Deciding whether to recruit senior executives for an interim period or employ someone on a more permanent basis is a common dilemma repeatedly faced by boards and HR directors everywhere.
It is increasingly the case that organisations are utilising interims for a number of functions including mergers and acquisitions, implementing new processes and systems or, in some cases, for crisis management. Following two years of research, Saville Consulting and Hemming Robeson have come to the conclusion that to interim can be one of the most effective ways to deliver on specific goals and projects where a strong senior leadership style is required. Hemming Robeson, which focuses on appointing executive level interim professionals, carefully selected 450 of their most senior interim executives and this sample was compared with a group of 953 international business leaders in permanent positions. The majority of the interim group (85 percent), with an overall average age of 53, have over 20 years’ experience in their field.
The senior interims all completed a strengths assessment, an in-depth behavioural questionnaire identifying the potential strengths of an individual across 36 core behaviours, deemed necessary for management success. The questionnaire is a self-assessment measure using a seven-point rating scale, with inbuilt mechanisms to minimise the distortion of scores and deliver an accurate end result. Validation studies have shown it to be highly predictive of actual workplace performance. Following the assessment stage, a thorough analysis of the responses was conducted, scanning for any irregularities between those of the interim managers and their permanent counterparts. The search proved to be a fruitful one and some rather compelling differences arose.
‘Providing Leadership’, ‘Driving Success’ and ‘Structuring Tasks’ were the highest ranked competencies amongst the interims, whilst ‘Building Relationships’, ‘Giving Support’ and ‘Processing Details’ were behaviours significantly less important to the group. This demonstrates a clear achievement focus, taking decisive action and getting things done rather than worrying about establishing rapport with people, interacting socially and adopting the usual ways of the business. Perhaps this will come as no major surprise, as although building relationships with staff is a key factor for interims, they are acutely aware of the short timescale of their assignment and they build relationships as a means to achieving results. They have been drafted in to get a project completed and that is precisely what they focus their energies on, according to their responses on the questionnaire. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this group also reported themselves to be far more comfortable dealing with change, managing ambiguity and tolerating uncertainty in the workplace.
Although the comparison group of permanent managers had, on average, slightly lower scores on aspects such as ‘Providing Leadership’ and ‘Adjusting to Change’, they rated themselves higher in other areas such as ‘Following Procedures’ and ‘Giving Support’, typically associated with management roles, where it is the job of the senior staff to ensure that business values are enforced, and that the teams have everything they need to perform successfully. So, in the modern business environment, are interim managers the answer? Do teams respond better to senior executives, coming in on a short-term basis, to keep them motivated and empowered, or do they prefer a more traditional, long-term approach in which they form a bond with their peers and the management?
The study shows that, for specific behaviours proven to promote good leadership and actually deliver results, there is a clear positive difference in the scores rated by the interims against the comparison group of permanent senior managers. More specifically, interim managers responded higher in their ability to: Provide leadership by giving insight, directing people and empowering individuals; drive success by taking action, pursuing clear goals and seizing opportunities, and structure tasks, produce output and uphold standards.
Also, perhaps one of the most important differences between the two groups is the ability of the interims to cope with change and uncertainty in the workplace; given the short- term nature of the position and the ambiguity they may face when joining an organisation. This robust personality is crucial, and allows them to quickly get on with the tasks in hand. Their ability to motivate and inspire an outcome-focused approach in others, ensures they are continuing to add value, as the economic climate evolves.” Furthermore, the research shows that interims are also generally more resilient than the average senior manager, an important characteristic, as they are not in an organisation to develop strong, long-term networks, but rather to initiate, pick up and/or complete business-critical projects.
Williams Lea specialise in Corporate Information Systems and they recently hired an Interim Communications Director through Hemming Robeson. Lesley Lindberg, Chief Marketing Officer at Williams Lea, explained the reasons behind their decision and the benefits they experienced as a result. “We wanted to parachute in someone who could make things happen quickly and get things in shape. After a six-month period, we knew that the brand would be launched and we would
need someone to manage its evolution on an ongoing basis. The interim we hired was clearly experienced in assessing the situation and delivering on agreed goals within a defined timeframe. It was a sprint rather than a marathon and, given that we needed to launch a new brand in a short period of time, this was the perfect solution. I believe there are times when an internal audience is more receptive to an interim manager’s insights and are more willing to be directed by them. They may perceive them as having ‘no agenda’ and, therefore, be more credible in bringing forward an idea or a point of view on the challenges at hand”. So, if interim managers are so strong at empowering, delivering and adapting to change, where does this leave the role of the permanent leader in the context of an ever-changing contemporary business world?
The research shows that, although interims have many clear advantages in delivering results, there is still room for the permanent executive who can build the relationships required to upskill and transfer knowledge to existing teams. Permanent managers tend to be given the leeway of 100 days to formulate and instigate a plan or project while in that same timescale, an interim may well be halfway through their assignment. Therein lies the true skill of the interim executive; the ability to put together a working plan within a week or so of starting, in order to achieve their goals in short order. The role of the permanent manager, who appears to be more comfortable spending time understanding the gaps and giving the support and encouragement required, is therefore essential in ensuring the longer term growth of an organisation’s overall capabilities.
Indeed, it seems that permanent contracts will remain the norm for senior positions for many years to come, as it is increasingly clear that both interim and permanent executives have their part to play in any organisation. The interim solution provides an instant injection of skills, the ability to manage crisis situations and access to a capability, not necessarily available in-house. Organisations will still require leaders on a permanent basis to provide stability and continuity. Not everyone is cut out to be an interim manager; it requires a very particular personality to be able to cope with the lack of job security and the ever-changing professional situations and the skills, to be able to tackle the variety of issues and challenges clients need them to address.
Original Article: Hemming Robeson in HR Director – Trusting Strangers
‘First published in the HR DIRECTOR, December, 2013. Reproduced with permission.’