Inside the mind of an interim – Everything you always wanted to know about what makes a good interim but were afraid to ask

Jo Minns, an HR professional with over 10 years’ interim experience, recently completed an MSc research project looking at what makes interim managers successful. Here she talks to Paul McNamara, head of Eton Bridge’s interim HR practice, about the research and its implications for people considering an interim career.

PM: Why did you choose this topic?

JM: Since I moved from a permanent HR career to interim roles, a lot of people have asked me whether it’s something I would recommend. For me, it was absolutely the right choice, but I’ve seen quite a few people over the years move into interim work only to decide it’s not for them and go back to a permanent role. I wanted to understand more about why some people are suited to interim management and what it is about those people that makes them tick.

PM: It sounds interesting and certainly something that’s relevant to us here at Eton Bridge Partners. How did you approach the research?

JM: One of the things that struck me was that very little is formally known about why people become interim managers, let alone what makes them successful. A considerable proportion of the academic research that has been done on interim management looks at it from an organisation’s perspective, rather than the individual’s.

From my own experience, I had some thoughts about what makes people successful as interims, but I wanted to validate this with others in a similar position. I interviewed 14 established interim managers across business transformation, technology, HR and finance to ask them about why they had become interims, what motivated them to remain working in this way and what they thought that successful interims have in common. We also talked about career success more generally and what this means to interim managers, who don’t progress through ‘traditional’ careers in the same way as permanent employees. To ensure that the research took other viewpoints into account, I also spoke to Steve Deverill, head of Eton Bridge’s Business Transformation and Digital & Technology practices, and Tony Evans, co-chair of the Institute of Interim Management (IIM), to seek their views.

PM: So what were your main findings?

JM: Interestingly, whether someone has actively chosen interim or ‘fallen’ into it, for example following redundancy, doesn’t seem to make a difference about whether they make a successful interim. It’s more about their existing skills and experience – as one participant said, “You don’t become an interim to learn the ropes.” Successful interims share a number of characteristics that allow them to hit the ground running in different organisations, including building rapport, gaining credibility, being adaptable, dealing with ambiguity and showing resilience. They’re focused on results but remain detached from the organisation which has engaged them. Ultimately interims focus on employability, rather than employment. It’s an interesting distinction.

PM: You mentioned ‘career success’. What did the research suggest here?

JM: This was something that came out from the interviews that I hadn’t expected, although in hindsight it makes complete sense. Interim managers don’t really seem to worry too much about what other people think of their career choices. Their feelings of success are based on going into an organisation, doing a good job, exiting, and then doing the same somewhere else – and making the most of the flexibility this provides. It’s not about more visible signs of success like job title or promotions or the latest company car.

PM: So it seems then that interims thrive on variety and challenge, enjoy the opportunity to work flexibly, remain independent and focus on delivery. Did any other elements become apparent?

JM: The interview participants were also really honest about some of the challenges of being an interim, not least the ability to deal with the gaps between assignments. This isn’t just financial, although of course that does come into it. It’s more around the psychological impact of being able to enjoy the time between assignments and not worrying that the phone will never ring again. A lot of the skills required to be successful as an interim can be learned, but I think there’s something about having the right mindset to be able to cope with these challenges. You also need to be prepared to spend time on your network and developing your skills – although I don’t think any of us do this as much as we feel we should!

I would encourage people considering going down the interim route to talk to as many people as they can about it, such as other interims and interim search firms. Being an interim doesn’t suit everyone and the more you understand about what you want from your career and the reality of interim management, both good and bad, the better placed you’ll be to make that decision.

PM: This has certainly given a real insight into interim life. So, what’s next?

JM: Well, I think it will be interesting to see what happens to the interim market over the coming months. There’s certainly an increasing opportunity for organisations to consider how to use interims to deliver key initiatives and hopefully this research can support both individuals and organisations to get the best out of interim roles. I also wonder, with the increasing numbers of people wanting flexible careers, whether interim management will become something that people consider from the start of their working life and I think that would be a fascinating area to explore in more detail. I really hope that this research opens up avenues to other areas, although I’m not ready to take on a PhD myself quite yet!

Paul McNamara

Head of Interim Human Resources Practice & Business Transformation Practice

Paul is a highly respected executive consultant with more than 15 years’ experience within Human Resources. He delivers senior level interim assignments across all HR disciplines and industry sectors, operating at daily rates typically between £600 – £2,000.