The use of interim managers has been growing throughout the recession. The reasons for this are from both the supply and demand side. Companies realise that in an increasingly complex world in which they operate they need specialist, experienced and versatile leaders. But, because they don’t know how long this downturn and volatility will last, they’re reticent to employ these skills on a full-time basis.

Over many years, interim managers have also traditionally been used as turnaround leaders, taking distressed companies over and turning them to profit again. This is happening again, but with the additional factor that many companies have excised too many staff over the previous few years and are now needing to import key skills to help them grow and take advantage of emerging opportunities in markets that are moving very quickly.

But there is also a supply side driver: the type of managers who will be successful in turbulent times are also those who have a consulting type mindset and prefer short-term engagements rather than full-time employment. Daniel Pink predicted this in his 2002 book, ‘Free Agent Nation’. It seems that the recession has given many of these types of people the impetus they needed to become these free agents.

A further contributing factor is the increase in the number of women who prefer to be interims, rather than full-timers. This preference for a “portfolio career” has been growing for many years, and the recession has convinced many women in particular that it is a better option than traditional employment.

The situation that is probably best suited for interim managers is the role of change manager. They are often very skilled at managing key projects that bring change to an organisation. An interim leader can not only devise a strategy, but also implement it and see it through to the end, without the company having to take on an expensive, long term senior employee. In this role, interims are often preferred because they are not marred by internal politics, and can often get more out of people than established, internal leaders.

The key skills a company should look for are obviously related to the specific role and function the person will fill, as well as specific skills, expertise and knowledge related to projects they will lead. But in addition to this, there are some other key attributes a company should look for, including: (1) strong people skills (they will need to get up to speed quickly with a new team, and handle the politics of the organisation), (2) the ability and attitude to pass on their skills to your full-time team (the most effective interim managers should be measured by how quickly they complete their assignments as well as how well the team runs once they have left); (3) curiosity (a desire to learn about your industry and company, and develop their skills).

Successful interim managers will be those who are very focused on delivering the value their companies expect from them. This may sound obvious, but many interim managers fail to see the bigger picture, and fail to focus on decisive action that produces business results quickly. They are employed to deliver specific results, not to make friends or build long term teams. However, the very best interim managers will also ensure that their contribution lasts long beyond their own tenure. This will happen best when they focus on transferring skills and knowledge into the organisation, in addition to fulfilling their contractual obligations.

For a more detailed look at this trend, so Deloitte Human Capital Trends analysis: ‘Contingent workforce: A critical talent segment‘ (PDF file)

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