Interim Executives—Myths, Misconceptions, and Realities
Interim executives are often see as paratroopers: an elite group of executives who parachute into companies (which are often on fire) who act as the heroes who help save the company.
In reality, interim executives come in all shapes and sizes and are deployed for a variety of reasons:
- To fill a gap between two full-time executives
- To develop new strategies for growth
- To mitigate risks, such as during mergers & acquisitions
- To carry out organizational change
- To manage complex projects
Interim executives are often the bridge during a transition. They step into a company (truth be told, most of the time without a parachute) during a time of trouble, high growth, innovation, or simply to keep a company on the tracks knowing instability is ahead.
Here are some of the most common myths and misconceptions we hear about Interim Executives.
“Interim Executives are either retired executives or in transition, right?”
It is not uncommon for a retired executive to say, “I’d like to do some interim management work. My wife has decided she doesn’t want me around the house full time yet.” The misconception comes from the common perception of a “retired executive” as one who’s had a thirty-to-forty-year career at IBM.
In most cases, executives are either leaving corporate life or completing some type of exit at earlier and earlier stages in their careers. When Cerius started, the average age in our network was estimated to be late fifties. In the last few years, we have seen that age trending down—closer to early fifties. Executives are looking for more freedom and flexibility and looking for alternative career choices long before traditional retirement age.
Additionally, executives are more carefully selecting their next executive role and purposefully staying “in transition” longer than in previous decades. Companies are also treading the waters more carefully when hiring their next full-time executive. The interim concept—business owners bringing in an executive for a project and both the owner and the executive having the time to evaluate whether there is a longer-term fit during the process—is trending for a reason.
Both the executive and the company are in no hurry to rush into a long-term employment relationship and can focus on what needs to be accomplished and getting it done under the interim model.
Under these conditions, what used to be seen as an unwanted employment category (“in transition”) is quickly becoming a very attractive population of executives to companies.
“I’m concerned an executive will come in and start trying to change things.”
If you don’t want anything to change, then take the option of hiring an interim executive off the table. There is nothing more frustrating for an interim executive than to be brought into a company by the owner or CEO only to be told, “Wait a few months until you know everything about the company before suggesting any changes.”
Yes, an interim executive needs to spend a little time learning the nuances of the company, its employees, and the culture. But typically, the right interim executive can accomplish those baselines in a matter of days (not months). Recommendations for change will always seem radical at first, primarily because the company gets caught up on how to get from A to Z.
To build comfort with new ideas, insights, strategies and tactics, talk through the plan and understand how the transition is will be done in stages. Stay focused on why the changes are being recommended initially; don’t get caught up in how until the end state is agreed upon.
“Interim Executives are mainly strategic. I need someone who is hands-on.”
We rarely speak to a business owner who says, “I just need someone to help me put together the strategy.” The conversation always continues on to, “And then help our team execute the strategy.” Much of the time, the challenge is not where the company wants to go; it is having the expertise and bandwidth that will show a company how to get there.
Some Interim Executives really are best at the strategy and are not good at details, so the tactics of the strategy are best left to someone else. For cost and budgeting purposes, it often makes more sense not to have these executives (also be referred to as Strategy Consultants) hands-on with execution as well.
But one of the primary purposes of an Interim Executive is to provide additional bandwidth to help the company move through transition. For many situations, a good Interim Executive is a mix of both leader and doer.
Some common traits of a good Interim Executives include:
- Sense of urgency
- Results oriented—measure, measure, measure
- Flexible and adaptive—blend in and adjust to various situations
At the end of the day, hiring (full-time or interim) is all about results. Whether an executive is being brought in on a full-time or interim basis, the expectation should be about what somebody will accomplish. The difference is, when someone is more focused, coupled with necessary expertise, results often can be achieved much more quickly.