Teri Ellison spent 18 years as a senior HR executive in the IT sector, rising to director level before leaving to work as an interim. After five years carrying out a range of temporary assignments, Terri is currently six months into another permanent IT role. We talked to her about her career trajectory and what she’s learned from having her feet in two very different camps.
Why does a successful executive like you suddenly decide to step off the career ladder and work as an interim trouble-shooter?
A number of factors came together for me to reach that decision. I had a strong team below me and somebody biting at my ankles to take my job. I also had a 13-year-old son who I realised needed increasing amounts of my time and energy.
At the same time, I’d reached HR director level and, looking ahead at my next move, wasn’t sure that just stepping into another similar business, doing exactly the same thing and finding similar problems would’ve been the answer. I’d been in computer software and hardware for nearly two decades and wondered what working in another sector might feel like.
So, initially I moved into interim work to give me the flexibility to balance my time between different types of opportunity and my family commitments.
How did your friends and colleagues react to your decision?
Initially when I decided that I was going into interim, the reaction I got from the people that I spoke to was: “Do you really want to do that, because you’re going to be out of the market?”
The general sense was that being an interim is almost considered a side step – almost like when you’re in an organisation and somebody gets put onto a particular project and people go, ‘Ooh, we know where that’s heading...’
That must have made it an anxious time?
Absolutely. I had loads and loads of fears initially. They were less about my ability to deliver the goods and more around the fact that there were very few peers in my network that were actually even using interims.
Lots of people I spoke to were very much of along the lines of: “Well, you know, actually, I’m not sure I would pay that sort of rate to deliver a project because we do that in-house, so we wouldn’t need to.” So to know work was actually out there was the main anxiety – and to have confidence that at the end of every assignment I’d have another assignment lined up.
And how did you go about getting the work pipeline to allay those fears?
You can never underestimate the power of networking as an interim. It’s almost got to be something that you do as part of your basic 101 tasks every week: ‘Who have I contacted this week?’ ‘When have I got the next coffee and who am I talking to?’ If you don’t, the next piece of work simply won’t come up.
I actually came to really love the networking because of the amount of socialising I was able to do and the amount of learning I picked up.
Fortunately one important thing I’ve learnt working in a specialty like HR is that we’re a profession that tends to talk to one another. If you put a bunch of FDs in a room and try to get them to discuss what’s keeping them awake at night, they wouldn’t share what the true challenges are, whereas HR executives will generally be willing to discuss issues and share knowledge.
Any other upsides to working as a professional interim?
In my five years I did everything from three-month to 18-month contracts and the piece that I loved most about the interim work was getting to experience different markets, different industries, different leadership teams and different cultures in business.
There’s a real excitement in having a remit to get stuck in, really drive teams and make a very quick impact – it’s something I think we lose when we’re actually in permanent jobs.
So what would you say are the key things you picked up along your interim journey?
The interim spell definitely honed my leadership skills faster than would have ben the case in a permanent role. To suddenly lead a team of people who don’t look at you as a permanent employee or their manager and to have them follow you to build teams really challenges the way you lead.
At the same time, you’re learning to act as a genuine business partner to the client, helping them to think about where they’re growing their business, how they are driving their business and what impact you can have on their success.
The networking you do and the combination of different roles you become involved with enables you to to bring an expert, external view to the market. When I was permanent, I would have to pay for market intelligence and competitor analysis but as an interim I learned how to go out and get it for myself.
What eventually enticed you back into a permanent role?
Again, it was a combination of factors. When my son went to university I suddenly had more time at my disposal, so I sat down and literally did a detailed analysis of what was I enjoying and what was I missing.
I’ve loved every team I’ve worked with and every company I’ve worked in as an interim, but I missed being part of something bigger and more long term. I tend to get very passionate about the company I work for and the product I’m helping the business to sell, develop and take to market – you just don’t get to do that as an interim.
The deciding factor was probably that the company I’ve joined is in the process of splitting up the business, which is something I haven’t done before, so I also get to experience a different set of processes and dynamics.
Finally, how do you think your time as an interim has influenced the way you’re tackling your new permanent role?
I’ve been here nearly six months now and I still very much have the interim mindset in terms of thinking: What am I going to do this quarter? What are my quick wins? How am I going to get impact? How am I going to move things forward?
I’ve found that my drive is at a very different pace. Like an interim, I’m actually just thinking that I am only as good as my next three months and that really does speed things up – it impacts on the way you interact with people and the way you’re prepared to take more risks.
Experience working as an interim has definitely speeded up my decision-making. As well as the courage of my convictions, I’m more able to assess situation quickly and take pragmatic decisions based on experiences from a number of different situations.
Finally, I will absolutely still keep up with the networking. If somebody at work says to me that they’ve got a problem, I can usually connect them with someone and they’ll say: ‘Wow, you seem to know so many people’. Your networks keep you fresh and engaged with what’s going on in your specialist functional area as well as what’s happening across the wider sector as a whole.