Have you got what it takes to be an interim?

Written by
Changeboard Team

19 Jun 2014

19 Jun 2014 • by Changeboard Team

First hand perspectives Rehena Harilall

Rehena has worked for 4 of the ‘Big 5’ global consultancies and has 20+ years consulting experience in over 22 countries on three continents. She has been an interim since 2003. Her recent client list includes Aviva, Pepsico, Xchanging and Barclays. Rehena is currently working on an interim assignment in the banking sector.

Rehena says…
As an interim, you need to make impact quickly. It’s become a cliché that interims hit the ground running but it’s true: clients expect it. You’re not an employee but a third-party service provider.

What you do isn’t motivated by career aspirations or whatever yields highest income for the consulting firm, but what you honestly believe is best for the client organisation. You’re never truly free from politics but you’re several steps more removed than you can ever be as an employee. Ultimately, it’s about greater freedom to do what really interests you work-wise, but also greater personal freedom.

My current assignment

The interim assignment I began last August has proved to be uniquely challenging. I’ve been working on a change programme involving the high-profile winding down of a recently nationalised bank in Europe, reporting to the HR director and chief operating officer.

The circumstances are unprecedented and I’ve found myself applying and re-defining everything I’ve learned about change over two decades. What’s been particularly exciting is that the change approach has to be constantly flexed to align to changing and fluid situations. The bank was one of those bailed out by government so is now 100% state owned and also falls under the regulators remit at European level.

In summary, we have had to:

  • Cope with the integration of aspects of another so-called ‘toxic’ bank
  • Develop a wind-down implementation plan that could take up to 10 years
  • Restructure and reduce headcount towards achievement of Phase 1 of the workout plan
  • Deliver change with employees who are all too aware of the temporary nature of the bank and a leadership unfamiliar with the local environment with no buy-in to the workout agenda
  • Managing senior civil servant stakeholders and their appointed consultants

The goal was to develop a robust HR programme (new organisation structure, integration, dealing with legacy HR issues, implementing a redundancy programme) but also support the delivery of other elements of the overall workout plan. These included disposal of assets globally and outsourcing elements of the business with a small HR team unused to working in project discipline. These and other aspects of the programme have all been completed on time and to budget within an environment of uncertainty, demotivation, high employee turnover and little senior leadership commitment – plus the added challenge of keeping external stakeholders happy.

Top tips for interims

1. Be clear on your objectives and aim to specialise in work or sectors that you enjoy most

2. Play to your strengths by all means but also work hard on developing your weaker areas. Use down-time to have fun and pursue whatever personal goals you have but also make time to keep learning – you must be ahead of the curve in terms of current thinking and best practice

3. Establish key connections and build relationships with people who might hire you or connect you to those who could. Interim agencies are an important channel to market but a selective rather than scattergun approach works best.

First-hand perspectives Andrew Elvin

Andrew is currently on assignment via BIE Group at McBride plc. His previous clients include Dairy Crest, Honeywell and Rank Hovis McDougall.

My career journey

After qualifying in hotel and catering management, I spent several years in hotel management. I decided that it wasn’t for me, so needed a profession to allow me to move sectors. As a hotel manager, I’d done a lot of front-line personnel management, so I could market myself as a personnel professional and move into other industries such as engineering, manufacturing, distribution and media, all in HR.

In total, I spent about 12 years as an HR officer/manager/director. Like many, I fell into the interim world. While looking for a permanent role the opportunity arose to do some interim work for 10 weeks. Eleven years later, I’m still doing it and have never been back to a permanent role, by choice!

Career progression

What are the benefits of being an interim for your HR career?

You get to see a wider variety of companies and thus different ways of working, different industries and varying cultures. You don’t have to be a career interim forever, many interims do go back into permanent roles. 

What are the disadvantages?

The main one is lack of job security - you have to be prepared for gaps and hold your nerve when new assignments don’t come along immediately.

There’s also what my American colleagues called 'collegiate-ness'. In other words, you’re not part of a permanent team that bonds over a period of time, and some people prefer to be part of a close knit team rather than be the outsider.

Of course, the trick is to work in such a way that people feel that you’re part of their team, while still retaining your independence of thought and what you bring to the organisation.

What does it take to be a good career interim?

  • A solid professional background in your subject
  • Confidence in what you can deliver, and knowing what you cannot
  • Resilience to cope with the likely gaps
  • Independence of thought and opinion, without being pushy or overbearing
  • Recognition that you are both integral to the organisation while you are there, but also transient
  • Be confident in what you can deliver, promise what you can deliver and then deliver it!

What skills are essential?

  • Self-confidence without being overbearing or arrogant
  • Patience – not everyone will see the world as you do or be able to see what you can achieve
  • A high drive to succeed
  • Selflessness – you will be walking away from what you achieve for others to reap the benefits. It’s not for you, it’s for them
  • An ability to provide whatever the client lacks – whether it’s thought leadership, an independent viewpoint or structure and rigour.

Top tips for interims

1. “Act as if you are here forever” – in other words, with all that you do for an organisation, work on the premise that you’ll be there for many years to come and you’ll have to live with the consequences. You won’t be, of course, but think and act as if you were.

2.    Be politically aware but not politically active. There are usually enough people playing politics in organisations, they don’t need you adding to the mix. But you must be politically astute, recognising that people have agendas and ensuring you don’t get tied up in them.

3.    Do your best to get along with everyone you work with, you never know when you’ll come across them again, it’s a small world.

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