Permanent contracts remain dominant in business but, in a disrupted environment, interim executives are an indispensable resource for organisations seeking to adapt and change. Whether they are brought in to enable business turnaround, business transformation or another significant change project, they possess a specific set of skills and experiences, and offer valuable expertise and agility.
So, what is an interim executive and what does "good" look like in this role?
What is an interim executive?
Interims are commissioned at a senior level on an assignment basis and take full line or project responsibility from day one, reporting directly to their client organisation. The average assignment is intense, usually lasting between six and 12 months, five days per week. Therefore, to be immediately effective, interims must be overqualified for the role, with a strong, proven track record and competencies that match the needs of the job in hand.
They are not to be confused with someone working on a temporary or non-permanent contract basis – in fact, the difference is clear. The term "interim management" is sometimes wrongly used to describe middle and lower management short-term contract roles. However, these managers can lack the authority to bring about significant change; they are usually brought in to "hold the fort" during planned periods of absence, to provide extra resource at peak load times or to carry out a narrowly-defined project. They require direct management time, whereas an interim does not - they will manage the situation and deliver a transition or change if required.
Additionally, interim management is not "try-and-buy" recruitment. Maintaining objectivity is critical to the success of an assignment and, so, a correctly selected, overqualified interim would typically refuse a full-time position. An interim contract can be "bought-out" for an agreed fee to maintain the interim on site for a longer period, but there are always very clear and defined objectives for doing so.
What does "good" look like?
The IIM identifies seven "hallmarks" of interims, which differentiate them from other types of temporary employees and make them unique within the workplace environment:
- Wide expertise
- Time focused
Source: Guide to interim management (IIM)
The key characteristic of a first-rate interim is that they are overqualified for the job and highly experienced – the quality and extent of their skillset should be more sophisticated than any full-time position would normally demand. An interim executive will also have core specialist skills – these make up their unique selling point (USP). After all, they are their business; they are the service they sell. For a good interim, it's their skills that truly matter, not their specific sector experience.
Often, an interim arrives when the situation has become critical and after others may have already tried and failed. To make an impact from the start, they don't have time to settle in and learn the ropes; they must be independent and hit the ground running. In any case, they are not looking to further their career, but to capitalise on their knowledge and capabilities - and their reputation is dependent upon a continuing string of successful assignments.
Whatever position they occupy, an interim is entirely focused on outcomes. Since they are paid by the day, they need to be able to consistently answer yes to the question: "Did I add value today?"
Jürgen Bruns writes that an interim executive must be able to fulfil different roles at the same time:
- The advisory role, which involves analysing a situation with respect to changing the current situation and giving recommendations.
- The change management role, which involves executing the recommendations within a project.
- The role of a regular manager, who is responsible for coordinating the change management activities with all other operating activities.
From a personality point of view, many interims might describe themselves as "adrenaline junkies", who thrive on "fixing" the issues presented to them in their line of work. They are focused on change and transformation - and neither of these things come without some hair-raising moments along the way. This means that they also have an innate ability to deal with uncertainty in their working life – for them, it's the norm.
And they are likely to lean towards extraversion – or to possess some extrovert qualities – both because their success hinges on their networking abilities and because they have to be bold enough to put themselves out there and ask the difficult questions.
Interim executives inhabit a unique position in the workplace environment. They can parachute into an organisation and make a significant impact from day one. Their combination of highly-refined skills and ability to adapt to the current situation makes them highly valuable to businesses undergoing large-scale change.