The only certainty in business is change. But change is accelerating, less predictable, and increasingly, beyond the control of organizations. As technology and unforeseen events continue to drive exponential change, businesses that can’t keep up risk being left behind.
Companies struggling to generate growth and stay relevant amid rapid transformation often look to new leadership. A growing number of companies are also looking to a different kind of leader—one who specializes in change and embraces the challenge of helping companies solve their biggest issues. Enter the interim executive, a new breed of on-demand leadership that brings outside perspective, cutting-edge thinking, veteran experience, and a laser focus on results.
What is an Interim Executive?
An interim executive is an alternative to a full-time C-suite hire. Companies bring in an interim executive because change is needed. They might need to grow to the next level, turn around a revenue decline, rethink and reinvent their business, prepare for a merger or acquisition, or implement new processes and systems. While their goals vary, the companies that hire an interim executive share a common thread: they have a mission-critical project that demands expert management.
Interim executives are able to deploy in a matter of days and make an impact from day one. They’re like the special forces of the executive world, parachuting into a tough situation, solving a specific problem, and then leaving—often in less time than it takes to perform a full-time executive search.
It requires a unique type of person to seek out adversity and thrive in a high-pressure environment. Interim executives actually enjoy helping companies get through turbulent times. To them, interim management is not a place holder between full-time executive jobs. It’s a career calling.
InterimExecs recently surveyed hundreds of interim leaders from around the world. The responses to our 2020 Interim Executive Survey paint a picture of highly-motivated, highly-skilled change agents who enjoy taking on new challenges, further developing their expertise, and making a big impact in a small time period. In fact, the reasons why they chose an interim career route explains what sets interims apart from permanent executives:
- “Good interim leaders embrace and execute change. They manage transitional change situations positively. They have situational experience that others do not have, or that others avoid.”
- “An interim executive is more goal-oriented and focused on accomplishing the mission, with no interest in job longevity.”
- “An interim is hired for a specified time to get the company through a specific issue, while the permanent is focused on long-term growth and profitability.”
- “Looking to set, establish, and transition. Watch the system work its magic based on what you helped build.”
- “Independent, unbiased, efficient, highly-qualified and experienced, focused on getting things done, immune to hierarchy and politics.”
Rise of Interim Management
The practice of hiring interim executives first gained traction in Europe. It began in the Netherlands decades ago as a response to strict labor laws and later spread to Germany, the UK, and France. The United States is the largest market for interim management outside of Europe. In our survey of interim executives around the globe, 75% of the 600+ executives who participated were based in the US with 20% in Europe. Nearly half of executives said they see increasing interim opportunities. CFOs (58%) and CIOs (57%) were the most likely to report more interim prospects.
The rise of interim executives parallels changes to the traditional world of work. Gone are the days of working decades for the same company. Most workers today spend five years or less at each job. This high turnover is seen across the C-suite as well. The average tenure of a C-level executive is now less than five years. Average CMO tenure is a paltry 3.5 years. CEOs have the longest average tenure, but they’re not lasting as long as they used to, either.
Company lifecycles are also getting shorter and shorter at a faster and faster pace. The average lifespan of a company listed on the S&P 500 in the 1920s was 67 years. In 1964, that narrowed to 33 years. In 2016, it was 24 years. It is expected to be just 12 years by 2027. Richard Foster, a Yale management professor, predicts that by 2027, more than three-quarters of the S&P 500 will be companies that we have not currently heard of.
The Benefits of Interim Managers
In addition to a faster business cycle and high employee turnover, trends driving the expansion of the interim specialty include global competition, disruptive technology, the expanding gig economy, and recession fears.
These executive’s rare talent stack, and the results they achieve, speak for themselves. Every time a business manages strong growth or executes a turnaround in a previously failing division thanks to the guidance of an interim executive, word spreads that interims are a powerful solution for organizations needing temporary or project-based leadership.
For organizations weighing what type of leader they need, here are the benefits an interim manager brings to the table:
There’s no substitute for experience. And interim executives have it in spades. The majority of our survey respondents reported 10 – 20 years of executive experience. Many have held more than one role within the C-Suite. Others were entrepreneurs who built a business from the ground up. Most execs who make the shift to interim roles do so because their previous experiences taught them that they have a knack for building companies, launching new product lines, spinning off new units, turning around divisions, and fixing struggling organizations. As interims, they want to move from company to company and share what they’ve learned to help others succeed. They are more than qualified for the positions they take on and are ready to make an immediate impact.
Cross Industry Skills & Expertise
Interim executives are comparable to the rolling stone that gathers no moss. Always moving from company to company, they do not develop the institutional blind spots that can set in after years with the same organization. Interims do not stagnate. They’re always on the cutting edge. They have access to the latest skills, thinking, talent, and technology, and in many cases, have cross-industry expertise that allows them to apply best practices from one business to others. The executives we surveyed repeatedly expressed a passion for continual learning and professional development.
Interim executives are measured on results. They are not consultants who sound articulate and have impressive-looking PowerPoint slides, but have never led a successful operation. They’re also not temps there to keep the seat warm. Interims make things happen. Their emphasis is on implementation, not theories and strategy. Interims take ownership of a project and execute it to success. One executive in our survey said that interims have a “laser focus on immediate objectives.” Another described their role as “goal oriented and focused on accomplishing the mission.”
Flexible & Project-Driven
We live in an on-demand world where businesses must respond in real time to rapid change and cost pressures. Interim executives bring a degree of operational agility that allows businesses to remain flexible. Dealing with a one-time ERP implementation? Prepping the company for sale? Can’t afford the overhead of a full-time executive for a short-term gig? Interim executives make it easy to ramp up for a specific project and then ramp back down when the objective is achieved.
Interim executives are part of the team. They speak with everyone in the organization, at all levels, to understand what is—and isn’t—working. At the same time, interims retain an independence that lets them tell hard, unpopular truths, without fearing for their job security. As one executive responded to our survey, an interim “can be more blunt, as he/she does not need to think about politics and longevity.” This unbiased, outside perspective keeps the interim executive focused on creating an action plan that someone entrenched in the business might overlook or avoid.
Good leaders inspire others and make those around them better. Interim executives are big on team-building and mentorship. They excel at assessing talent within the organization and putting people in positions where they can excel. Multiple interim executives in our survey used the word “empower” to describe their approach to team building.
The average interim assignment lasts less than a year, but the effects an interim leader has on a business last much longer. While they often help to find their replacement, interims don’t stop there. Good systems outlast good people. If an organization is dependent on one individual, it’s bound to fail when that person is no longer around. Interims put in place the processes, leadership, and culture that set the business up for future success. To use the words of a survey respondent, interims want to leave a company “in a better or improved position” than when they were arrived.
InterimExecs RED Team is an elite group of CEOs, CFOs, COOs, and CIOs who help organizations through turnaround, growth (merger, acquisitions, ERP/CRM implementation, process improvement), or absence of leadership. Learn more about InterimExecs RED Team at www.interimexecs.org/red-team or call +1 (847) 849-2800.