Let interims fill in when insiders will not do

Interim managers may be able to rescue an organisation from an acute lack of skills at short notice, but IT directors should...

The market for interim managers may be in the doldrums along with the rest of the IT market, but the business case for employing temporary managers remains strong.

Interims can be employed to carry out a wide variety of tasks. For example, veteran interim manager Colin Beveridge has had a wide range of roles during his career, including:

  • Acting as a "safe pair of hands" during a merger of utility companies;

  • Providing maternity cover for a European services manager;
  • Being a programme manager and sponsor of infrastructure renewal projects at UK clearing house Bacs.

Although the reasons for employing interim IT managers have not changed, the market has. With the low levels of activity in corporate IT, such as the reduction in mergers and acquisitions and fewer projects, the demand for interims has fallen dramatically.

There are no figures stating the number of interim managers but Richard Lambert, chairman of the Interim Management Association, estimates there to be about 100 interims with the experience to take on an IT director's role or manage a major project.

Interim managers' rates have plummeted in recent years, according to industry observers. Typical day rates are now £400 to £500, compared with £1,500 during the run-up to 2000.

Interims are further discounting their rates to win one of the few assignments around and every job is flooded with applicants. IT directors can pick and choose who they want - and usually name their price.

"The market is over-supplied with top quality people and the entry age is dropping," said Norrie Johnston, managing director of interims agency ExecutiveOnline.

"We see people aged 38 when it used to be 48. Rates in the IT and telecommunications sector are down by about 40% compared with three or four years ago. I am recruiting an IT operations director at the moment and have had 35 responses in the first day."

To have any chance of winning an assignment, interims should target a specific post and justify why their experience and ability matches the required profile, rather than relying on the client to wade through CVs to find theappropriate candidate.

Interims are normally over-qualified for the jobs they are taken on to do. The aim is to acquire somebody who can hit the ground running, who has many years' experience and needs no hand-holding or running in.

Interims are also outsiders with no political or emotional baggage or partisan loyalties. They can also be brought in by management to knock some heads together and incite action on a stalled project.

However, interims are often brought in simply to tide things over between permanent appointments. Succession management is seldom seamless and an interim can be an essential "patch" at levels where it can take months to find a new permanent manager.

Jennie Lewis was appointed as an interim IT manager at the London Borough of Waltham Forest last October. Her job description was to make the department more efficient.

Although her initial contract was for only four months, it has been extended to one year. Prior to her appointment, the council had not had a permanent head of IT for two years.

"Where an interim really comes into their own is when there is a change management agenda," she said.

Lewis said outsiders stand a greater chance of succeeding in transforming not just the procurement or implementation processes, but also in getting end-users to recognise IT as a vital resource rather than a needless expense.

"That is my toughest task," she said, "but the message is getting through."

Since her appointment Lewis has set up new service level agreements and monitoring processes and also leads a series of e-government projects.

However, interims are not a universal remedy. Experts have warned that over-reliance on successive or multiple interims can lead to short-term thinking and create instability.

Interims can also sometimes "go native" and align with political fiefdoms, seek to artificially extend their assignment or wheedle a permanent position in the company.

Experts have also warned that the interim manager's remit needs to be clearly defined in order to get value for money.

"It is extremely important to understand what you want the interim to do. For example, if you want them to help educate the existing team, expertise in coaching and team building has to be a primary requirement," said John Mahoney, vice-president at analyst firm Gartner.

"If you are looking for a hotshot head of operations, you may find it has all gone swimmingly but there has been no knowledge transfer."

The relationship between the interim and the hiring manager is also crucial. Lewis goes to management board meetings, works as an operational and line manager and is asked to complete staff appraisals, but is still an outsider. "I am a hybrid. I can say things a permanent manager cannot," she said.

Interim managers can fulfil various roles, ranging from tough-talking departmental trouble-shooter to managerial support for a large project. However, experts recommend that interim managers should be used sparingly and organisations should be aware of the resentment an outsider could generate.

In certain circumstances interim managers can do more harm than good.

Interim benefits

Duncan Sedgewick, former business transformation director at Powergen, offers seven reasons for choosing an interim manager:

  • Delivery; consultants draw up plans

  • Fast arrival - sometimes in days. You do not always know what is needed three months in advance

  • Focus on task and not diverted by internal politics

  • They do what you tell them but the assignment must be clear

  • They do not become jaded and remain enthusiastic. If this changes they can easily be replaced

  • Instant expertise provided in areas a company may lack experience

  • Interims can be neutral but are sometimes deliberately employed as "agents provocateurs" by top management to critique internal situations.

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