In 2018, after many years enjoying directly employed status, followed by an interesting consultancy portfolio, I took a step into contract-based, interim work. Two years and two interim chief executive placements later, I have used a short break to capture some key learning points, that might be helpful to others who are new to, or are considering this particular type of work.
Consider your parameters
As a contracted interim you accept, by and large, a time-limited role, possibly in a location or situation you wouldn’t choose for permanent employment. You forgo the wider benefits of employed status, holiday and sick pay etc., but in return, you usually negotiate a day rate that reflects both this and your ability to dive in at the deep end.
Your goal is to have a positive impact on the organisation, or at least maintain equilibrium. You have to learn quickly and, as a chief executive, lead confidently. With this is mind, you need to go into the role with a good understanding of the task at hand and realistic duration. If a role is advertised as ‘three to six months’ find out what this entails. Depending on the nature of the contract, does it assume the recruitment of and handover to your permanent successor and is this achievable? It might not be possible to press for details in advance, but you should consider this possibility before progressing further. Could you, or your family, sustain for example, (notwithstanding Covid 19 remote working), a longer commute, or living away for home, or an intense set of tasks, for an extended period of time?
Clarify your role
When you undertake a senior role be clear about what that means to the organisation. In some cases, it might be to provide leadership for a limited period, such as maternity cover. In others, you might be a caretaker chief executive, keeping things ticking over through the recruitment of a permanent postholder. Or it could be that you have been brought in to troubleshoot and resolve tricky issues. An unambiguous start is particularly important if it’s the latter – you don’t want colleagues blindsided by any sudden or difficult changes you need to make. Work with your board to agree the purpose of your role and communicate this internally to set the tone for your tenure.
Acknowledge prior relationships
Clarifying your role will help you navigate any residual emotional baggage. Whilst you won’t be around for ever, you should be sensitive to what and who has gone before; you will need to gauge the organisational temperature, which may differ person from person, team to team. If you are bridging a leadership gap, you’ll need to acknowledge that colleagues will probably feel unsettled by their need to adapt to three different personalities and styles, over a short period of time.
There will inevitably be colleagues moulded by your predecessor’s style who might be resistant to any whiff of change or think it unnecessary to engage with you as you are just ‘passing through’. If you are brought in to troubleshoot, there may also be team members who have witnessed ‘things going wrong’ and hold unvoiced criticisms of the outgoing leader. You won’t be able to address each perspective, but you will need to demonstrate that you have listened hard to different points of view and used this to guide your approach. Your actions will need to convey that you are a full member of the team with a job to do, in spite of the brevity of your contract.
Where things have gone wrong you may need to manage expectations – unpicking problems and introducing new practices will take longer than everyone hopes for. You need to be clear that you won’t be able to solve everything but aim to gain a good understanding of what needs to be addressed, so that the permanent postholder gets off to a good start. Work out what you are capable of achieving, what you may need to pass forwards and, again, communicate this.
Most importantly, understand that people behave in the way that they have learned to behave, following the examples set by the previous leader/s. Where there is good practice applaud it; where you feel frustrated by behaviours, resist the initial instinct to judge a colleague or team on what you initially observe. Once you have worked out and communicated the rationale for doing things differently, most people will move in the new direction.
Draw upon all your experiences
The board has made an investment in your role and will want to feel they are getting value from you; and you need to know you are on track and have their support. Agree lines of communication – often via the chairperson – and hold regular catch-ups outside of formal meetings.
Don’t be afraid to draw upon your full toolkit of skills and knowledge, accumulated through different work environments and experience, which could also include non-executive roles. You might find this executive / non executive relationship feels different; you have a time-limited set of tasks and a fresh pair of eyes and it might be appropriate to offer more objective – even constructively candid – developmental suggestions than normal. This could include changes to board membership or operations, for example, filling skills gaps, or engaging/releasing less active members, or more frequent meetings and detailed record keeping in troubleshooting roles.
Necessity vs nicety
If you have undertaken permanent roles, setting the strategy, writing business plans, external engagement etc., is conducted alongside core business delivery within an adaptive time horizon. As an interim, you may have a truncated period of time to complete your designated tasks. Accept that the way you approach activities might not be as perfect as you would like, for example, you may need to work with a core group of staff essential to fulfil the tasks, rather than whole teams, or organisation. Establish middle ground ways to engage with and cascade information to people, on what you are doing and why. You may also have some ideas for innovation, or itch to undertake a wholesale review of a particular function. Unless this is core to the role, you will need to learn how to capture these … but put them to one side for the next person.
Prepare to get your hands dirty
As a/the senior staff member, don’t always expect to have a team to delegate to. Depending on the nature of the role, size of the organisation and skills available inhouse, you might need to get your hands dirty. In a small organisation, if there isn’t a specialised post or the incumbent is absent for some reason, you may have to turn your hand to urgent or essential tasks. You might need the skills to be able to respond to a flurry of media enquiries, or process the payroll, or be the health and safety or safeguarding lead, for example.
Getting your hands dirty also means knowing what detail you need to scrutinise, particularly in troubleshooting roles. You’ll need to not only be able to lift the bonnet, but dissemble parts of the engine and work out what bits need fixing. Metaphors aside, reading management accounts is one thing, but you might also need to be able to interrogate and question nominal codes, budget headings and cash flow, or interpret policies and procedures, to help you better understand the bigger picture.
Work yourself out of the role
Your goal is to prepare a smooth transition to the permanent postholder – you should feel your interim role has come to a natural conclusion. As a troubleshooting interim you are likely to find that the first few months are very intense, but as ‘engine glitches’ begin to be resolved, you should be able to work out what you need to complete and what should be left for the next person. At this point, your hours or days of work may decrease.
If you are lobbied to apply for the permanent role, find a diplomatic way to explain your interim choice, so that your exit isn’t interpreted as a slight on the organisation colleagues care about and to aid the transition to your replacement. If you are actively involved in the recruitment process, you might be able to maximise the handover throughout the incoming postholder’s notice period. If you can, set up regular briefings, send them key documents, involve them as an observer at board meetings and staff events, so that they feel they know the organisation and are already a household name when they start. Avoid having two leaders overlapping for more than a couple of days, as it’s confusing for the team and can be awkward for both parties. This also applies at the start of your contract – limit the overlapping period as much as possible, particularly if you are taking on remedial tasks.
Leave on a positive note; let everyone know what the handover arrangements are, make sure the board have all they need and say your goodbyes to the team.
These reflections are both of an interim and in the interim. A final learning point is to make sure you plan (including financially) to take a break between placements – you won’t know what is around the corner, professionally, or personally. I failed to do so before the start of both of my recent interim roles, but what I couldn’t have known in 2019, when I moved into the second one, was that my next role would be troubleshooting… dialled up a notch with Covid-19. As for many organisations, the urgent risk analysis and changes to operations added to the general intensity of the role. As for many people, it brought unforeseen personal challenges, too. By the end of June I knew that it would be wise to take a break and give myself time to look forward to my next role … whatever that might be.
Alison was interviewed by Odgers Interim on her approach to her interim work; the article can be found here.