Former banker and specialist finance interim Ed Harding looks at the advantages of hiring an interim, over a traditional consultant, to drive business transformation.

Eight years as an interim, most recently in an unfamiliar sector, has taught me two key things – firstly that for a good interim it’s all about ‘skills not sector’ and secondly that temporary executives can bring things to the transformation table that a professional services firm can’t.

Consultants certainly have their place, but there is simply no substitute for a fresh pair of eyes working within, rather than alongside or advisor to, the executive team.

Increasingly in the interim space today, boards expect professional rigour but don’t need a third party branded advisor. They need proven operators who can work with them and their staff and from day one really contribute to business operations. As an interim, I’ve found that my brand on commencing an assignment automatically becomes that of the recruiter that I represent and, most importantly, our shared client.

That’s not to say consultants don’t add value. In technical areas such as tax for example, you clearly need someone who can tell you what to do and you pay for what is, in effect, an insurance policy based on brand power. But the reality is that consultants ultimately consult. They tell you what you should do but they don’t actually get their hands dirty – and often in business the reality is that it can take as long to tell someone what’s required as it does to do it yourself.

As an experienced interim I’ve worked on many projects where getting the badge of a big consultancy is critical but in my view bringing consultants into day-to-day operations from day one can create a dependency that is very costly for the client to maintain. Also I’ve rarely seen a consultant firm enter a business, do a single piece of work and walk away – it’s in their nature to look for that opportunity to cross-sell. The role of the interim is simply to deliver and then exit stage left.

As an interim you’re not just there to bring a key skill, or set of skills, that the business doesn’t have. You’re there to take the strain and give the main team the bandwidth to concentrate on ‘business as usual’.

Quite often when companies go through a major period of crisis or transformation they don’t actually know what they are going to need along their journey, so they need someone who can work across lots of areas and be trusted to make the right decisions. As a director of a recent client put it: “You’re here to know which balls to catch and which ones to drop”.

The job of a good interim is to quickly fit in and be an integral part of the executive team. You have to have the executive experience and interpersonal skills to be able to professionally interrogate a business, seek out its problem areas, navigate obstacles and identify talent. The interim role gives a degree of latitude to the hirer that you simply don’t get from a traditional consultancy contract.

At its best, if you get the right interim at the right time, you can get the senior input of a partner-level consultant, embedded into your core business activities, for a fraction of the overall cost with reduced implementation risk.

Clearly the interim life isn’t for everyone – but as a career CFO I couldn’t think of a more fulfilling role.

Firstly, unlike when you’re wearing a consultant badge, you’re usually welcomed into the business as one of the team. People know that you’re not going to put everything they tell you into a report that will probably end up on their boss’s desk, so you tend be accepted more easily and are granted a far broader license to operate and be creative across the business.

Secondly, you very quickly amass huge amounts of experience without needing the grey hair to prove it. You’re given the opportunity to share experiences and learn faster with many more executives than you would in a typical permanent role.

Generally speaking assignments come about as a result of transition, crisis or change – quite often its major project work. In any case, as an interim you get to bypass the routine day jobs and concentrate on the tricky, interesting stuff.

Finally at the end of an assignment you get the satisfaction of being able to walk out of a business knowing you’ve left it in a better state than you found it in.

My message to any CFO or senior executive, whether they’re looking to take on an interim or become one themselves is that if you’re looking to make real change, add value and leave a positive legacy, the interim route is definitely worth exploring.

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