In this article, Mary Douglas shares with us how she became an interim executive, why she loves it, the challenges and the critical skills and qualities to be successful.
Why Interim Management?
I was looking for a change of direction and it was actually a comment from a trusted recruitment consultant who pointed out that my CV was quirky – I’d always had permanent roles but the actual work I had done read more as an interim CV. They placed me in my first interim role.
I’ve now been an interim manager for the last nine years. Each role has been completely different, each with its unique set of challenges. The variety of roles keeps me interested and it has also given me a chance to experience working in different industry sectors and meet a wide mix of people.
What was it that appealed to you about this way of working?
I wanted to feel that I was more in control of my own destiny and have the flexibility to take longer holidays to travel if I wanted to. In some senses this is a false view as we are all largely in control of our own destinies whether we are permanent or interim workers, but I liked the feeling of not being locked into any role for too long.
What are the challenges unique to Interim Management?
You are appointed to resolve a specific problem that needs to be fixed quickly. It is usually a pressurised timetable so you need to be able to hit the ground running from day one. There may be no precedent of how to approach the project and your expertise is required to find a solution and then implement it.
The other challenge is that quite often there will be a very short or no handover period if you are picking up ongoing work, because normally you are being brought in to fill a short-term resource gap if something unexpected has happened, or to relieve the pressure on existing teams who are under severe time pressure.
Often, the organisation is undergoing a period of transformation so staff may feel uncertain and also somewhat battle weary if they have experienced a lot of interims being recruited into their working environment.
What skills/qualities do you think are critical to be successful as an Interim Manager?
Specific expertise – both technical and sector related because this is what your client is paying for.
Good relationship builder – this is probably the most important skill, being able to build relationships quickly, work in a collaborative way with a wide range of people at all levels of the organisation, to achieve outcomes quickly. You need to be able to gather information rapidly to assess the problem and then start working on delivering a solution very quickly.
Time management/agreed deliverables – delivery of outcomes to agreed timescales is critical and you need to be able to deliver value every day to your client so they can demonstrate a good return on their investment from your appointment.
Appropriate mindset – also key – you need to remember that you are not an employee, you are running your own business delivering specific expertise and services to your client. It is important to be structured, organised and have clarity early on in the assignment of the scope of work that you are there to do. You need to be robust and able to deal with pressurised environments.
Flexibility – this is important as roles often come up at extremely short notice, and the ability to react quickly helps establish good working relationships with interim providers and can make the difference sometimes between getting work or not. Roles often take unexpected twists and turns and so it is essential to be able to react well and be flexible to changes.
How have you typically sourced work?
Much of my work has come from my personal network of previous work colleagues, both from permanent and interim roles. I’ve also got good working relationships with a handful of key interim providers who have placed me in roles.
How has the pandemic impacted sourcing work?
An immediate result of the pandemic when it first hit was that my contract at the time ended early and the market then went flat during the first lockdown. I took advantage of the time off to invest in some training courses and to reach out to my network. The time invested in my network then resulted in my current role.
What about gaps between assignments?
Unusually, I have been very lucky in that I have been approached with new roles from my network and quite a few of my roles have been extended to take on additional work. I typically take 4-6 weeks off between assignments. My longest gap was 5 months between my first and second roles. I think the timing of when your contract ends is also important as there are certain times of the year when the market can be flat.
What networking activities do you maintain while in work?
I belong to some networking groups and try to attend some organised events. Interim assignments can be very pressurised so there isn’t a lot of spare time, but I always enjoy meeting up with people who I have enjoyed working with in the past, some of whom have been good mentors to me and whose advice I respect. LinkedIn is also a great way for keeping up to date with what everyone is up to and for sending quick messages.
I also keep in touch with a key group of interim providers to keep aware of how the interim market is and where they see key areas of need to be.
Any high and low points?
The high point as an interim is always delivering a successful project. On one particular project, staffed mostly by interims, we had a very good team spirit and delivered an innovative piece of work that was very positively received by operations teams. As an accountant that was particularly satisfying to hear.
My low point has typically been when I have had difficult staffing issues to address, and sometimes became so focused on achieving the outcome that I lost sight of the personal impact on the team.
Any last pieces of advice for others?
Interim is a lifestyle and mindset and not just a different employment mechanism. You need to have a cash buffer to be able to withstand potentially long periods of not working.
Mary Douglas is a senior finance professional, qualifying as an ACA in 1994. After leaving PWC Jamaica she spent 9 years working for KBR followed by 7 years at Serco, both in a variety of roles. Since then for the last 9 years she has been an interim executive specialising in managing legal entity rationalisation and finance related projects. She works mostly with large organisations in the support services sector and her clients have included the OCS Group, M24Seven, Capita and a return to Serco.*The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.