The keys to interim management (and how HR and L&D can make it a success)

Handled well, the deployment of an interim manager can boost innovation by bringing in fresh minds.

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Businesses today operate in a period of exponential change. The track record of a business model is more likely to stretch back 20 months rather than 20 years. The profile of managers has changed too. While many remain stuck in a 20th century mindset and organizational structure, today’s economy demands practical, flexible, action-oriented, experienced and worldly executives who can define and implement strategy rapidly. This new paradigm has given rise to the interim manager.

An interim manager will typically be brought in to help the organization through a crisis or major change. Unlike a consultant, he or she will hold an executive post and be directly responsible for defining and implementing strategy. 

Specific mission

But unlike a permanent employee, the interim manager will focus on a specific mission with a well-defined scope and time frame and will be remunerated according to results. Typical roles include:

• Managing change, such as departmental restructurings, M&A preparations, professionalizing a family board, improving the sales process or digital transformations. 

• Launching a new business, including strategic expansion, and entering overseas markets, developing new products, services or business models. 

• Replacing an executive who has quit, been fired, or is on temporary leave in order to fill the post until a new executive is hired. 

• Project management such as overseeing the execution of a specific project. 

• Providing expertise including acquiring the advice of an independent expert and training middle managers or others to disseminate the know-how. 

Interim managers are used in all size of company, though for different reasons. Most Fortune 500 companies have at some point hired interim managers often because transition has become urgent and someone independent is needed to take an objective approach to some tough decisions. Small and medium – sized enterprises tend to use interim managers when they need an executive heavyweight but cannot afford a permanent one.

Fresh minds

Handled well, the deployment of an interim manager can boost innovation by bringing in fresh minds. It can widen experience of the manager and team he or she leads through their wider variety of work. And their use can increase productivity, especially in SMEs that otherwise lack the know-how.

But not all companies handle interim appointments smoothly. Some firms worry about handing confidential or strategic information to an external operator, reflecting and perpetuating a culture of fear and reticence. They often overlook the fact that confidentiality can just as easily be breached by permanent full time staff. It’s not the type of contract but the selection of the person that really matters, so when appointing an interim manager:

Check the resume: Companies in a hurry too often skip the hiring due diligence. Check every line of the resume to ensure that the experience stated is true.

Clarify the role: Clearly define the mission, objectives, workload and reporting lines, from start to finish.

Get legal protection: Sign a commercial contract for the provision of services rather than an employment contract.  

Plan the handover process: Specify how the project information will be passed on at the end of the project to ensure continuity.

José Luis Portela López

Professor of Operations and Technology, IE Business

José Luis Portela is an experienced executive and renowned lecturer in operations, project management, procurement, and organizational behaviour.