it’s through agencies like Rutherford’s, but as with any other essentially freelance role, the key is to develop a reputation. Smith denies that networking is the main way to do that. ‘What matters the most is doing a fantastic job. A client who’s left feeling you did brilliantly will call you next time.’

It’s also essential to know when to walk away. ‘I step away before they get bored paying me,’ Smith says. When you really believe they can handle it themselves, it’s time to make an exit - it may mean temporarily taking yourself out of employment, but it will leave them wanting more. ‘It’s a bit like Ronnie Barker – leave at the top of your game, while they still want to see you, rather than when they’re fed up of the sight of you.’


Find this article useful?

Get more great articles like this in your inbox every lunchtime

Upcoming Events