The Six Times PE Funds Use Interim Executives

Many private equity funds hear the words “interim executive” and think the only application is turnaround or short-term fill-in. But for PE funds seeking a great return, they look to interims for their unique abilities to build and transform companies.

Here are six major use cases for interim executives in PE-owned portfolio companies:

Interim Executives in Diligence
Most funds hope to spread their wings – work beyond industries where they’ve already had success, by looking at new industries where acquisitions may cost less and produce higher returns. The further afield they go, the more they need expert leadership removed from prior operating teams.

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Interim executives, or interims, have recently become an important tool that organizations can use to effectively address a variety of pressing needs. Having said that, many companies are either unaware that interims are even available or appropriate for their current situation. The most common understanding of the role of an interim is to fill an immediate need in the executive team caused by a sudden voluntary or involuntary departure. In this case, a seasoned executive can step right in and allow the company to progress unabated. While much of what an interim does is similar to consulting, successful execution is critical and unique to the role of interims. This blog presents seven case studies to help companies better understand other instances where interims can help. There are certainly more examples, but these are representative. While seven represents everything from the apocalypse to luck in gambling, we’ll stick with seven.

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Interim executives are becoming a popular alternative to using a consultant or leaving a position vacant while a search for the right person is conducted. An interim executive also brings a fresh, unbiased review of factors driving organizational health and operational results. The interim executive does not waste time or company resources trying to secure a full time job, but is driven by the opportunity to make changes which lead to a sustainable value increase for all the stakeholders of the business. The client and their customers can expect immediate improvement in delivery, quality, and cost while a search is conducted to fill the permanent position.

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Nearly every one of us has experienced leadership transitions that could be described as “good,” “bad,” or “ugly.” And the percentages of disastrous transitions are astoundingly high. As Australian sociologist Hugh Mackay says, “Nothing is perfect. Life is messy. Relationships are complex. Outcomes are uncertain. People are irrational.” So what else should we expect but to experience our share of bad leadership transitions?

What I want to share here are a few of the complexities that make leadership transitions difficult and, more importantly, how to prevent these ugly transitions from happening to you.

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Today companies operate in a complex global economy which is more diverse, connected by the Internet, and not very predictable. Many companies still pursue classic business approaches (inside-the-box thinking) with a focus on short-term results. Failure to focus on business improvement and adapting to the new business environment can cause many issues and eventually lead to delisting from a stock exchange, bankruptcy, or liquidation. How many of 1960’s “Fortune 500” companies still exist today?

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What do Bill George (Medtronic), Meg Whitman (eBay), Bob Wright (NBC), Lou Gerstner (IBM), Larry Bossidy (Allied Signal), Ted Turner (CNN) and Howard Schultz (Starbucks) have in common?

They were all outstanding leaders who revolutionized their companies by applying outside experiences and viewing through different lenses.  Unshackled by past memories or limited perspectives, their successes were a product of “what can be?” versus “what has happened?”

Does that mean industry experience is overrated?  Not necessarily, but I believe a talented leader with an outside perspective, fresh eyes and an open mind will usually outperform an industry veteran when important change is needed.  Why?

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I’ve done it for three decades, turning around companies from agriculture (such as Styrotek) to telecommunications giants (such as ITT). As interim leader, I have to parachute in, quickly gain trust and respect from all levels, determine a course of action, and unite everyone to stay that course—all within a limited timeframe.

It takes leadership strategies far beyond business and managerial chops, though certainly those are necessary. You can’t lead effectively without a connection to the people in the company; emotional intelligence is a must. Think of it as ‘strategic empathy’—being sincerely focused on the individual, but always with the big picture top of mind.

Whether you are an interim or a permanent CEO, these 7 tips for using strategic empathy bear relevance for anyone in a leading role.

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UBS recently published an article that gave a good synopsis of what a restructuring entails, especially regarding public companies:

“A restructuring marks a challenging and sometimes disruptive time in the history of any corporation that has ever undertaken one. Managements rarely aspire to undergo a restructuring, but in some cases, it is the best path when a company has an urgent need to turn around its fortunes, improve its reputation, or restore its competitive position. The process can entail major changes in the organizational structure, staff, asset base/product line, or cost structure. History tells us that a positive outcome is not assured, as not all restructuring plans are carried out effectively.

 

A successful restructuring begins with a vision and an achievable strategy for implementation. A well-executed restructuring or turnaround can transform a company that is weighed down – by an inferior product line, a heavy debt burden, inefficient operations, or a damaged reputation – into a strong competitor with dramatically improved financial results.”

See the entire UBS article on restructuring and turnarounds here. The Association is home to top interim executives, many of whom specialize in providing the leadership to transform struggling companies.

Overview
On March 30, 2015, I began my tenure as an interim manager (Interim Chief Operating Officer) at ChildServ, a social services agency that had recently celebrated its 120th anniversary serving at-risk children and families in the Chicagoland area. While I was new to the role, I had the benefit of not being new to the organization. In fact, I had served on the Board of Trustees of ChildServ for the prior 15 months, resigning only after my Board colleagues had voted to have me take on the difficult task of driving badly needed change from within.

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