When Should Senior Executives Consider an Interim Role?

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By Mark Newall
September 08, 2020
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As an executive career coach, I guide senior-level professionals as they navigate the uneven terrain of being in career transition. Most of my clients are seeking their next, big job. In these uncertain times in our world, and certainly in the job market, I have suggested to some clients to consider shifting gears a bit, and consider alternative types of jobs, in addition to the career paths they were pursuing.

Unfortunately, right now many companies cannot afford proceeding with their hiring practices the way they did a few months ago. Instead of hiring leaders to help the company go public, or to scale a new product, they are instead, faced with cutting costs throughout the organization. This comes in the form of freezing open jobs, furloughing employees, selling off real estate, or finding other creative ways to save money.

Under “normal” circumstances, if my clients demonstrate true interest in shifting to another industry or seeking a different functional role, I support them, while stating that it is often a difficult, and lengthier journey. During this challenging time, most companies still have many needs within their organizations, but hiring a full-time professional is often out of the question.

What I currently see in the job market is that companies still have the need for new leadership, but they are seriously considering interim executive help. Expert, immediate help brought in to focus on one, or several, critical needs of the organization, at a fraction of the cost of a full-time hire.

I recently had a conversation with Paul Smith, Managing Partner at Odgers Interim US, which is a division of the international retained search firm, Odgers Berndtson. Paul splits his time between London and Boston. I asked Paul why, in my years as a career coach, have I not come across this notion of interim exec needs sooner, “Has it come into fashion since the pandemic?” He said, “the interim exec role has been a staple in the UK for 25+ years, but it is just recently finding an eager market in the US.” He explained that this type of model is not that different to how private equity firms might dispatch skilled talent into one of their portfolio companies to address a specific need. But Paul said he was busily engaging with companies in the US long before the pandemic. More and more companies, particularly small to midsized companies, have been seeking this type of help since the start-up boom in the late 1990s, often relying on their own networks for talent.

As Paul and I discussed other aspects my clients interested in interim executive roles should know, he said that the top three functions he places on an interim basis are CEOs, COOs, and CFOs. I asked him about GC candidates, as these professionals make up about 30% of my practice. He told me that he definitely places UK legal leaders in Europe, but it is still too soon to tell about the US General Counsels, unless he is representing a US based company with a significant presence and/or operations in the UK. Interested GC should seek the proper visa in advance to partnering with Odgers to ensure they are prepared when need arises.

Paul shared that top candidates for interim roles must be senior executives with a proven track record in their industry. For example, an exec coming from a top-tier asset management firm, should be considered a good fit for a fintech role. He said that right now, 90% of his US business is staffing the needs of PE firms, and that outside of PE, small to mid-sized companies are his targets. For example, he recently placed an interim CFO in a successful brewery in LA. He explained that most Fortune 500 companies already have “transformational teams” in place to fill these interim exec needs.

What are the benefits of working in this kind of arrangement?

While Paul recommends that executives focus on the industry that they have worked in, and know well, there are opportunities to bring their skills to a smaller organization. This can be immensely helpful, as it provides a professional who previously worked for a large corporation, with smaller company work experience. This demonstrates to the job market that, “She has worked in an org like ours. She will get us.” Therefore, it will benefit their resume as it relates to penetrating the start-up sector and other smaller to mid-sized companies. Additionally, it provides networking opportunities previously not available to them. Lastly, it provides a compelling answer to the question, “What have you been doing since you left your last gig?”

For senior executives considering their next move on the job front, an interim executive role might be something to consider. It could truly help you learn some things about yourself, the market, your industry, and maybe even start a new and exciting chapter of your career.

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