Consulting » INTERIM MANAGEMENT – Finance’s 007: licensed to fill in.

INTERIM MANAGEMENT - Finance's 007: licensed to fill in.

The interim manager is the James Bond of the business world. He or she drops into challenging situations at short notice and gets results. However, sleeping with fellow board members is generally discouraged.

Although former finance directors and controllers who work as interim managers are sometimes referred to as “grey-haired temps”, it takes more than mere years under the belt to be successful. “We look for technical pedigree, but equally we look for personal attributes – someone happy to be parachuted into a situation and able to hit the ground running,” says Angela Gaffney, UK manager for Management Resources, the interim management arm of the Robert Half group. “Interim managers must have very good personal skills, so they can get behind the hidden agendas and get down to work with the (incumbent) team. Their ability to deal with people across all ranks, skills and disciplines is key. The most technically astute accountant will not make it as an interim manager if he or she does not have these people and communication skills,” she says. Interim managers must also have 007’s cool head. “We don’t like to have people who are over-emotional or excitable,” says John Murray, chief executive of imPAct executives, PA Consulting Group’s interim management practice. “We are looking for cool, measured, analytical people who are motivated to deliver; they must be people who don’t just plan, but like to implement plans. That ability is characterised by speed of decision-taking and the capacity to do a great deal of work in a short time, so energy is also vital.” People who are neither easily shaken nor stirred, then. Interim managers must also have breadth of experience, says Murray. “One is looking for the broadest possible person you can get for your money. A multi-company career is important; a multicultural career is a nice bonus; and multilingual ability is wonderful.” Gaffney stresses that it is important that interims are doers as well as analysts. The first part of their contract may require them to assess a situation or problem, but they will then be required to bring about a solution. In this aspect of the job, there is some overlap with the role of management consultants. “Initially, a lot of our interims will go in to act as a consultant, in that they will be diagnostic,” says Gaffney. “The client will have some idea of what issues need resolving, but not the complete picture. The beauty of interim managers is that they can be diagnostic, but can then be used as implementers and take a hands-on approach.” Although they aren’t cheap, interim managers will generally cost a company less than a consultant hired from one of the major consulting firms. Successful interims can earn a good living, however. An agency might charge between £700 and £1,000 a day for a senior finance interim manager, passing on around 70% of that to the interim in question – so annual incomes of £70,000 to £100,000 a year are quite feasible for interim managers with the right skills and right kind of personality for the job. The growing importance of personality in this sector is forcing interim management agencies to look more closely at the people they take on. One example of this is Executives on Assignment, which is in the process of adding a psychometric test to its recruitment process. Managing director Bob Snell says the test, which is being created by benchmarking the characteristics of successful interim managers, shows that interims must be independent self-starters who are self-sufficient – able and willing to do everything required “once the corporate support machinery has been removed, when there is no receptionist, no one to frank the mail, no one to type the mail”. Other essential qualities highlighted by the benchmarking process include leadership, realism and a low boredom threshold. “It’s very important that the interim managers want to move on when they have done what they came to do,” says Snell. The requirements of the job are such that only a small proportion of those considering life as an interim manager are likely to be successful. It is clearly no dropout career choice, no time-filler between periods of proper jobs, and it requires a high level of ability and a definite lifestyle decision. Steve Ward, an interim manager since 1995 and still only 36, is one of the youngest grey-haired temps. He chose the interim route for specific reasons. “I had an ambition to be an FD by the age of 30,” he says. “I got there, but then began to wonder what it was all about. I was working 12 to 14 hours a day, and while I was well-rewarded, I found I didn’t have a balance in terms of quality of life.” Ward was FD of Guardian Computer Services, the forerunner of now fully-listed Guardian IT. When the company decided to relocate inside the M25 he left, got married, and entered interim employment. He first completed a short contract with the Body Shop before spending 18 months with a company providing dealer information systems to the City. For the past 18 months he has worked at the Defence Evaluation Research Agency, a £1bn turnover public sector organisation awaiting a decision on its potential privatisation. After a short-term project he took on the role of group reporting manager and is now effectively the treasury manager. Ward admits to two main concerns when he set out along the interim management path. The first was security, in terms of continuity of work, but he has not been short of assignments. “The second was the quality of work, because the interim role often requires that in order to get up to speed fast you take on tasks you have done in the past,” he says. “I have found that by making the changes elsewhere, by working in organisations you have not been involved with in the past, you can strike a balance. You may be doing things you have done before, but you are in a different environment, which brings the variety.” Interim managers are generally over-qualified for the positions they are sent in to hold, Snell acknowledges. “What we are selling to a client is evidence that the interim manger has the skills and the experience of having done before whatever the client wants to have done now – a zero-learning curve,” he says. “We tend to put people into slightly smaller or lesser jobs than they held in their last permanent position, but we expect them to do them instantly. That’s the trade-off.” Malcolm Alexander, whose last permanent role was as group finance director for the Vestey family, became an interim manager seven years ago, in his late 40s. “I like the challenge, the variety of new problems, getting to understand the business,” he says. “But most of all I enjoy getting to know a new group of people and working with them to get the best out of the team.” The completed assignment that gave Alexander most satisfaction was his role as chief financial officer during an 18-month turnaround project at LEP International, a logistics business. “The critical requirement was to restore confidence with the banks and then support the improvement of the business,” he says. “I went in and we worked well as a team and succeeded in what we wanted to do. The business was sold to some American shareholders and the head office was disbanded. It was a smooth finish.” Somewhat newer to the interim manager’s world is Richard Clapson, former chief financial officer of Debonair, the low-cost airline that called in administrators in October 1999. Clapson left the business the preceding June. “I like variety and reach my boredom threshold after a couple of years in a permanent position,” he says. “Interim management seemed to present me with an opportunity to maintain my interest.” After taking the interim option Clapson worked for Unijet for four months. “I went in as head of financial planning when their permanent head was on maternity leave,” he says. “I had to prepare the budgets and help them with making some improvements to their reporting systems. I had to quickly learn a new aspect of the travel business, the tour operation side, which I hadn’t been in before. I found it very stimulating.” At the end of the project Clapson had a week-and-a-half gap before beginning a short assignment with a London-based business travel agency, which needed help to help improve debt collection and management information systems. Clapson admits he felt nervous during the gap. “One has to be brave and have a rainy day fund for finance during what could be long patches of ‘resting’,” he says. “But you have to make your own luck in this world. As one of our politicians once said, you have to get on your bike and pedal.” Tough as that philosophy may seem to some, it’s this challenge that sustains many interim managers, as Gaffney points out. “Interim managers are not bogged down with corporate baggage, political history or hidden agendas,” she says. “They are simply there to get results.”

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