Management: Mind the managing gap

If times are tough, an interim manager can help put a firm back on track, but you must get the chemistry right.

If times are tough, an interim manager can help put a firm back on track, but you must get the chemistry right.

The IT industry has long been accustomed to regarding IT skills as flexible resources. However, while taking on Java or Oracle contractors or bringing in consultants to do feasibility studies or manage projects is seen as unexceptional, the idea of having a temporary IT manager is less familiar.

But interim management is a growing phenomenon - especially in IT.

Colin Beveridge has been an interim manager since l984. He has worked at companies such as Pearl, PowerGen and DHL, and set up Premit, an organisation for interim managers.

There are three reasons why a company should take on an interim manager, he says.

"There is a real business need to use experienced senior IT professionals on a short-term basis, to fill a gap in the regular succession of IT managers (while waiting for a permanent appointee to work out notice elsewhere); to carry out a programme of change management, especially in a merger-and-acquisition environment; or to turn around a failing IT department.

"A good interim manager can bolster the management team by bringing in experience to revitalise the department's gene pool," continues Beveridge. As with any management role it is essential to make sure you have the right person for the job.

Organisations should "look at the whole package of what they are buying into - not just the price tag. They need to ensure that the interim manager's experience is absolutely right for them," says Beveridge.

That means more than just looking through CVs. It is much more personal.

"Chemistry is a big thing," warns Beveridge. "If you don't hit it off with the guy or you wouldn't trust him with your business, don't take him. Walk away. You should pick the person you are most comfortable with."

This works both ways. If an interim manager does not feel right about a placement, he too should walk away.

"Once you've picked someone, engage them properly. Lack of engagement leads to a struggle," says Beveridge. "Let them get on with the job." Make sure they have the necessary authority to do the job, and get the team going.

Permanent staff who work for interim managers will have their own anxieties, which managers must do their best to allay. One key area of concern is staff appraisals. Employees may feel it is unfair that they should be appraised by someone who either does not know them well or will be gone soon.

Whatever the time of year, "Give your team interim appraisals before you go," says Beveridge. "This will provide as much continuity as possible for them and your successor."

Interim managers will inevitably be caught up in internal politics - their appointment may even be the result of such manoeuvrings.

"You do have to get involved in some politics," says Beveridge. "I know that when I start saying 'we' and not 'they', I've gone native."

Even if the company knows when the permanent successor is due to arrive, Beveridge recommends staff are not told until a few weeks beforehand. "Otherwise the interim manager's authority degrades," he says.

But while interim managers should get their shoes under the desk as soon as possible, they should remember that they were appointed to do a specific job and no more. Managers should not make the mistake of putting down roots. "My first question is, 'How do I get out of here?'," says Beveridge. "I need a clear exit plan and I review it regularly."

Interim managers should not make themselves indispensable, although they should become part of the structure of the company. And the organisation must recognise that this is essential, if they want to get the best from the appointment, says Beveridge. "If the client keeps you at arm's length, doesn't want you to be part of a management team or won't invite you to strategy days, that doesn't help."

It is precisely because interim managers are managers, not consultants, that the hiring company gets the benefits, he says. Interim managers are in the direct line of fire within the organisation - unlike consultants, who can "hide behind the relatively safe barricade of a report, heavily qualified with caveats".

Interim managers may not be staying long, but while they are there, they become "one of us".

Colin Beveridge was speaking at this month's Computer Weekly 500 Club meeting: www.oncoms.com

So you want to be an interim manager?
Although the financial rewards of interim management can be satisfying, "it is not money for old rope", warns Beveridge.

For a start, the company you arrive at "will usually be in turmoil. If the turmoil is not immediately apparent, it will quickly become so," he says.

And because you are a manager, not a consultant, "you must live and breathe" the company that takes you on. "That's not an easy option for many people."

Like it or not - as with consultants and contractors - you must have wheels on your shoes, or even wings. While it might be nice to think that you can always stipulate that you will only take on positions in central London, the reality is "you can't always pick and choose where you're going to go."

Being on the road has an effect on family life and may well bring you into conflict with the taxman over the allowance of travelling expenses.

The taxman will definitely be your foe when it comes to the dreaded IR35, warns Beveridge. One blow for interim managers is that they often have periods of high earning, followed by times of low or no earnings. But the taxman is not keen to let you offset the fat times against the lean times.

"IR35 attaches to the contract," warns Beveridge. "You will not be allowed to carry forward earnings into the next tax year and you will be taxed on your fees as you earn them."

There are, he acknowledges, mitigation strategies, such as setting up a Web site, having office premises and a portfolio of work, but his key advice is, "You need a very good IR35-savvy accountant before you move into interim management."

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