What makes a good interim leader?

Amid the disruption of Covid-19, many companies are turning to interim leaders to guide them through uncharted waters. An individual with subject matter experience and a deep familiarity with the dynamics of the sector can be an extremely valuable asset to businesses during this time – especially if they can hit the ground running without extensive onboarding and training.

In fact, we have seen this to be the case at MBS, where we have made a number of interim placements in transformation, finance, operations and ecommerce to ensure that businesses come through the other side of the crisis.

But what is it that makes a good interim leader?

Firstly, interim leaders make an immediate impact upon a business. As an agent of change, an effective interim placement is able to speedily identify where adjustments can be made, and put practical measures in place which have a lasting impact. Good interim leaders are able to hit the ground running, requiring only limited onboarding and introductions to the business and sector. Indeed, in a recent MBS webinar, one HRD noted that “good interims are very self-sufficient… they understand how to bring themselves up to speed quickly, so the normal lengthy onboarding processes aren’t required.”

Good interim leaders are also adaptable and agile. The coronavirus crisis has presented businesses with unprecedented roadblocks, and companies across consumer industries have had to adapt to the ‘new normal’ at pace – whether that means dealing with high levels of demand, shifting to home working or in some cases completely pivoting their business model. Interim leaders have to be able to adapt not only to a new business and its needs quickly, but also move with the organisation as it changes and responds to the crisis.

It is also vital that interim leaders have strong communication skills. In the current climate, communication has never been more important – especially given that most of us are not operating in our normal office environment and able to discuss issues face to face. Good interim executives will establish steady and consistent communication lines with other senior leaders, and, where appropriate, the wider workforce.

Motivation and resilience are further requirements. During this time, senior leaders are coping with immeasurable amounts of stress and making business-critical decisions that impact the future of their organisation and the livelihoods of their employees. Senior roles are often lonely, and for interim leaders – who don’t have an established network of friends in a business – it is imperative that they can remain positive and resilient during these times.

A good interim also brings a fresh perspective on the culture, strategic direction or structure of a business. At a time when many companies are struggling to stay afloat, and senior leaders are preoccupied with immediate matters of survival, it can be refreshing to welcome an interim leader who can take a broad and unbiased view of an organisation’s operations. One interim leader offered a similar viewpoint: “Not being involved in office politics or the jostling for position that exists in every business means an interim is able to make changes that others may have been reluctant to.”

Good interim leaders do not need to have much, or even any, interim experience to perform well in a temporary role – it can be just as valuable to welcome someone into your business who has spent many years in one role or who has watched a company evolve.

Perhaps most importantly, the best interim leaders have a deep understanding of the dynamics of the sector they operate within. Especially in today’s current climate, it is imperative that interim placements understand the contexts of any given business situation, and are equipped with the technical expertise and market insight to help organisations achieve its goals. An excellent interim will be able to apply years – even decades – of industry experience to the task at hand, and lean on an established industry network of experts.

Interim leaders present businesses with a unique opportunity. Unlike consultants, who adopt an ‘outside-in’ approach – making recommendations from an external vantage point – interims work from the ‘inside-out’: applying their deep knowledge of the sector to company-specific situations. With this in mind, however, it is also critical that interims integrate themselves into the business. David Surdeau, who has been interim CFO at M&S since January, made this point clear when I caught up with him recently. “A good interim won’t act like an interim,” he told me, “but act like a member of the team and be emotionally connected from day one. Using ‘we’ not ‘you’, never referencing your exit and acting like you’ll be there for the long-term is the best way to get things done and have credibility.”

It will be interesting to see what lasting impact the coronavirus crisis will have on leadership teams across the sector, and whether we can expect to see more businesses taking on interim leaders under normal circumstances. After all, the last ten years have seen the surging of the ‘gig economy’ workforce, as more and more workers opt to take on short-term contracts instead of a long-term position. The Covid-19 crisis may well wave in a new era of leadership and the rise of ‘gig’ senior executives and interim directors.

On the other hand, it is worth noting that interim appointments can often turn into permanent hires – and during a time of downturn and uncertainty, businesses are more likely to adopt a ‘try before you buy’ approach to hiring.

After a period that has halted all long-term strategy conversations, adaptability and agility are going to be imperative to commercial success going forward. As businesses reopen or prepare to reopen and undertake full-scale reviews of their business models, an excellent interim leader could be an invaluable addition to your company.

In summary: 

• Interim placements can be extremely valuable assets, especially in challenging times or periods of transformation
• An effective interim leader is agile, self-sufficient and has a deep understanding of the sector and its contexts
• The best interim leaders will maintain their external vantage point while simultaneously integrating themselves into the business

Thirza Danielson, Director of Interim Practice | thirza.danielson@thembsgroup.co.uk |@TheMBSGroup