Carving out a successful interim portfolio career

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David Clay has been an interim manager for 18 years, delivering change to clients that range from SMEs to blue chips including Centrica, Waitrose, the BBC, Gate Gourmet and Palmer and Harvey. With an Economics degree from Cambridge, he spent a year teaching English in China, with some time with KPMG in Beijing, and then trained as an accountant with ICI in Belgium before moving back to London for commercial finance roles with Diageo. In 1999, he moved into the interim market. Since then, he has seen his career flourish through the experience gained through his diverse range of clients and projects, whether global multi-year SAP implementations or working with SMEs on their financial forecasting, reporting increasingly to board level management.

David spoke to Alison Rotundo, Partner within the CFO & Finance Interim Management Practice at Eton Bridge Partners, on the challenges and opportunities of managing a successful interim portfolio career.

AR: Starting at the beginning David, what made you decide to leave a permanent career and venture into the world of interim management?

DC: It was the attraction of being independent, with a variety of clients and tasks, and the ever-changing nature of the work. I felt comfortable that I would be able to bring value from what I had learned at two great companies, my CIMA qualification, my IT skills and I hope an ability to think laterally and communicate at all levels of management. I was also attracted to the project nature of the work.

AR: So what is it about project work that you find particularly appealing?

DC: You are on your toes to perform from the moment you walk through the door. There is a need to immediately understand and absorb the client’s business model and issues, and then come up with a solution, and a plan to get there. The rewards financially, of course, are good but you must perform to earn that reward. I get great satisfaction from implementing solutions and resolving clients’ issues. Assessing value for money is sometimes difficult but ‘we could not have got there without you’ is the feedback I aim for above all else.

AR: That last point’s interesting, as I would imagine one of the biggest challenges of maintaining a portfolio of clients is the ability to show a return for your day rate?

DC: Yes. I think that if a client does not see you on site five days a week, they will focus on your delivery far more. It is about what you deliver. The key is maximising the value you deliver when you are working on that client and making sure projects are progressing when you are not there. It takes a certain amount of energy to make it happen but it is very rewarding. Energy is one thing you really need as an interim!

AR: What other values would you say are stand out for an interim manager?

DC: My projects are often technical, but any change is about the people. As an interim, you need to be able to build relationships quickly. You need to be able to gain the trust of the organisation’s workforce and communicate effectively. It is all about bringing the organisation with you, working with the people who are helping to deliver the change and the people you are delivering the change to. A new system that no one wants to use and reports no one reads are not much use! You also need to have the focus on the issues you have been brought in to solve – a focus on delivery.

AR: Looking at things from a portfolio management perspective, what would you say are the reasons behind your success?

DC: As an interim, you are expected to hit the ground running and deliver quickly. When you are working on a number of clients at the same time, that is doubly the case. I feel, and have been told, one of my key strengths is picking up a new situation and problem solving very quickly. With a clear solution and plan, I can then maximise the value from my time. The key is that the client understands the value they are getting as opposed to the risk from not having you around all the time. If a client recognises you can do a role on a less than full time basis and then factors in the reduction in the rate they’re paying, the proposition really makes sense. You can then fill up the remaining days with other clients.

The result of course is that each of your clients will only have you on site for a certain number of days a week. The reality, though, is that you can always be available remotely to ensure progress and to resolve critical issues.

AR: That sounds like you needed an enlightened client to get the ball rolling with your first part-time role?

DC: Yes. Once you have delivered projects on a portfolio basis it is easier to persuade a client of the possibilities. As is always the case as an interim, your track record is key. The first time is harder. I was lucky in that a colleague was able to bring me into two clients on a part-time basis. Essentially it all came down to trust: that I was able, when on site, to get things moving, to define tasks and delegate when necessary. Further, that I was able to then leave the project team alone on the days I was absent, confident they knew what needed to be done – whilst always being a phone call away to respond to any urgent needs.

AR: So what advice would you offer people looking to develop more of a portfolio driven interim career?

DC: Be patient. Don’t start until you are confident you can manage multiple roles. Develop good communication and be transparent with clients at all times. Argue the benefit of the multiple experience. Only take on what you know you can manage and be prepared to refuse or defer an instruction.

AR: Does that mean there are certain types of clients that create a better ‘fit’ for a portfolio arrangement?

DC: A smaller client, or one with a limited budget, may make sense. Also, a client that is less traditional in their expectation of having you on-site five days a week. There can be the view in certain organisations that if you’re not in the room then you’re not working.

AR: So how would you describe your efforts at securing work in the past?

DC: It’s a combination of relying on your network of previous clients, particularly when they’ve moved on to new organisations, and then working with recruitment agencies like Eton Bridge Partners. With agencies, the emphasis needs to be on being ‘known’ and having a dependable track record to get to the top of the pile – as opposed to being just a name and a CV on a database. This is the importance of building up a trusted relationship over time and ensuring that the recruiter really knows your skills so they can more effectively match you with potential clients.

AR: How has your networking strategy changed over time?

DC: When I started as an interim, LinkedIn didn’t exist. That technology has opened up a lot of possibilities, but the fundamentals haven’t changed – it is still about proper contact with the people you know. As my career has progressed, the need for networking has increased as the roles I fulfil now are more senior, but at the same time my network has grown substantially which makes it easier. I like to think there are more people out there who know that I do a great job!

AR: What would you say are the main benefits of adopting a portfolio approach?

DC: From a personal satisfaction perspective, I find working for multiple clients interesting and rewarding. Then there’s the ability to ‘de-risk’ your earnings stream, and lessening the blow of one project coming to an end – because you’re still billing for at least one other job.

There are also benefits in terms of the value for the client as they are not paying for you full time and they have an output-focused approach that I believe will increasingly define the interim market.

AR: So, at which stage of your career were you able to manage a multiple portfolio of interim roles?

DC: It was all about having sufficient experience and self-confidence to handle more than one client at a time. Certainly not for the first few years. The ability to control several issues at a time improves continuously. You must however never allow yourself to become over-stretched. Learn to say no rather than accept and then perform weakly; clients will respect this.

AR: Are there instances where the portfolio approach doesn’t work?

DC: Of course. Certain clients and their issues require dedicated and full time on-site support. You have to evaluate this and if you accept such a contract it will undoubtedly conflict with potential other clients’ priorities. This may mean refusing other clients in the short term and possibly assisting them in instructing other interims / consultants. You have to dispassionately judge each case.

AR: Finally, how many other people do you know who have been able to manage a successful interim portfolio management career?

DC: It’s not many, to be honest, not many at all, and certainly not as common as you may expect. Managing a portfolio of roles and projects really tests your softer skills – the people and change management capabilities you possess for keeping multiple projects on schedule.

You also need to be aware of your brand image, and the quality people associate with it – and ensuring this shows an ability to meet all commitments, even if you don’t follow an established five days a week working schedule. I’m not talking about self-promotion per se here, as I think your actions certainly speak louder than words, but managing a portfolio involves a careful balancing act of many moving parts, and it does lend itself to a particular persona, and a specific set of attributes.

David, thank you for sharing your insights into your career and recent experiences. If you’d like to speak to myself or David in more detail about any of the topics discussed, please do get in touch.