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The role of interim executives during periods of discontinuous change

By Brian Porritt. Published on 18 October 2016

I was interested to read Louise Chaplin’s recent blog, Leadership boards for a disrupted future in which she analysed the key messages from a recent report by Alvarez and Marsal and Henley Business School (‘Boards In Challenging Times: Extraordinary Disruption’). Like Louise, I found the paper’s insights fascinating, though I read it from a different perspective; that of an interim executive.

The report finds that during periods of disruption a variety of situation-specific leadership qualities and core disciplines need to be in place in order for a business to successfully navigate “extraordinary disruptions”. This makes intuitive sense, and I believe creates an environment in which the professional interim can add significant value.

Responding to urgent needs

In periods of unprecedented change or disruption, businesses need to bring on-board skills that they may not have required before – and often they need to do so quickly. Where the early warnings of the disruption have been ambiguous or unheeded, the urgency builds.

Professional interims are able to understand business challenges and respond to them rapidly, aiming to ensure that every day counts in terms of delivering value.

They may seek to deliver some quick wins to build credibility and they are also keen to launch or lead strategic change initiatives that will benefit the organisation long after the term of an assignment. The best will transfer the knowledge required to take this forward after they have left.

An experienced interim will require far less in the way of induction and on-going management than a new permanent hire or even an internal promotion. This will allow the leadership team’s focus on the external challenges to remain unbroken.

Transformation rather than incremental change

The degree of disruption in many markets and business models will require fresh thinking. Bringing interim executives into the boardroom who may have experience in adjacent or similar sectors enables companies to take a far broader view of their competitive environment and re-evaluate their positioning.

The lower cost-commitment of appointing an interim means companies can embark on projects in an exploratory way. Companies only pay for days worked and can ramp resources up or down quickly as the situation develops and opportunities emerge.

Overcoming resistance to change

The Interim’s portfolio of real-life case studies can help in winning over stakeholders and the teams affected by change. The Interim will be experienced enough to know whether they are confronting resistance to change born of fear or disbelief in change born of initiative-fatigue. In either case, their ability to describe the variety of approaches and outcomes they have experienced can cut through theoretical debates and be persuasive about what is achievable and about its benefits. Interims with this track record can mentor and coach leaders and teams for whom some of this may be new.

Team building and talent development

If an incumbent permanent executive is not meeting the expectations of the board or investors, the business faces a choice between acting immediately to replace them, and having them work notice, or recruiting covertly while the individual continues in post unaware.

Neither is good for the organisation or the individual executive. Few businesses can afford to sit out most of a year while they make a senior change of this kind, particularly during a period of transformation.

Another approach is to remove the incumbent right away and bring in an interim, eliminating a potential inhibitor of business transformation and building momentum in a function that may have been lacking leadership.

If there is an internal candidate for the permanent role who needs development, an interim can mentor them until they are ready. If the role needs an external hire, the interim can play a key role in the recruitment of the next permanent executive. This can include everything from drafting the updated role and candidate specification to developing the candidate long-list and even conducting initial interviews.

In both cases, induction of the permanent successor is a core interim skill. This applies whether it’s a two-week handover, a more ambitious hundred-day plan or anything in between.

The end of the assignment

Just as the appointment of an interim to a high-profile role can signify to stakeholders the desire to embark on change, the end of the assignment can signify that the business is transitioning into its new steady state. Managed and communicated well it suggests a business that has ridden the storms of disruption and is prepared for new challenges ahead.

Brian N. Porritt