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HR turnaround interims: In hot demand but short supply

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24th Feb 2009
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Turnaround interims are in demand at the moment as companies struggle through the downturn, says Raj Tulsiani, who examines the increased need for flexible interim solutions and additional management muscle to turn around failing organisations.

 

 

 

Recent figures show that just over 4,000 businesses in England and Wales went into insolvency in July, August and September of 2008, up 40% on the third quarter of 2007 and 20% on the second quarter of 2008. Unfortunately, it appears that trend has continued into 2009, with little sign of relief in the immediate future. With a desperately tough economy, companies are looking to initiate turnaround at organisational, functional and team level.

The simple fact is that not all of them are going to be successful. There are any number of high profile organisations that have found the going too tough, and those headline examples are just the tip of the iceberg. So what can be done to reverse the slide and increase the likelihood of sustainable recovery?

 

"With a desperately tough economy, companies are looking to initiate turnaround at organisational, functional and team level."

It is unlikely that the answer will be found within existing teams and structures. Continuing on as normal seems to be a recipe for disaster, but sweeping changes might also kill off organisational intelligence, negatively impact culture, and compromise the brand in the eyes of consumers and potential employees.

The road to recovery

For a large number of companies looking to initiate recovery, importing specialist skills on an interim basis is an attractive and cost-effective option. It's not about patching over holes; it's about bringing in a highly specialised resource with the objectivity and focus to be accountable for tackling the company's key challenges head on.

There's currently an increased demand in interim turnaround specialists, not only at board level, but also across the range of operational and back office functions. As we all know, turnaround very often results in head count reductions and restructuring, meaning the best HR interims with that kind of experience are in demand.

So what does an HR interim with a specialist focus on turnaround bring to the table?

 

  1. Focus: HR directors (and their teams) have enough in their day-to-day jobs to keep them busy. A specialist interim takes accountability for turnaround from an HR perspective, taking the burden off teams that are already often stretched – especially in the current climate.
  2. Impartiality and objectivity: Difficult times are both professionally and emotionally challenging, and very tough decisions need to be made. Having a fresh pair of eyes is an excellent way to ensure challenges are seen from the right perspective.
  3. Experience and results: In these situations in particular, nothing beats experience. Turnaround situations are incredibly challenging, and the stakes are very high. There are numerous pitfalls and any number of sensitive stakeholder management issues to navigate. Someone who's done it before is far better placed to find a way through the fog.
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In the UK, there is only a very small group of senior HR turnaround professionals with the experience and track record to make a difference. The beauty of the genuine turnaround interim is that they are easy to judge on their successes or failures, because their assignments are so tightly focused and closely linked to the results they achieve. But the best aren't easy to find - these individuals are always in demand, since there are always companies struggling, regardless of the state of the market. In these difficult times, their skills become even more rare and valuable, and are therefore even harder to find and attract.

 

"In these difficult times, [turnaround interims'] skills become even more rare and valuable, and are therefore even harder to find and attract."

Expectation and availability

So what can you expect from an elite interim turnaround specialist? Well, you can rest assured that these professionals will be perfectly comfortable delivering on brave decisions - turnaround in HR parlance is often about restructuring, and restructuring almost certainly involves redundancies during a downturn. But HR turnaround interims shouldn't just be seen as hatchet wielders – there are a range of positive initiatives for which they take accountability (generally at less than half the expense of a management consultancy).

By way of example, one of our FTSE 100 clients recently installed an interim reward director to design and implement a reward strategy aligned to the new company structure. Another organisation recently brought in an interim cultural change specialist to bring the people strategy into line with a newly established organisational strategy. For the specialist interim, these kinds of initiatives provide an excellent platform to add to a CV.

So how can you access the top echelon of talent? Turnaround interims are also very careful to manage their portfolios. They won't take on what they perceive as truly lost causes, and they won't accept assignments where their recommendations and strategies are likely to be blocked by stakeholders protecting their own interests. That isn't to say they're shy of a challenge – they've just become experts at understanding the structures and situations in which they can add genuine value.

 

Raj Tulsiani is CEO of Green Park Interim & Executive Resourcing

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By AJ Meller
24th Feb 2009 17:01

While I agree with Raj's summary of what a good HR interim can do in a difficult situation, do we really need the term turnaround interim? Surely any experienced HR professional who's worked at strategic levels on OD and culture change issues should be able to deliver in these circumstances? And are these people really in such short supply? It seems to me Raj is creating buzzwords to enable his marketing. The downside is that a lot of good HR interims will be overlooked by agencies and clients because they haven't used the same buzzwords!

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By Mike Healy
24th Feb 2009 11:10

I agree with much of what has been said above, but I know from my own experience as HR Director turned interim that it is important not to see the interim as some kind of stand alone expert who can do everything themselves.

For me the key to success is co-creating the new plan or design with others, selling that new approach at senior levels and then facilitating and leading the work of others to ensure implementation takes place.

Finally it is very important to praise and share the limelight with others when success has been achieved.

Mike

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