By Matthew Emerson is the Founder and Managing Director of Blackmore Four
In times of significant and unplanned disruption, companies are required to adapt quickly and may need to call upon business expertise and experience that can be applied to the immediate circumstances without extensive onboarding or assimilation. Through the last few months, interim leaders have been used for crisis management to steady the ship but, in fact, the role of an interim leader has become as complex as the environment they operate in. Ship steadying is critical, but many are now expected to map out uncharted waters, find alternative destinations, navigate the journey and inspire the crew to move forward into unfamiliar territory. In the context of our growing 'gig economy', this is also a tempting proposition for experienced leaders to take on the challenge as an interim leader to inject variety and challenge as a core component of their career.
Interim leaders in normal times
The wider movement towards interim leadership has evolved and progressive boards and business leaders alike see interim leaders as a unique opportunity to focus on targeted and timely change outcomes. The nature of leadership is such that the type of leadership best suited to that transition may be entirely different to the leadership required for the more permanent business model.
In a world of constant change, the opportunity to bring in a new leadership style, with different perspectives on the market, product mix and organisational capability is a way of breathing energy into complex transformation that in 'normal business' seems to be caught up in a never ending set of operational priorities. Working alongside a pre-existing executive team or as part of a planned leadership transition, this route can be used to get real focus on strategic change, accelerate operational improvements and develop a team capable and adaptable to meet future challenges.
Professional interim leaders bring with them fresh perspective and clear insight regarding the leadership and organisation of a business. Applying this without being clouded by internal politics or positioning gives the organisation an unbiased view that may be otherwise hard to achieve. Individuals with the self-awareness to be able to deploy their skills in a very deliberate way – in specific conditions – often serve to focus on the interests of the business, the outcomes required and have greater licence to make change happen.
Consultants also have this advantage but whereas a consultant usually operates from an outside-in perspective and retains a valuable independence from an organisation, interim leaders usually work inside-out, integrating into an organisation and leading change as a member of the team.
The idea of planning to have an interim business leader might initially sound like an alien concept to many but there is growing supply and demand for such roles and good arguments to suggest that there are many different phases of a business journey where this might be exactly the right approach for your business.
Outcome focused interim leaders
In normal times, what outcomes are interim leaders needed for?
- Crisis Management
Interim leaders are needed in times of crisis. This may be a turnaround situation where a business is losing money, custom or unable to find a forward gear. An interim leader's fresh perspective, relevant experience and critical thinking can be applied to find specific solutions, if they exist.
- Operational Improvement
Outside of crisis, there may be a pressing need to tackle operational improvements that are otherwise neglected or forever moth balled. A change in style or approach to tackling business operations may be needed to re-engage and re-energise colleagues around a set of priorities.
- Strategic Change
Penetrating a new market, launching a new product or developing new capabilities are prime examples of strategic change. Core aspects of business that need revolutionary change are often overwhelming and require leadership capacity as well as the specific skills to match the change required, which may be missing from the existing leadership team.
- Investment Readiness
Regardless of size, if a business is preparing for new investment then crisis management, operational improvement and strategic change might all be necessary to ready a business for the next funding round. Hiring an interim leader to focus solely on these objectives as part of investment readiness helps detach that perspective from day-to-day business management.
A brief history of interim leaders
The traditional perspective on interim-anything was that it was unplanned, as temporary as possible and in many cases would focus on addressing only the most critical aspects of a role previously and soon-to-be- fulfilled by a permanent member of the team. Whilst in some parts of the economy people were tempted to make careers out of being interims, they were largely accepting of the tactical nature of their post and were more than committed to stand in and step back as necessary.
Interim leadership roles were therefore almost always looked upon as a back-up plan or a stop-gap, focused on issue resolution without over-committing. In many cases the position was taken up by someone already in the team who was best placed to temporarily fill their former colleagues' shoes. This is often best exemplified when one member of an executive team stepped in for another pending the passing of their successors period of notice or non-compete. This approach generates a wealth of continuity benefits and avoids having to spend the effort to find, recruit and onboard an interim leader from outside the organisation.
In all other cases, interim leaders might be used if the incumbent is temporarily unavailable or until the next permanent incumbent is available but, in a nutshell, interim leadership has traditionally been about business continuity and ensuring the fundamental obligations were met. The impact for everyone else in the organisation was somewhere between breathing a sigh of relief – the business lives to fight another day – and frustration at apparent water treading. It is the latter that generates a perception of interim leaders being ineffective. The incumbent themselves may have all the attributes required for the role but if the overwhelming sense of the organisation is one of 'pause pending permanent' then it is likely that the authority of the post – formal or informal – will be suspended.
Interim leaders in a new business model
Business leaders are expected to navigate significant levels of change – much of which is forced by external factors – and create a vision of the future into which the business can invest and thrive. However, the crisis of the past few months has left many employees feeling fearful of losing their jobs and anxious of what the wider social consequences are of the pandemic. It is not simply that people do not like change (although that is an easy summary of the situation), but that people have a natural fear-based reaction to change that is perceived as a threat. When change is ambiguous,
threatening and likely to lead to loss of some kind (job, income, social status, as examples), people do not embrace it. An interim leader who can couple a clear-minded, fresh-thinking approach to the challenges facing a business with an empathetic, emotionally intelligent manner brings a valuable balance to leading an organisation through change.
We have found ourselves in a situation where the focused change-maker of recent years has become an accepted part of transition and transformation. However, the target is now constantly moving, outcomes are even more unpredictable and for an interim leader to have their impact, they need to be able to develop organisational effectiveness to cope beyond their tenure. We need interim leaders to be able to steady the ship whilst navigating choppy waters and finding a journey or destination that is most suited to the business as a whole … making a change in course without losing people overboard, plotting the way to sustaining performance through the organisational adaptiveness, agility and development.
Key attributes of an adaptable interim leader
Ship steadying, change-making interim leaders are likely to have these attributes:
- Learning Agility
Interim leaders are expected to have impact, quickly. Whilst they bring significant experience and expertise with them, they must also be able to learn about the nuances of the business and organisation and demonstrate personal adaptability as a role model for others as the business changes.
The expectations on interim leaders are extreme and whilst all positions of senior leadership are said to be lonely, an interim leader starts without an established internal network and is often not readily accepted by peers or colleagues. Despite this, an interim leader needs to retain optimism about their goals and demonstrate an energy and belief about how to achieve them, which at its core requires a high degree of personal resilience.
The best interim leaders have a clear communication style that is natural for them, fitting with the context of the business and adapting to the needs of a wide range of audiences. In a heavily virtual and increasingly flexible working world, the right amount of communication in a form that is easily received is critical to building trust, aligning effort and achieving outcomes.
It is a word that has become ubiquitous in professional and commercial settings but in the circumstances of interim leadership comes in a very specific flavour. Interim leaders by necessity remain objective, identifying what's right for the business and executing against that without consideration of self-interest, favour or bias to specific individuals or groups. People concerned for the business need to have complete confidence that the interim leader is loyal to the purpose of their appointment and not subject to influence or persuasion for any other reason.
With or without crisis, an organisation's ability to adapt is critical. As businesses look ahead at the prospect of emerging from this recent crisis and thriving in a new operating environment, an interim leader with the above attributes may be exactly what they need to kick-start a recovery, transition to a new world or take advantage of new opportunities.
Interim leaders can bring much needed focus to a range of business challenges and ignite outcome-oriented progress through fresh thinking, a new approach and with a different set of skills. Interim leaders need to combine outcome-orientation with interpersonal skills to develop an effective organisation that will create long-lasting change and can adapt to future challenges. Interim leaders may now be a planned and expected feature of organisations that need to regularly, if not constantly, adapt rather than just be a reactive stop gap to unplanned emergencies.