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How to understand the profile of an interim executive

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20th Jan 2016
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New research based on a survey of 144 interim executives across the UK suggests that interim executives may display stronger inclinations to lead than non-interims and present colleagues with a vision of what can be done rather than managing to orders. The survey results were compared to a sample of 1500 non-interim executives so that comparisons could be made.

The expectation was that the average profiles of interims would be noticeably different. The big questions we wanted to answer were:

  • what does a typical interim look like?
  • what do they bring to a business?

Interims use the 'Nelson Touch'

We found that many interims deploy the Nelson Touch to deliver business results - whether it’s a merger and acquisition, business turnaround or a simple drive to improve operational efficiency - thriving in times of business change.

Lord Nelson was renowned for his innovative leadership; rather than direct the battle as it was occurring, he would gather his captains prior to action and tell them his plan, but allow them great leeway in how they carried out their individual orders. Interims do much the same.

The first part of the research looked at what it is that motivates interims.

The results show that interims are more driven by achievement and influence than they are by wellbeing or order. Interims are more likely to be focused on getting people behind an objective, and driven towards achieving that objective; 49% of interims display the characteristics of a strong motivator profile compared to 27% of non-interims.

Interims prefer to think on their feet

The results also show that interims are more oriented towards inspired and experimental decision-making. In other words, they are able to deal with changeable and ambiguous situations, and to react creatively and flexibly with what they find.

Interims are seemingly much less interested than permanent executives in order, and the detail of processes.

The findings also indicate that interims are unlikely to be suited in the long term to following the status quo, nor setting up sustainable, detailed, complex infrastructure. This does not mean that an interim does not have the capability for it.

But it is more likely is that they will be energised by hitting the ground running and taking what they find in their stride.

The second part of the research looked at the different inclinations interims possess compared to non-interims. The research breaks inclinations down into four categories: people versus things, leading versus managing, future versus present, and unstructured versus structured.

Leading from the front

The most striking finding was a strong preference for leading amongst the interims. 53% of interims display a strong inclination to lead compared to just 17% of non-executives.

Likewise, 44% of interims display a strong tendency for an unstructured, change oriented approach, rather than a structured approach, compared to 21% of non-executives.

Interims are also more strongly oriented towards thinking about the future (29%) than their non-interim counterparts (16%).

The unstructured inclination of an interim could mean that they go about getting a result in a circuitous fashion. They may not adhere to established processes, or work through matters in a systematic fashion – but they will navigate their way to success.

Similarly, the preference for future thinking may mean that interims won’t necessarily be energised by slotting in and working with the status quo. They will be thinking of their legacy when they leave and how their contract will have changed the way things are done.

Building knowledge, not hoarding knowledge

Our research has found that interims are well suited to coming in and galvanising people, getting them behind an initiative or painting a picture of how things could be. They will be fast-paced, innovative and demanding, keen to sort problems out quickly.

Conversely, they won’t be all that interested in designing a complex system for implementing a plan, or detailing what needs to happen. The typical interim will prefer to have the autonomy and flexibility to get others to deliver.

This is critical for businesses which hire them. Building capability within existing team members suits the business better than the interim amassing all the knowledge and taking it with them when they leave.

Four steps to ensuring the business-interim relationship works well:

  • Focus quickly on establishing a joint realistic vision and plan and getting support from all important stakeholders.
  • Invest in getting to know each other personally quickly, how you prefer to work and make decisions, what motivates you and what most frustrates you both. Agree rules of how to avoid pulling apart under pressure.
  • Work together to build the right relationships around the team and ensure that joint expectations of success are communicated to these people to ensure that you are seen to be on the same page.
  • Ensure there is a regular formal check-in process that covers how your relationship is working, not just how the work is going.

Four ways to jeopardise good business-interim relationships

  • Being too independent of each other. A really strong, close, transparent relationship is vital.
  • Losing sight of transition. Focus early on how to develop skills and know-how in the rest of the business, post the assignment finishing.  
  • Overly focusing on reporting. Focus on alignment around the plan and decisions, and focus on pace of execution. Harness the energy that will be in the relationship.
  • Appeasing each other. Be very clear and direct with each other – do not see challenge as confrontation. Approach the tough issues fast.

Not all interims are the same

It is important not to fall into the trap of thinking all interims are the same. When creating our profile of the typical successful interim, we found that there are a significant minority who actually display quite opposite characteristics. For people hiring interims, it is essential they understand this typical/atypical dimension.

According to the Interim Management Association, the use of interim management at board level continues to increase. For businesses taking on an interim, knowing which type of interim you are potentially hiring in order to help you get the most from the decision is all important.

This will reduce the likelihood of surprises, and help both you, the interim and the rest of the management team get off to a fast start. Getting these relationships right, and quickly, will have a significant impact on the ultimate value of the assignment.

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