Interim Executives: Myths, Misconceptions, and Realities – Part 2

strategic executive

Interim executives are often seen as paratroopers: an elite group of executives who parachute into companies (often under fire) and act as the heroes who help save the company.

Interim executives are also often the bridge during transitions. They step into a company (truth be told, most of the time without a parachute) during times of trouble, high growth, innovation, or instability.

In reality, interim executives come in all shapes and sizes and are deployed for a variety of reasons:

  • To fill a gap position until you have hired a permanent executive
  • To develop new strategies for growth
  • To mitigate risks, such as during mergers and acquisitions
  • To carry out organizational change
  • To manage complex projects
  • To run a subsidiary in a new state or country

Here are more of the most common myths and misconceptions we hear about interim executives. 

“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 invariably continues: “…and then help our team execute the strategy.” Often, the business leader’s challenge is not where the company wants to go; it is finding the expertise and bandwidth that will show a company how to get there.

But one of the primary purposes of an interim executive is to provide that additional bandwidth to help the organization move through the transition. In many situations, an excellent interim executive is a combination of both a leader and a hands-on doer. 

Some common traits of good interim executives include:

  • Sense of urgency
  • Results-oriented—measure, measure, measure
  • Flexible and adaptive—blend in and adjust to various situations 

“…a good interim executive is a combination of both leader and  hands-on doer.”

“An Interim Executive Needs to Be from My Industry to Step in and Get Going Quickly.”

Companies have become accustomed to handcrafting lists of requirements for the executives they are looking for, from backgrounds to skill sets to types of companies they have worked for in the past to “They must be from my industry.” We are seeing the executive market get busier in recent years, and less talent is available. That can lead a company to be a little more flexible regarding their executive wish list. 

So, which items are easier to be flexible on and still find the right executive? For example, does the executive really need to be from your industry? Ask the right people, and the answer you frequently hear is “Well, it depends,” followed by these questions.

  • What role will the executive have?

 Is this an interim VP of sales role involving the need for established relationships and a network inside your industry, or does it involve the need for someone with knowledge and the ability to take your product into new markets or industries? What is easier to teach, the basics of your industry, or the right skills sets, cultural fit, and relationships to increase growth in other areas? 

  • What kind of learning curve does your industry or company have?

Is this a high-tech company requiring someone with an engineering degree, or a consumer products company where a solid understanding of manufacturing and distribution from any industry is enough for success? The learning curve is usually much less for the latter.  

  • How much of your management or current executive team already comes from the industry?

Do you currently have a diverse leadership mix to retain knowledge and tenure from within the industry combined with a new and fresh perspective from beyond it?

  • What is your company missing or what gap are you looking to fill?

Why are you bringing an executive on board? What is driving the need for this person, other than to fill a title or a seat? Are you looking to outmaneuver your competition or just catch up? 

Are you missing industry experience, or do you need some fresh ideas and outside-the-box thinking?

Industry Insider Pros

  • Shorter learning curve
  • Already networked inside your industry
  • May be able to provide some key learnings (not key information, since that is confidential) from other companies s/he has worked within the industry

Industry Insider Cons

  • How will s/he provide you with a competitive edge that has not already been provided to your competitors?
  • Lack of originality and thought beyond your industry
  • A narrower pool of executive talent

If you are still on the fence or are not happy with the talent you are seeing, consider executives from organizations or industries with similar characteristics. For example, long sales cycles, high-dollar products or services ($1 million vs. $20,000), heavy seasonality or cyclical revenue, etc. Looking at executives from similar industries offers a wider talent pool to choose from. 

We once had a client in the insurance industry with some brick-and-mortar service offices. Their goal was to increase the revenues through these service offices, and they could not imagine anyone outside the insurance industry working with their teams. After evaluating all the available talent, we helped them bring in someone with a retail and quick-service food background. The company swiftly saw how they could leverage the executive’s background from outside the industry; he had overcome similar situations. During the interim executive’s time on an assignment, the company experienced a 20 percent revenue increase. (By the way, this was in 2008, when all of their competitors were experiencing a decrease.)

Look at other industries that are similar to yours, including their general qualities and attributes, and you just might hit the jackpot. 

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