The complete guide to interim management

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Interims are arguably guardians of business sustainability. They make the difference in many situations between a business thriving or failing or even flourishing from good to great.

Here you can find everything you need to know about hiring interim executives, whether you are managing growth, a change programme, business improvement, M&A, management transition or just need some extra hands-on leadership experience for a period of time.

Interim management is the management of change, transition, ambiguity, turnaround, crisis or uncertainty by an experienced executive hired on an assignment basis.

Are you managing a planned change?

An interim with specific experience can be brought in to help you manage and lead a planned business change programme.

Are you dealing with unexpected change within your organisation or in your markets?

Interims can be hired at short notice to help manage and deal with unexpected changes. Hire one with the right breadth of experience and they will be able help you deal with unplanned changes as they arise.

Do you have the required experience in-house?

If you have enough experienced resource within your organisation and can afford to move people around, you may not require an interim. However, if you second an employee into a change project or widen their role temporarily, an experienced interim can step in to take on some of their workload for a period of time.

Do you have the time to manage the situation yourself?

Interims’ main benefit to organisations is giving you time, sometimes just to breathe and think. Most have more than 20 years of experience managing change and dealing with ambiguity. They’ll take the workload off you, allowing you to lead your business forwards.

Do you know what needs to be done or do you need a consulting firm to help you work out what to do next?

Experienced interims are good at taking a plan from a consulting firm, sense-checking it for your organisation, then, with you, making it happen.

Do you want to outsource the management of your business to a third-party firm/consulting firm, or would you rather keep control and oversight? 

The crude analogy between hiring an interim to help you manage change and bringing in a consulting firm – and their teams – is the difference between managing a situation yourself and having it managed for you. Interims work as part of your team, with you and for you.

Do you need external objectivity?

Interims are independent providers of experience. You will not be sold other services. Interims are there to help you manage a situation without any vested interests apart from wanting to complete a successful assignment by the agreed deadline.

How urgent is the situation?

If your change situation needs dealing with now, then it’s unlikely you can deal with it without extra help, at least for a short period of time. An interim can start immediately and work with you for weeks or months.

Research by Woods et al. (2019) outlined for the first time a clear framework for hirers of interims. Following the cycle keeps all parties on track and helps define a clear beginning and an end. Significantly, the process from entry to exit is discrete, clearly defined and not open-ended.

The cycle identifies four clear stages: preparation, entry, delivery and exit.

The preparation stage is when hirer and interim executive discuss the assignment.  Specialist interim agencies can play an important role here in helping to define a clear brief.  This involves establishing defining the terms of reference and scope, letting the interim meet key stakeholders, and giving them an understanding of the organisation and its culture. A schedule of work should be produced, agreed, and signed off between you and the interim. The preparation stage is usually one or two meetings – some call them interviews. Essentially these are opportunities for you to discuss your requirement with the interim and get them to talk through how they can help. Importantly, to establish rapport and decide whether you can work with each other.

The entry stage represents the first days of the assignment as the interim executive commences the key tasks and, albeit temporarily, joins the business. This stage comprises encounters with key stakeholders, during which it will be important for the interim to establish their credibility. It’s often critical that you review the assignment brief after 10-14 days with the interim to see if it needs modifying.

The delivery stage involves the undertaking and completion of the main objectives of the assignment. It entails the sustained effort of driving through the objectives of the assignment.

The exit stage comprises the transferring of knowledge, competence and understanding to stakeholders and permanent employees. An effective interim makes certain that their departure is well-managed and timed to ensure durability and sustainability of their work.  This stage assures the interim’s legacy and that the impact of the assignment is made long-standing.

IR35 was established to maximise the employed population from a tax perspective. Genuine interims, hired to help businesses manage change, transformation and transition situations should not be considered as employees. Use the interim assignment cycle to help you focus on the assignment. Make sure there is a clear brief with a beginning and an end.

What is of critical importance when delivering change, much more so today, is people skills. In a recent British Academy of Management webinar, Professor Cary Cooper extolled the importance of emotional intelligence (EI), the ability to empathise and to communicate with people when leading or managing in difficult circumstances. The most successful interim executives will measure strongly in EI.

In their paper on Effective Interim Leadership and Management, Woods et al. (2019) discovered that executives who are successful at managing change on an interim basis are distinctly people-focused. Having interviewed some of the UK’s most effective interim executives, the competencies Professor Woods found in abundance were those which allowed them to engage with people: communication, emotional intelligence, sensitivity and patience.

Above all, what sets interims apart is a courageous spirit, enabling them to walk into most change and transition situations, and instinctively and rapidly know what to do next.

The benefits of hiring one of these executives are compelling to businesses managing change, transition and uncertainty, when extra experience is needed rapidly.

  • They have years of hands-on business experience – they know how to interpret a brief and deliver it.
  • They don’t need managing – they’ve delivered many successful assignments before.
  • They’ll pass on all their relevant experience – they’re motivated by leaving capability in place.
  • Focused only on the assignment, they’re a highly efficient deployment of your resources.

Announce who they are, why they are there, and how long they are with you – this will get them off to a flying start and remove any concerns about ‘taking over my job’. Underline that they are there to help you and the organisation. The interim will help you do this, as most are adept at building rapid rapport and engaging with people.

Take them into your confidence – hide nothing when you are briefing them – you are only wasting their time and your money if they have to peer under every rock to see what’s really going on.

There is no need to be too formulaic, but you should certainly agree the desired outcomes in a schedule of work and the preferred management style if there is one. Have a review monthly where the interim can outline major findings, decisions, and outcomes for the past few weeks and the planned actions for the forthcoming month.

Above all, make sure it’s a proactive, positive and result-led business relationship.

There are many interim firms to choose from. Larger ones aren’t necessarily the best for you. Shortlist those which look relevant and pick out the consultants who look like they can help you. The best interim firms will be recommended to you. Here are a few questions to ask them before you decide which firm can find an interim for you:

Is confidentiality important?

If so, talk to one interim firm you trust. Don’t put unnecessary information about your organisation into the market.

Are they a specialist interim management provider?

Some recruitment firms try to do everything, including mixing their databases of interims with those people looking for a permanent job. With some exceptions, genuine interims exhibit competencies, motivations and track records which make them a very different proposition to someone looking for permanent employment.

Do they meet a client each time there is a brief to discuss?

Whilst you might think someone understands your business, there is little substitute for a face to face meeting to discuss the current environment and situation you need help with. In a world of viruses, you can still meet and share invaluable insights via video link.

Do they identify one or two hand-picked candidates or present a number of CVs?

If you need an interim, then you haven’t the time to trawl through lots of CVs of people you don’t know. Choose an interim firm you trust and get them to give you their best two or three – encourage them to give you candid insight and views on them. They should be recommending a course of action and who you should hire, not giving you a longlist of unknown candidates to choose from.

Are they artificially ‘siloed’?

Many large firms split themselves infinitely into practices as they grow. Most either divide themselves by industry or role function. This silo approach risks missing the best interim for your organisation. It also misses the point. Some of the most effective interims have worked in eight to ten different types of industry in as many years. Some roles are so broad that to categorise them with one particular role function means you may not get the interim you need. Interim firms should remain generalist, focusing on what the interim actually does.

Selecting the right interim management provider is one of the most important decisions you’ll make when managing change, transformation or transition in your organisation. Providers of interims should earn their money, saving you time by demonstrating their knowledge of the best and most suitable executives available.

Hand-pick your interim management provider otherwise, as experience has shown, it just means that you will end up with the wrong interim, which proves pretty costly in the end.

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