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Latest News - The Long Game Of Short Term

Wednesday Jun 9

Interims are bringing knowledge to a variety of situations

The long game of Short term

The title "interim manager" has a mixed image - seen by some to mean a redundant executive en route to early retirement, by others a troubleshooting professional. Interim managers themselves claim to be master problem solvers who parachute into commercial hotspots to cut through internal politics, restructure an ailing business or kickstart a new venture. When their work is done they move on to another client.

In the UK, interim management has morphed from a cottage industry 20 years ago into a sector that generates annual fees of £1bn ($1.5bn, €1.2bn). Other markets where demand for interims has been growing include Germany and Scandinavia while in the US the use of interim managers (though the term is often not used) has long been a mainstay of how businesses operate.

One theory behind this increase in demand is that successive waves of redundancies have hollowed out organisations and bred a just-in-time approach to sourcing skills that used to be nurtured internally.

"Organisations have failed to train and develop their employees," says Nick Robeson, chief executive of Alium Partners, an interim provider, adding that organisations have had to restructure to be "fleet-foot".

Ian Dyson, information technology director for the Co-operative Group, criticises this trend among employers to "bus skills in and ship them out". However, he believes that, when used properly, interims can serve a very useful function. If an interim is given the job of training up an existing employee, he says, their presence can actually add to the business's know-how.

Last year, Mr Dyson recruited, through Alium Partners, interim manager Chris Brooker to introduce new technologies to the Co-op's healthcare business. Finding a permanent candidate with pharmaceutical and IT knowledge would have taken months. By hiring an interim he had a qualified manager in the post "within weeks".

Mr Robeson says that, increasingly, "employers are using interims strategically to enter new markets, launch products and embed mergers and acquisitions".

Is it better to hire through recruiters or do the job yourself? Marc Bertrand, human resources director at Tarmac Building Products, prefers using agencies to chancing his luck on the open market. If, after a few days, the interim has not made an impact, he says, he can pick up the phone and request a replacement. "Using an agency reduces the risk." However, his approach is not typical. Most businesses hire through personal recommendations or online through professional networks.

"Agencies offer a measure of quality control," says Richard Eastmond, a human resources director who used interims at CBS Outdoor International, his former employer.

"But if you have a good network, you should be able to find someone with the right capabilities without the expense of agency fees," he adds.

Yet hiring someone with the right functional skills is only half the battle. To come into an organisation, size up the situation and change things for the better, all within a matter of weeks, interims must be able to tailor their skills to their new environment - and quickly.

Adam King and his business partner Jake Allen discovered the importance of "cultural fit" the hard way when they recruited an interim manager to introduce new management systems to their bespoke tailoring business, King & Allen.

"We thought we were getting someone we could learn from," says Mr King. "But, he wasn't able to adapt his experience [which had been gained in large companies] to us." As an example, Mr King mentions how the interim insisted upon a strict staff rota, something completely at odds with the company's ethos of working flexibly round its customers' schedules.

Such stories damage the image of a sector keen to establish its professional status. According to Mr Robeson, the sector's "biggest challenge" is getting people to appreciate that interim management is a deliberate career choice with its own unique skill set - not, as some see it, a fill-in for executives who find themselves between jobs. Uncertainty over where interim managers sit in the pecking order affects what the industry's star turns can charge for their services. While top management consultants earn more than £6,000 a day for analysis and advice, interim chief executives who nurse their clients back to health rarely receive more than £2,500. Lower down the food chain, a seasoned interim responsible for a big IT project or business transformation might hope to make £400 to £800 a day.

One way for an occupation to upgrade its image is to call itself a profession and requiring practitioners to follow codes of practice and sit exams. Last year, the sector formed a membership body, the Interim Management Association Institute, to up-hold industry standards and develop a system of professional accreditation. But does claiming professional status confer commercial kudos?

Chris McKenna, director of the Novak Druce Centre for Professional Service Firms at Oxford university's Saïd Business School, thinks interim providers can lift the reputation of the industry by picking and choosing who they sign on to their books.

But he questions whether professional accreditation makes much of an impression on clients. As he points out, the movers and shakers in business are admired for imaginative leadership, not because they tick competency boxes. "We don't say to Bill Gates 'because you dropped out of college, you can't run Microsoft'," he says.

The recession has made tackling interim management's identity crisis all the more urgent, as businesses have cut back on interim hiring. Interim advocates forecast that the setback, which comes after two decades of growth, will be temporary. The long-term trend, they argue, is for businesses to experiment, dip their toes in new markets and adopt lean management structures, all of which favour interim resourcing.

Can the interim management sector attract and retain the high-quality career people that it needs to fulfil its ambitious plans? Mr Eastmond predicts the going will be tough. In today's uncertain market, he says, "most interims are very open to permanent opportunities" - even if they do not say so publicly.

The Co-op's experience bears out Mr Eastmond's view that the recession has made portfolio careers less appealing. Earlier this year, the business said goodbye to interim manager Mr Brooker - and welcomed him back the next day as a member of its permanent management team. "It was a case of try before you buy," says Mr Dyson.

It seems that persuading high-flying managers to pursue portfolio careers on the one hand, and convincing employers, on the other, that interim management is the way ahead will occupy the industry for some years to come.

How to get the most out of an interim

* Don't use novices. A successful executive will not necessarily make a successful interim, warns Mr Robeson. Choose seasoned interims who have shown they can establish their credibility in a strange organisation, adapt to different cultures and make an impact at top speed.

* Create an early-warning system. "The feedback that you get from your colleagues in the first three days will tell you whether an assignment is going to work or not," says Mr Bertrand. If the vibes aren't good - look for a get-out.

* Capture knowhow. "Get your interim manager - alongside doing the job that they were brought in to do - to mentor a member of your staff," recommends David Pickering, a professional interim manager. When the situation crops up again, you will have someone already trained.

* Avoid mission creep. Interim managers, like consultants, should be used sparingly. To avoid wasting money, says Mr Dyson, "set clear objectives from the word go and don't distract from them by loading in other tasks".

Source: www.ft.com - 1 June 2010

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