Professional troubleshooter Kalyan Banerjee has worked in senior transformation roles all over the world. We asked him why he moved from professional accountant to international interim – and what he has learned along the way.
Did you always intend to have an interim career?
Not at all. Basically, I’m IT and finance guy.I did my degree in computer science and then qualified as an accountant. My early career was a mixture of finance and systems during nearly 14 years at Glaxo. After a couple of years implementing their finance systems, I was appointed as Finance Manager of R&D, which in those days was a massive part of the company with a budget of around £11 billion.
By the time of the merger with Wellcome in 1995, I decided that I preferred the systems element of the job rather than the finance side and was lucky enough to be given a role in the integration of the two businesses. It was a really interesting time, developing common systems, processes, accounts and ways of working across more than 20 countries.
So what set you on the path to becoming an interim manager?
As the merger began to take shape there was a lot of people movement and redundancies, I became the go-to person for filling interim leadership holes. One day I was Finance Manager in Malaysia, the next day I was IT Manager in Bangladesh. Because I’m a techie at heart I got really into identifying and solving system problems, which gave me huge exposure to running different operations in different countries. I did that for close to eight years and picked up a really good taste for changing roles, locations and cultures.
After the second major merger, with SmithKline in 2001, I spent another couple of years doing integration work but eventually decided to leave when it became clear that the new organisation was intent on undoing some of the systems we had put in. I still enjoyed the challenge of problem solving so decided to move into an interim role, from which I’ve never looked back.
What was your first assignment in this new interim world?
The first move involved staying in Pharmaceutical with a large Japanese company, Eisai, and although it was supposed to be an interim role I stayed for nearly three years before deciding I wanted to see if the skills I’d learned could be effective in another sector.
In 2006 I moved as an interim into Marsh insurance group, to revive their shared service centre out in Budapest, and manage the finance transformation. The process involved moving everybody into a common domain and changing the way they work into one consistent operating model, which required what I think is one of my key skills – putting in really solid foundations.
The Marsh assignment, and my subsequent one at another insurer Catlin, was supposed to be for six months but lasted a couple of years because, although people don’t realise it at the outset, most major transformations take at least two years.
And what was your last interim role?
I had a brief spell with Reckitt Benckiser and food producers Kerry before my last major project with Cable and Wireless. This was a major project based out of Jamaica and Miami and my remit was, in the words of my boss, ‘to bring C&W into the 21st Century and show them what good looks like’.
Have there been any common characteristics across these very varied assignments?
I think the first thing to say is that when you first enter a business as the one in charge of a transformation, you’re very much a one-man band.
Your first task is always to roll up your sleeves and get a real understanding of the detail. Only when you’ve properly understood the subtleties can you begin to do your own analysis, put a plan in place and present a constructive way forward – a goal that the management can see and back you with the necessary resources.
The other common theme is that in needing to know your stuff you really have to be prepared to knuckle down. There’s no getting away from the fact that the long hours in the early days can be very fraught.
Do you think there are advantages to being an interim in the early stages of a transformation?
Absolutely. I think the thing with being an interim is that you have a huge amount of momentum when you first go in because management has decided to back you because of your knowledge and expertise. Most of the time, people will be behind you. A huge benefit is that you can ask the questions that nobody would ask because there’s management in the room.
Of course there will always be some in the ranks who don’t like someone coming in as the all-knowing guru and it takes time to win these people round, which is why being an interim is rarely just a six month placement. And by the same token, if you outstay your welcome you get stale – you become another part of the furniture and you lose your effectiveness.
Being an interim is a very fine line between being effective whilst you have ‘the power’ and knowing when to move on.
And what are the main risk factors you’ve come across to date?
By far the biggest one is regression. You’ve done all the hard work on the systems and processes, but people still want to go back to doing things the way they’ve always done them. At Cable and Wireless one of the first things I was told was to be mindful of the attitude of ‘don’t worry about changing us – we’ve seen x number of people like you before and seen them all off..’
Embedding change takes a lot of energy and stamina because you’re the one who’s energising everybody else. If you have a bad day, everybody has a bad day and it’s easy for teams to go flat and think about regressing.
So what in your opinion is the best thing about an interim career?
The real reward lies in the work and the quality of the work. You can pick the type of assignments and you can pick where you want to do it. I’ve been very fortunate. With Marsh I was in Budapest and with Cable & Wireless I was Jamaica then Grand Cayman, they aren’t bad places to work!
Another key bonus is being able to learn different processes and different systems throughout the world, which all go towards building your expertise, experience and knowledge base. And it’s not just technical knowledge – you also pick up the ability to work with very different cultures.
And the worst?
It’s hard work and it can be utterly exhausting. I never take a break during an assignment, but when it comes to an end, I’m basically just washed out.
I finished with Cable and Wireless in August and I’ve basically been just leading a zombie life. It’ll take me at least three/four months to recharge my batteries.
I’ll do something like go trekking until I feel that I can go back and give somebody else another 100 per cent for however long it takes. You have to remember that interim work is not contract work or temping, because people have serious expectations of you. They take you in at a very senior level, they pay you big bucks and they really do expect delivery.
What role have professional recruiters played in your journey and what have your learned from the experience?
From my experience, the success and reputations of a good recruitment partner is crucial in getting quality roles because the big name companies usually gravitate towards market leaders such as BIE to source their interims.
What is also important is the building of a long lasting relationship and continuity. I have worked almost exclusively for BIE in the last 10 years and this has benefited both sides as we understand and trust each other to deliver our sides of the bargain.
A good relationship with an established interim recruitment partner ensures that you get a role appropriate to your experience and skills and, importantly, they get a satisfied client.
Finally, what advice would you have for someone thinking of moving from permanent to interim?
The biggest take away for me is that you need to be 100% committed to this as a career and lifestyle path. If you’re the kind of person who feels they might waver and consider a move back to permanent because they’ve been benched for a while between roles, then almost certainly interim is not for you.
Interim work is totally geared to taking the good days with the bad days and appreciating the hard work is always balanced out by the great times and sense of achievement.