Fighting fires with flair

Interim managers are in demand. But what makes a good one? Colin Beveridge, Anglia Water director and founder of interim...

Interim managers are in demand. But what makes a good one? Colin Beveridge, Anglia Water director and founder of interim managers' group Premit, reports

It is often said, "You can choose your friends but you're stuck with your relatives". This phrase is often applied to the relationship between temporary and permanent employment.

Many companies still regard temporary, or contract staff as expensive - unwanted relatives, who make themselves at home and generally outstay their welcome.

However, when it comes to interim management, it is vital that each side works together as a team and regards the other as a friend.

There are essentially two types of situation in which an organisation will call on an interim manager: either to fill a gap in the regular company succession, or to manage the transition through a major change.

Both of these call for a manager who will have a flexible approach to a developing scenario and who can command 360¡ credibility during the process. Most interim managers thrive on the challenge of change versus the routine of steady-state management.

A good interim manager must always be able to move into post quickly and to take effective control of a situation, without delay. This is vital to sustain, or to achieve, stability for the client's business.

Good people like to work with good people, such is human nature, and good people need to be treated well. Both parties therefore not only need awareness and respect for each other, but also a willingness to engage and support the other.

Both sides should expect, and receive, total commitment from the other party. The fact that the relationship is temporary is irrelevant - the interim manager is the manager for the interim. Period.

Most clients recognise this, engage properly and get the best out of the assignment, thereby helping to satisfy their requirements. The ability of both the client and the interim to assimilate is a critical success factor to an interim appointment.

Unfortunately, though, there are also cases where the client weakens the relationship by keeping the interim management at arm's length. Typically this will be where the client excludes an interim manager from departmental or corporate briefings and social events. This happened to me in my very early days as an interim manager - but not any more! There is nothing to be gained on either side by such treatment.

Before engaging an interim manager, there are many important questions to consider. The client must ask:

  • have we clearly stated our requirements and expectations?

  • do we have any of our own people, who could fill this role immediately?

  • do we have complete confidence in the interim manager to fulfill our expectations?

    If there are any doubts, it is better to keep looking for the right person, or to do more work on defining the requirement.

    On the other side, the interim manager, like any responsible business, must always have an eye to their current prosperity and future viability. In the case of all knowledge-based workers, this largely depends on a continual process of personal development and skills refreshment. The questions for the interim manager are:

  • am I completely comfortable with the brief and terms of reference?

  • have I properly assessed the risks involved and the likelihood of a successful outcome?

  • will this assignment significantly strengthen my pool of knowledge and enhance my future marketability?

    These are also useful guidelines for clients to measure an interim manager's ability. After all, anyone worth their salt must be able to manage their own destiny, even if serendipity does appear to lend a hand from time to time!

    Interim working brings with it a regular necessity to make career choices that are much less frequent for a permanent manager. This can be both a boon and a curse, where the variety of opportunity is offset by the frequency of upheaval.

    Strength of character is a necessary attribute for an interim manager, but we are not superhuman, neither are our employers. I had a client once that expected me to instantly resolve, in a couple of weeks, a problem that had taken years to evolve.

    So it's not all beer and skittles. Life isn't like that and, from time to time, difficulties will arise. These often manifest at the personal relationship level; although the causes are usually organisational. It is important, therefore, to get to the bottom of the problem by asking if the client's expectations are realistic, or if the interim manager is out of their depth.

    A good interim manager needs the maturity and inter-personal skills to be able to deal with these occasions and a willingness to resolve them by working through the underlying causes and, above all, the integrity to know when to withdraw, with dignity for both sides.

    A successful conclusion is just as important as a good beginning and needs careful planning. Throughout the assignment, both parties must regularly discuss and review their exit plan.

    It's always nice to ride off into the sunset. Sometimes though the film script ends - "Suddenly a lot of shots ring out..." - the trick is to be the one holding the gun.

    Colin Beveridge is director, IT strategy and exploitation, Anglia Water and founder of Premit, the organisation for interim managers

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