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Wanted: experienced manager for short-term relationship

Emma Jacobs
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

As Brexit negotiations between the UK and EU rumble on, the lack of certainty over freedom of movement and trade is good news for one niche group: interim managers.

In the UK, experienced senior executives on short-term contracts are in demand. Jo Sweetland, a managing director at Green Park, says her recruitment firm has seen a 30 per cent increase in requests for interim managers since the UK voted to leave the EU last June.

Companies want professionals with restructuring experience, as well as HR specialists with employment law expertise. "Brexit creates an opportunity," Ms Sweetland says.

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Leila Hudson, director at Taylor Root, the legal recruiter, says interim and consulting lawyers are in high demand. "There has certainly been an increase in the use of the phrase 'due to uncertainty of the market we wish to hire this on an interim basis'", she says.

Interims can command high day rates and enjoy autonomy but their expertise falls out of favour as the market changes.

Buoyancy in the interim market can be a sign of corporate confidence, says Karen O'Reilly, stakeholder engagement manager at the Recruitment & Employment Confederation.

The UK labour market is in good health, according to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics, which showed the unemployment rate was at its lowest rate since 1975.

However, Ms O'Reilly thinks demand for interims could indicate business pessimism. "An uptick in interim hires could reflect employers bringing in experts to help with contingency planning or postponing permanent hires in C-suite roles for a while," she says.

Christine de Largy, managing director of Impact Executives, the interim management arm of recruitment firm Harvey Nash Group, has noticed changes in the UK over the past year in the kind of expertise required. "

Last year there was a spike in restructuring; this year, it's management of risk, regulations on data protection and cyber security," she says, underlining the significance of EU data protection rules (GDPR), which will be incorporated into UK law next year.

Clients are managing risk by looking for deep expertise that can be bought in quickly, with interim executives who have solved the exact same problem ideally in multiple occasions, Ms de Largy says.

"They don't want to do it internally with people who are learning their expertise. They would rather bring in a deep expert in that field so they can minimise the risk"

For the worker, such flexibility is both a boon and a risk, while for some it smacks of instability. For others it is liberating. Richard Philips, who has been an interim manager for seven years, has found it to be positive.

To be a good interim manager, he says, you need to be like a "chameleon, you have to adapt. I like the intellectual challenge."

On the downside, they "fire you because you have done a good job, they fire you if it's done badly".

As an outsider he thinks he has a different role to permanent employees. "Some of the staff might be more cautious about speaking out. You can say how it is." Interims without the baggage of company history can have difficult conversations, he says.

Internal hires can be reluctant to drive change, so are keen that the responsibility for restructuring, for example, is shifted elsewhere.

While executives looking for permanent jobs can face age discrimination, being in one's 50s can be an advantage for an interim manager. It can be an "asset to have grey hair", as one puts it.

Nonetheless, Grant Speed, managing director of the Interim Practice at Odgers Berndtson, has observed a change in the typical interim manager.

"Fifteen to 20 years ago it was dominated by men in their late 50s. Today, there are more women [taking such positions] and the age has dropped slightly to late 40s, early 50s."

Explainer: why hire an interim manager?

1. Contracts for interim managers might be three months or longer, typically six to 12 months

2. The difference between an interim specialist and a contract worker, says Ms Sweetland, is that interims "leave a legacy at the end" whereas a contract worker might be called on to get through a set of tasks

3. The benefits for an employer are that candidates do not need to work lengthy notice periods and should be able to get up to speed quickly when they start their role. Craig Saxby, head of the interim management practice at EO, notes: "There can be a long period of time to get someone from another company. An interim manager can be up and running within a few days"

4. The appeal for candidates is that they can remove themselves to some extent from corporate politicking and be their own boss. It can also be a way to make an impact quickly

Jane Janney is a construction interim manager who has worked this way for the past 10 years. For her the value was flexible hours, and the first contract was a way to re-enter the workforce after taking a career break with her children. It was, she says, a way for the employer to try her out.

"It is risky, [particularly if] you have to pay a mortgage and can't get a new job," she says.

Ben Booth, interim chief information officer at Arup, the engineering group, says the dream of working for six months with a relaxed time off between contracts is not entirely true to reality.

"I have a break but tend to be looking for work in that period."

This way of working is not for everyone, however, he cautions.

"You have to be happy to go out looking for work and with uncertainty."

As with Ms Janney, this way of working suited him at a particular point in his life, when his daughter was older and the mortgage largely paid off.

Ms Janney would not recommend this path for someone seeking status. Yet, she has been lucky to have received professional development at the various workplaces she has been an interim manager and has kept in touch with ex-colleagues.

The variety of jobs and the challenge of tackling a problem has been a positive step for Mr Booth, who declares that he likes troubleshooting.

Moreover, the fact that he is brought in to do a prestigious project, means that he has support of the board. "I have the full backing and authority to do the work. Then I hand it over."

The purity of the work is important to Ms Janney too. "I go in and do the work, [and] don't want to get involved in office politics. That's a definite benefit."

It's also education

Interim managers are not only in demand in the commercial sector. They are particularly sought after in higher education management, according to Grant Speed, managing director of the Interim Practice at Odgers Berndtson.

In the past year there has been a 40 per cent increase in demand. This is because, he says, universities want to explore new sources of income and adapt their business models in response to weaker demand from foreign students.

Typically, an interim will have worked in the commercial and financial administration of universities.

Mr Speed, who says that interim managers can command day rates of between £800 to £2,500, anticipates increased demand from consumer industries, due to pressure on the sector from the weak pound and poor wage growth.

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