Minding the gap
Interim management placements can be beneficial to organisations who need short term help and to the practitioners who supply it.
Flexibility, variety, freedom from corporate politics and the chance to make a real impact on a business are probably high on most people’s list of what they are looking for in their working lives. They are also some of the key characteristics of interim management roles, something growing numbers of senior health and safety professionals are recognising.
Interim managers join an organisation for short periods – often from three to 12 months – to help businesses that are in flux, perhaps to implement a new strategy or cover a critical role between permanent incumbents. The post might involve managing change, setting new safety and health goals, providing stability after the departure of a key staff member, or supplying a specific skillset the business lacks.
“A candidate will usually be someone with a good track record of delivering in an in-house role as a health and safety adviser, manager or director, who has then made a choice – not always consciously – to go down the interim route,” says Mark Burton, managing director, Burton Recruiting.
“The most important thing is they need to have credibility,” he adds. “The expectation is they will have to hit the ground running; go in there and, from day one, sit in front of the various interested parties and very quickly gain trust. People need to see that they know what they’re doing, have done this kind of thing before and can establish some very clear goals. Because they’re not going to be there for long, they won’t have a lot of time to get up to speed.”
Interim managers choose this kind of work for a variety of reasons. Initially, they might be driven by necessity, but they often enjoy the experience and then pursue further appointments.
“I think the appeal, now I’ve put my toe in the water, is actually you can get a far greater breadth of experience,” explains Paul Haxell, formerly group health, safety and environment director at Bovis Homes, and currently interim head of health and safety at a housing association. “In my experience so far, it’s very much about influence and change management. You come in, you do a task and you move on. Rather than spending five or so years in the same business, working methodically and steadily, this is a come in, fast-targeted approach. I can do something of real value and move on, and that for me is quite exciting because I can then go and do something of equal value for someone else.”
Practitioners with experience in the interim market agree that clarity over the nature of the role and its associated expectations is critical.
You’ve got to be fairly nimble and good at prioritising
Fred Alderson, who has held senior permanent posts in organisations such as Coca-Cola Hellenic as well as multiple interim posts, sees the work as different from safety and health consultancy. “Consultancy is about doing a specific task or project,” he notes. The relationship between a consultant and the client is also different. “As a consultant,” suggests Haxell, “you are perhaps more conscious that you want to keep going back and earning fees for months or years at a time. If you’re an interim, the mindset is different.”
In Alderson’s view a reasonable definition of an interim manager is “someone who not just adds value but increases value to the business very quickly. If you come in, it’s not just to do the job but to perform well and develop the role without interfering with the equilibrium of the company because a new person is going to come in, and you want to clear that role for that person and also want to help them on their way.”
While the roles of a consultant and interim are clearly not the same, not least because the interim is working in an organisation full time, there are some similarities and cross-cutting skills.
“Having a background as a consultant would probably be quite helpful,” says Burton. “You never know quite what you will be dealing with next, so your communication skills have to be great, and you’ve got to be fairly nimble and good at prioritising.”
Audrey Silver, who set up her own company to support her interim working pattern, highlights the value of her experience from frequent permanent job changes, including consultancy, which helped her learn to “hit the ground running”.
“I have a strategic and analytical approach which enables me to unpick the organisation’s actual problems quickly, [and] set out a plan for my short period of intervention – not something the clients are necessarily good at,” she says.
Alderson believes that, as an interim, there are certain things a practitioner has to get to grips with.
“Job spec is one of these. An organisation might think it wants an interim and that it knows want it wants you to do, but is that what the company really needs? And once you get there, you start to see where the company might not be in the place it sees itself.”
The second big challenge is getting to know the culture. “It’s about how to get into the company very quickly, how to communicate and identifying the turn-on and turn-off buttons,” he says. Also, how do you assess the competence of the people reporting to you? This can be quite a challenge in the early days.”
Implementing change involves building trust. How easy is it to do that in a short-term post?
“I tend to walk in the door with executive buy-in already,” says Lisa McCaulder, managing director of consultancy Caldiston, who has held various interim senior posts in housing associations. “They know there is a problem or a need for change. Often a regulator has been in and they may have received improvement notices.”
How does she gain the co-operation of those further down the organisation who will have to embrace the culture change or new risk management procedures?
“I listen,” says McCaulder. “Even if I have a good idea of what needs to be done, I don’t go in and say, ‘This is my plan’. I say, ‘This is the problem, help me solve it’.”
Alderson has been prepared to turn down roles where the fit was not right. “I had many of the skills required,” he explains, “such as change management, but I didn’t necessarily have them in their industry.” Overall, he stresses the importance of being honest and “recognising the key skills you’ve got, and maybe turning a potential client down because you are not the right person to hire in this instance.”
Haxell and Alderson agree that much of the attraction of the interim role lies in the challenge and ability to influence an organisation and drive improvement. Some roles, for whatever reason, may simply involve a lighter touch, but that is not for them.
“If they were saying to me we’ve got an interim job and we just want you to hold the rudder for the next 18 months,” says Haxell, “I think I’d say thanks, but no thanks. I’m looking at it very much from a short sharp improvement ‘project’ basis.”
Flexibility and variety are two of the biggest draws for those taking interim roles. And this fits with the wider trend to more flexible working. “The world of work is changing,” says Burton. “The concept of going into an organisation and building a career over a long period is almost going to disappear in future; it’s going to be much more about short-term working, contract work, flexible working. Whether those in health and safety will do that more or less than the workforce as a whole, we don’t really know yet. But organisations are increasingly looking for people that can go in and do a job for a period of time or deal with a particular project or task.”
Interim work can be lucrative, which provides the option to work intensively for set periods and then take a break before taking another role. “Some interim people will do it and then take the summer off to travel,” says Burton. “This gives them that flexibility.”
Flexibility has been a key attraction for Silver. “I did a couple [of interim appointments] many years back – one for the foot and mouth [disease] outbreak – which was just enough to convince an agency to set me up with my first ‘modern’ four-month interim in 2013, which then led to three others through agencies; one per winter, of three to six months,” she explains. “This provided a part-time income, but with a block pattern which left my summers clear for other pursuits.”
Working in interim roles also widens experience and contacts, offering a practitioner an insight into a range of organisations and sectors with different management styles, technical requirements and challenges. “You’re brought in as an expert to deliver certain goals and then you are out and on your way to do something potentially really different again,” says Burton.
Interim work can sometimes evolve in new directions. “The opportunity can expand,” suggests Haxell, “because to deliver what’s needed, the business might want some continuing assessments or advice. It could go full time and become permanent or could be part time and flexible.It might be repackaged in a variety of ways.”
Haxell also sees the work as a possible route to non-executive roles. “Working predominately with the leadership team and directors at board level means I’m gaining more exposure and demonstrating the right skills and awareness,” he says. “Ultimately, perhaps the business might need a board adviser to pop in for a few days a month or year. It puts you into that arena but also opens the eyes of businesses to other ways of managing health and safety to raise business performance.”
Another advantage of interim posts is that they can allow practitioners to avoid becoming embroiled in corporate politics, so they can focus solely on the job.
“You just deal with what’s important,” says Haxell. “You can prioritise and deal with things that need to be dealt with and you don’t get dragged into the day-to-day issues that are not relevant to the job you’ve been asked to do.”
“This is a position that is subtly but significantly different in the business,” he explains. “It’s focused on the task: are we performing well enough, what do we need to do to perform even better? Or perhaps: we know we’ve got a problem, how can we plan our way out of it.”
He likens the role to that of a critical friend, which brings several advantages. First, it offers the freedom to say what needs saying without worrying: “On some level, you have less to lose. You can say what you think – obviously in some ways you have to play that political game – but because you’re not protecting yourself or thinking of your long-term progress with the organisation, the focus is very much on what’s the right thing for that organisation and the people in it.”
Alderson agrees. “You can say things and not worry about upsetting people too much,” he says. He usually reports to boards. “I can go and say: ‘You might not want to know this, but there’s a block here or an obstacle there, and if I was you I’d be worried by that.’ You become more of a confidant. And they respect that because they know you’re giving them the best advice.” Other people in the team may also feel freer to open up to an interim “because they see you aren’t bound by the same rules and think: here is someone who will really listen to me”.
Interims will also usually have less organisational “baggage”. “I didn’t put in the system that’s now being criticised; they’re not policies or procedures developed on my watch,” says Haxell. “I’m there as the interim possibly because the company hasn’t found a permanent person, so I’m also not criticising anyone there; they are not on the defensive.”
Baggage can come from the client-side too. “It’s very easy for businesses to hold a certain expectation of what they think a head of health and safety is, or should do,” Haxell argues, “but you can change their mind. One of the things I would hope to achieve is that, when I leave, the business has a better plan, is making progress and also has a better view of what skills they want in their permanent candidate.”
In Burton’s experience, few people make a conscious decision to move into interim work by quitting a permanent role. “But when they get there, they often find they like the flexibility, that it can be quite lucrative and that they don’t have to get dragged into a lot of the politics and negatives that can come from being in an organisation permanently.”
The role also has its downsides, however. “Alongside the increased variety and flexibility are certain compromises,” acknowledges Burton. These include high pressure to meet targets and job insecurity and financial uncertainty. There are also practical considerations.
“I am able and willing to travel to the work, live in a Travelodge for a few months, and tolerate the road warrior lifestyle in exchange for the opportunity to continue working,” says Silver.
“People tend to love it or not,” concludes Burton. “It wouldn’t suit a lot of people. You need to be a certain type of character to go into organisations in that way and really make a difference.” Or as Alderson puts it: “Interims are definitely a breed apart.”