Three years ago, after a very successful career as a permanent OD specialist, Helen Lancaster opted to move into the world of interim management. Here, she explains what persuaded her to take the leap and some of the lessons she’s learned along the way.
What were your thought processes as you were deciding that a foray into the interim world might be your next career move?
It was probably the culmination of a period of reflection, aided by some sound professional advice.
I’d been in the position of working on major change projects and mergers in a couple of large organisations with the result that my position within them became redundant. In each of these redundancy situations, I was lucky enough to be offered ‘outplacement’, which I seized with both hands. I attended every workshop and education session that was available, so had ample opportunity to really begin to understand what I wanted professionally.
When I wasn’t enjoying my last permanent role as much as my previous ones, I adjusted my mindset to think that rather than continue with a shifting portfolio of permanent moves, I could potentially find as much, if not more, professional satisfaction from interim roles.
So you would recommend outplacement if it’s offered?
Absolutely. People choose to move into interim roles for a number of different reasons, but one of those is likely to be the possibility of impending redundancy. In these situations most senior executives get offered some form of help to move on – after all it’s in the company’s interest to make any exit of any individual as palatable and as respectful as possible.
What I would say to anybody, if they were offered either a one-to-one programme or a group programme, is to go along to everything that’s on offer. For example, typically they’ll have workshops on financial planning, because when you’re made redundant, often the question ‘how can I survive financially?’ is uppermost in your mind. There are also likely to be sessions on how to market yourself and your brand, interview skills, networking and self-assessment.
I was a workshop junkie and firmly believe the skills I learned during those times helped me to make the move into the interim space and be successful when I got there.
It sounds like redundancy was actually a positive development for you?
Looking back I’d say absolutely, yes. I came to realise that in a fast-changing world there’s really no such thing any more as a “permanent” senior executive role, whatever specialist
function you work in.
Even if a change isn’t forced upon you, you’re likely to find that after a couple of years you’ve achieved what you set out to do and aren’t getting the ‘buzz’ from the job any more.
So my whole mindset changed. I had the opportunity to have insight and reflection and do lots of exercises to understand my skills, motivators and values. And as a result I began to realise that, as an interim, you’re in control and you’re accountable for your own job security in what is a very unstable employment market. It was almost like employing a risk management strategy to make sure I remained an attractive employment proposition in the new world.
So you were very certain of what you wanted when you eventually made the move?
Completely, yes. You can set out with the intention of moving between different organisations with thoughts in the back of your mind along the lines of ‘If I find one I really like I’d maybe consider a permanent role’ – but that wasn’t ever my aim.
I’d decided to be a career interim and not to suss out a company and then join it. I suppose I had got as high as I had wanted to go, so therefore, career and promotion weren’t so important to me. Also, money wasn’t as key because I’d got to a stage in my life where I didn’t have a mortgage and therefore had a bit more financial flexibility.
Personal factors definitely came into my decision as well as the professional ones such as wanting to use my experience to help organisations improve and grow their capability.
What do you think have been the main similarities and differences you’ve noticed between permanent and interim spaces?
There are certainly similarities in the type of work, particularly because throughout my career I’ve been involved in either setting up departments or going into an organisation with a big change agenda and a blank sheet of paper.
I’ve always been involved in transformation, so, in fact, the day-to-day work hasn’t changed that much really.
The main difference is obviously how you enter an assignment. You don’t get an induction or any training – generally you’re just put into a position to sort out a problem and you just have to get on with it. There’s no hand-holding and usually there is enormous pressure of time to get up and running quickly. You have to learn who and what really matters very quickly. And you can’t take things too personally.
On the upside I think people are generally less guarded with you as an interim. They are more likely to take you into their counsel and confidence because you’re a trusted advisor there to give fresh perspective.
And what would be the key pieces of learning you’d share with a permanent executive thinking of making the move into interim?
First of all, I think it would be harder for an introvert to be an interim. Networking is really important and you have to be prepared to put yourself out there and build your contacts because you don’t know where the next job is coming from.
You also need to be resilient because it can be quite lonely sometimes. When you’re on assignment, you’re as busy as anything and you don’t have time to breathe. But managing the downtime requires getting the balance right between recharging your batteries and making sure you have the right assignment lined up for when you’re ready.
Managing the ambiguity that comes with marketing yourself as a proposition can be a steep learning curve for some. It’s not unusual, for example, for me to go to meetings and tread the line between selling my skills and providing free consultancy advice. Sometimes you have to give away a few tricks and be prepared to share, but you’ve always got to remember that ultimately you are the product you’re trying to sell.
Finally – and crucially – develop the right relationships with the people who can really help you. I’ve found real value in getting to know the professional and well-connected BIE team at both formal and informal meetings.
A good recruiter, who is connected to what’s happening in the market and at the same time maintains a strong relationship with you can be a real lifeline when you’re feeling a bit isolated between assignments.