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Guns for hire: The rise of the interim executive

Guns for hire: The rise of the interim executive

Ask Richard Hill what his job is, and he’ll tell you he works in cost and change management.

Strikingly for an executive, he doesn’t list the companies he has worked with, or his current position. After working for nine years as an interim executive, flying in and out of companies to help them review their operations or address a particular challenge, Hill defines himself by what he does, not by his title.

It wasn’t Hill’s first career. After graduating in Ireland with degrees in economics and business organisation, he spent 10 years in a small consulting firm specialising in manufacturing and logistics. After migrating to Australia, he spent the next 15 years in various senior management roles until a restructure at the Australasian food giant Goodman Fielder left him out of a job.

This was the catalyst for Hill’s first interim assignment.

“It was essentially just a job-filler,” he recalls. “One of the recommendations executive search people made was to consider doing interim jobs because it was something I had a lot of practical experience in. It allows me to blend my consulting background with my management experience.”

Today, while Hill is open to taking on permanent work – “with the right organisation” – he’s happy where he is.

“There is a huge amount of reward [when] you can actually deliver an outcome. A lot of the work I do is of a transformation nature – when a company isn’t working well, or when it’s all over the place. And you look back at the end at what you have achieved. There is a lot of personal satisfaction.”

Interim executives are part part of a burgeoning trend.

Last year, Watermark Search International surveyed 250 Australian interim executives and found nearly half worked as interim general managers. Another 14.7% worked as chief executive officers or board directors, and nearly the same number worked as project or program managers. Of those surveyed, 49% were aged 50-59, while 98% were aged between 40 and 60.

Recruitment agencies say C-level executives are increasingly interested in interim positions. And more and more companies, it appears, are willing to take them on.

The GFC gave the trend a boost locally; it was already firmly established in Europe and America.

Interim management lead partner at Watermark, Danny Hodgson, says: “In NSW there are two or three proper providers of interim executive recruiters. In London alone, there are over 300 that are seen as being reputable. In the UK there are 12,000 [interim] executives currently on assignment,” he says. “There’s great opportunity in the local market.”

Hodgson says businesses are coming around to seeing the benefits…  "[Many companies] want executive expertise for a short period, but due to economic conditions can’t justify hiring one permanently.”

But Andrew Staite of executive recruitment agency Staite Henningsen Klein says the sector is still vastly underutilised, particularly by medium-sized enterprises.

Both agree the supply of interims is growing.

Hodgson says: “Demographics are changing at the moment, with a lot of the baby boomers are retiring early … They’re a long way from hanging up their shoes, but don’t necessarily want a permanent job.”

Says Straite: “In some cases executives make themselves available only on a project basis, so organisations realise they can get really good talent."

Why are many companies reluctant?

One barrier to the use of interim executives is that companies are not aware of the benefits of interim executives. Another is that they do not know how to find them.

Educating the market about the fact many recruiters offer executives on contract, as well as for permanent positions, is part of the challenge, Straite says: “In many cases still, organisations don’t have it as their first thought, because of not knowing how to find people. We get calls from people saying ‘I don’t suppose you can help us’, when in fact we have a whole group of people [who can]. That stops small and medium organisations from engaging on a project basis.”

Phil Tuck of Interim Executive Search, a Sydney-based recruitment agency, says businesses frequently don’t realise how they can best utilise interims. “A move to embracing them to run special projects is the key,” he says. “If the market is limited to where there are short-term or unforeseen gaps in the leadership team, it’s a very shotgun approach. If organisations embrace the fact that they may use them for special projects, more would use them and it would attract more executives into that field.”

Hodgson is confident the option of an interim executive will increasingly “become a weapon in the armoury of business”. His optimism is shared, not least by interim managers themselves. Nearly half the respondents in the Watermark survey said the sector would experience steady growth in the next 12 months, with another 7% expecting the sector to “take off”.

It’s clear that a growing number of near-retirement executives with a wealth of experience are being used by companies keen to grow while keeping their overheads low. As with all contract workers, their strength is the flexibility they offer businesses. Interim executives couple this with a wealth of C-suite experience.

Or as Staite puts it: “It’s an absolutely viable option and it’s very cost-effective.”

Who wants these roles?

So who's putting a hand up for these short-term, high-pressure roles?

Richard Hill, for one, who specialises in joining the executive suite of a company on a short-term contract to implement strategic change or to fill a vacant position.

Nine years ago, after his executive role at food manufacturer Goodman Fielder was restructured out of existence, he took to leasing out his expertise for months at a time as a gap-filler. Since then, he hasn’t stopped.

“I’m now in my mid-50s, and it’s something I’m very comfortable with,” he said. “You get into a comfortable way of working, and you get a lot of flexibility around how you work.”

There are many misconceptions about the world of contract job placements, including that it’s filled with young, insecure people doing it because they can’t find full-time work. The prevalence of contract work began to grow in the 1980s primarily due to businesses preferring a more flexible workforce. But that’s changed. C-level managers increasingly view temporary placements as a viable personal career choice.

“There is a huge amount of reward – you can actually deliver an outcome,” says Hill. “A lot of the work I do is of a transformation nature – when a company isn’t working well, or when it’s all over the place. And you look back at the end at what you have achieved. So there is a lot of personal satisfaction.”

Hill speaks happily of the wider range of challenges he faces as an interim, and the wider variety of assignments. He can focus on what he does best, without sitting through the periods where his skills aren’t as necessary for an organisation.

There are aspects of more permanent roles he’s happy to leave behind.

“What makes this really attractive to me is that you do not get into that organisational bureaucracy or politics,” he said. “There is a lot of work required in selling change, selling outcomes, working on different concepts, which at the end of the day is about organisational politics and manoeuvring. That’s not something I find attractive.”

Not everyone loves interims

But there are difficulties. For one, not everyone welcomes interims.

“One of the frequent challenges is the view that you’re not accountable or committed,” he says, a view he rejects.

Another challenge is loneliness. It’s difficult to build strong work relations when you’re constantly moving around, even if you specialise – as Hill does – in 12 or 18-month placements. Sometimes, others in the organisation are reluctant to get close, especially when an interim is doing change management work.

“The whole thing about bringing people with you can be quite hard,” said Hill. “At the end of the day it does require a level of determination and fortitude... You really are just slogging away on this. It might be two or three months of gritty work. Some assignments are just really hard.”

Interim executives also share the same uncertainty that other temps do about their future work prospects.

“The obvious [difficulty] is about continuity of work. It is a bit of a rollercoaster for someone like me, essentially working for myself, even though I’m very well networked with people in complementary areas.

“When you’re busy it’s great, but essentially you need to be constantly marketing your services.”

“For example, I’ve been successful, but I did hit a point when the GFC hit where about for a six-month period there was no work to be had in any sort of interim or consulting role. Fortunately, I keep my overheads down very, very low.”

Challenges notwithstanding, Hill insists his line of work is rewarding. But he’s not wed to it.

Asked if he'd consider a permanent role, he responds: “I guess for me, personally, it really depends. If there was the right opportunity [I’d] certainly consider it.”

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Myriam Robin

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Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.