Leo D'Angelo Fisher Columnist

Leo covers management and leadership issues, business trends and corporate strategy. He is a former senior business writer at The Bulletin and a former host of The Business Hour on 3AW.

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Interim managers in vogue, but is it a long-term trend?

Published 27 August 2013 10:57, Updated 29 August 2013 00:47

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Interim managers in vogue, but is it a long-term trend?

Keeping it casual: Peter Nevin prefers the challenge of short-term roles. Photo: Rob Homer

Over a 25-year career Peter Nevin had built up an impressive pedigree as a chief information officer and, unusually for a technology executive, strategic general manager. Then, three years ago, he decided to become a professional interim executive.

The Sydney executive had been thinking about making the switch from permanent to interim executive for a couple of years but it wasn’t until his position as executive general manager of mining services company Sedgman ended in 2010 that a headhunter suggested he try an interim posting.

A nine-month stint as interim technology and systems director of the new $2 billion Fiona Stanley Hospital in Perth – scheduled to open in 2014 – soon followed. Nevin’s brief was to lead the project team that would design, build and integrate “the most advanced medical equipment and state-of-the-art information and communications technology” in the public hospital system.

Nevin was hooked.

“I realised that interim-manager roles would provide me with fresh opportunities in terms of new challenges and cross-industry experience,” he says. “I had been working at CIO level for much of my career and it got to a point where every role was similar.”

Prior to his position with Sedgman, Nevin had been global CIO of Sydney-based engineering multinational Sinclair Knight Merz, CIO of the National Rail Corporation and deputy information technology director of the Maritime Services Board of NSW.

Nevin’s current interim role is CIO of fertility clinics group Genea. After initially being engaged for three months, Nevin has been in the role for 10 months and is expected to remain with the company until January 2014.

The duration of an interim role varies but will usually last from between three and 12 months. Nevin acknowledges that being an interim manager is not for everyone.

“An interim management role is like starting a new job each time. Some people are threatened by that environment, but I find it exciting rather than threatening,” he says.

“I find it highly satisfying and very rewarding, particularly when you see a result. It’s challenging and it provides a fair amount of variety. I’m able to use the skills and experience I’ve acquired over the years. If I’m not using a skill in this job, chances are I can use it in the next.”

The compressed nature of interim roles – goals are usually set out within a set time frame – means that a successful interim manager sees results quickly. This also appeals to Nevin.

“The feedback is instantaneous. I’ll know within the first week whether it’s going to work,” he says.

Anecdotally, employers are increasingly comfortable using interim managers or executives as part of their overall workforce and strategic planning rather than simply being a stop-gap or emergency appointment to fill an unexpected vacancy. But just how many interim managers there are in Australia and how many companies regularly make use of them is not clear.

The chief executive of the Australian Institute of Management (NSW, ACT, Queensland & Northern Territory), Vivienne Anthon, says the role of the interim manager in Australia is “not as well advanced as other markets where the role of the interim manager is seen as a legitimate and credible profession in its own right”.

In Australia, she says, the interim management role has tended to be seen as “something in between proper positions” or a role for someone at the end of their career, but that is changing. “People at all stages of their career are now looking at this as a legitimate career option,” she says.

“Interim managers and executives come with a quite specialist set of skills: the ability to induct themselves into an organisation quickly, to assess an organisation’s culture and its personalities without a settling-in period, and to quickly grasp their role and what it will take to make an impact within a finite time frame.”

Although there is no research to establish how many managers and executives in Australia ply their craft in interim roles, Anthon is convinced that interim managers are here to stay and replicate overseas trends.

“It’s now entirely credible to be an interim manager. This is an area that will grow,” she says.

As yet there is no professional association for interim managers in Australia. In the United Kingdom there are at least three. The Interim Management Association claims that the UK has “the most established interim management sector in the world”, which it values at £1.5 billion annually. The IMA says the sector in the UK has grown by 93 per cent since 2006. The growth is less spectacular in Australia, but the trend is on the rise.

Growing profession

Sydney executive search firm Watermark Search International started its interim management practice in 2010. Today, three of the firm’s nine partners specialise in interim management appointments.

The managing partner of Watermark, Nick Waterworth, says the global financial crisis was a major impetus for the greater use of interim managers and executives. Companies cutting back resources found interims a preferable alternative to having permanent heavy hitters on staff, he says, while many displaced executives who took on interim roles in desperation found that they enjoyed working on a project basis.

In its third annual interim management survey, Watermark found that the majority of assignments last one to five months, but there is a growing trend for six to 12-month assignments. Interim managers are earning more this year than in previous years: 35 per cent charge a daily rate of $1500 or more (compared with 29 per cent last year).

Interim management roles are most attractive to older executives: 49.2 per cent of interim managers surveyed were aged between 50 and 59, followed by 31 per cent between the ages of 40 and 49. Most survey respondents (61.2 per cent) worked in general manager roles and 59.8 per cent in a chief executive or chief operations role.

But is interim management really a career choice, or is it simply the next best thing to a “real job”? The Watermark survey found that 22.9 per cent of respondents were “very committed” to working as interim managers, while 35.2 per cent “preferred” working in an interim role but would consider switching to a permanent job.

Despite this apparent ambivalence, Waterworth believes “executive leasing” is here to stay. “It’s firmly in the landscape as a type of employment. It has definitely become a permanent fixture,” he says.

“It’s part of the casualisation of the workforce. It has been happening with blue-collar and junior white-collar roles, now it’s happening at the executive level.”

The biggest users of interim managers and executives, according to Wentworth, are mid-size companies with 500 to 2000 employees whose executive ranks are typically the most depleted since the financial crisis. Typical assignments include change and transformation, business turnarounds, business improvement and strategy development.

“Are we seeing the replacement of permanent executives with executive leasing? Will a serious number of [permanent] executives be replaced by interim executives? Ask me in a year or two, but in the meantime I can see no reason for executive leasing to go away,” Waterworth says.

Neither can the managing director of recruiter Dean & Ling Executive, Ian Hackett.

He has seen interim recruitment grow from 10 per cent of his business three years ago to 35 per cent. Dean & Ling, which has offices in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, specialises in accounting, financial and legal executive placements.

Struggling or risk-averse companies wanting to keep their permanent headcount down find it balance sheet-friendly to engage interim managers or executives; in a volatile economic environment they also value the flexibility.

As for the individuals working in interim roles, Hackett says they “enjoy the ability to be a gun for hire, complete a project and leave”. Even so, Hackett estimates that only 20 per cent of the candidates available for interim appointments consider it a career path. The rest are executives who are between jobs.

These executives are some of the most talented he has seen in his 17 years as a recruiter.

“There are more A-grade executives out of work than I’ve ever experienced before. These are executives who can command salaries ranging from $180,000 to $400,000 and they are available immediately,” Hackett says.

Employers hiring interim managers and executives don’t always go for the A-graders, Hackett says, because experience has taught them that if a permanent job opportunity comes along they will most likely decamp at a moment’s notice. But for employers who are willing to take the risk, the time has never been better to hire a rolled-gold executive for a short-term assignment.

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