What makes a good interim manager?

Unlike consultants, interim managers can implement change. However, given the current set-up of the profession, do companies really know what expertise they're hiring?

In theory, you might assume that the condition of the economy makes this an ideal time for interim managers. The reality is proving somewhat different.

‘We’ve seen a few recessions come and go,’ says Charles Russam, chairman of interim management provider Russam GMS. ‘The broad truth is that when business goes down, interim goes down. That’s because there is less volume and so people don’t spend money. Instead, they fire people, and that means they don’t take on consultants, interims or contractors.’

It’s understandable that companies that are looking to cut costs are reluctant to hire the skills of an interim, given that fees average at around £600 to £700 a day. A survey of 10,000 interims by Russam GMS found that just under 70 per cent of respondents were seeing greater competition to win assignments and a general decline in demand.

‘Historically, the best time for interims is when the economy is good and people decide they want to do things immediately,’ reflects Russam’s chairman. ‘They may not have the staff with the necessary skill set but they don’t mind spending a few hundred pounds a day on bringing someone in who can take the company forward.’

Paying for quality

David Harries, a director at the Interim Management Association (IMA), observes that work for its members remains plentiful in the public sector, while the private sector has definitely seen a dip. ‘Some people who have never used an interim may be concerned about the cost, but those who have used one understand the value that an interim can provide,’ he says.

One of the problems, argues Harries, is that business leaders who find themselves out of work are now vying for interim assignments. ‘Unfortunately, the waters are getting muddied by executives who are claiming to be interims.’ It’s the professional equivalent of mini-cab drivers taking work away from licensed cabbies.

‘There is a big difference between consultants and interims. A consultant will advise you on what ought to be done, whereas an interim can make those suggestions while also having the expertise to implement the changes,’ adds Harries.

Identity crisis

For a seasoned interim manager like Philip Jarvis, the real problem is that the profession needs to organise itself properly. ‘We really need to clarify what we mean by “interim” and how there are different skill sets to address a client’s particular need. If you just slam down the term “interim”, it’s too generic.’

The current homogeneity does a disservice to the breadth of talents on offer. Jarvis, who has worked on countless assignments, such as print processor specialist DigePrint, where he was placed by the interim agency Intramezzo and within five months secured £1.25 million to bring a new product to market, argues that specialisms should be clearly stated. For example, professionals could describe themselves as interim change managers, interim hold managers, interim “try before you buy” managers or interim risk managers (usually operating on an equity basis).

Mixed bag

Such differentiation would stoke greater confidence among companies and make proper use of the abundance of talent out there. For Jarvis, too many interim players are glorified recruitment agencies.

‘It can be an easy way to generate high revenue. They try to glamorise it and talk about change management and impact management and all that, but for most of these organisations those kinds of assignments form the smallest part of their business. They’re mainly recruitment people, so when someone phones up and says they want change, that can be a tricky one.’

Unfortunately, it’s growing businesses that may be the real losers in the current situation. ‘We have a flood of executives at the moment,’ continues Jarvis. ‘If the market was organised, everybody could really benefit.

‘A smaller company operating in the UK that is looking to go global, for instance, could find it extremely useful to use an executive – even if it was only for six months – who has been laid off from a large corporation and is ready to share their international expertise.’

Talent on demand

Skilled interim managers can be used for anything from leading a turnaround to covering for sickness.

Lindsey Moran, group operations director at outsourced IT company Silverbug, was impressed at how quickly she was able to secure a suitable replacement when her service delivery manager fell ill.

‘It’s a business-critical role for us, so it was really important to get someone who could hit the ground running,’ she explains. ‘We phoned a couple of agencies on Monday outlining our requirements and the candidate started on Friday.’

Moran adds that another advantage was the flexibility of the contract, which could be terminated at a week’s notice. The flip side is that this flexibility tends to cut both ways, and it comes at a price: the average day rate of a manager is £612, according to interim provider Russam GMS, though it can easily exceed £1,000 for high-powered senior executives.

Nick Glynne, managing director of IT products supplier Buyitdirect, says he would be reluctant to hire an interim. ‘In a process-driven business such as ours, intimate knowledge of operations is essential if a manager is to be a success and it takes at least six months to get up to speed,’ asserts Glynne.

Others would disagree. Kirsty Shenton, commercial director at Manchester-based marketing company MC2, is full of praise for her interim operations director, who was brought in 12 months ago to bolster the internal processes of the company.

‘As is the case with most entrepreneurial businesses, the directors at the head of the business are outward-facing,’ Shenton states. ‘The back end needed to catch up in order to take the company to the next level.’

The interim’s contribution has been ‘absolutely invaluable’, says Shenton, freeing up her and the other directors to do what they do best while putting in place the systems a young company needs to stabilise it as it expands.

Nevertheless, it’s a mistake to view an interim manager as no more than a package of skills to be unleashed on your business. Dermot Hill, a director at interim supplier Intramezzo, says that cultural fit is a vital consideration.

‘You have to be clear what style of person you’re looking for: someone who answers questions monosyllabically and takes no prisoners, or someone who’s a bit softer in their approach. You get it wrong at the peril of the project.’

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for growthbusiness.co.uk when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...