A day in the life on an interim manager

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Life as an Interim Manager

Malcolm Smith has been an interim manager for two and a half years. Here, he shares his experiences and advice for anyone thinking about a move in to interim management. Malcolm is currently Interim Director of Regeneration at the London Borough of Lewisham.

1. What is your background?

I started as a town planner, 34 years ago nearly but after about 10 years I moved into general environment services and regeneration. My days as a planner are long gone now but ironically now I still manage planning services. I don’t actually work as a town planner on any basis, but that is my background.

2. Why did you decide to become an interim manager?

A combination of circumstances really. I’d been looking to move into a Chief Executive role and for a number of various reasons I just didn’t get lucky though I came close. At the same time, the Council I was working with, Newham, wanted to make some changes and so the opportunity came up for me to effectively take redundancy but also to have the benefit of taking my pension at the same time. That made me think about what did I want to do with the rest of my time working and I thought that interim would be something I’d quite like to do.

3. What are the pros?

Well I think, for me, certainly when I started I did quite like the uncertainty. I quite liked the newness of going somewhere with essentially a clean sheet of paper. The organisation didn’t know me so I was able to start things quickly. I also like the variety – you are working with different organisations and different people. That might not be for everybody and I think it’s for everyone to make their mind up about when and if this is right for them, it just happened to be right for me. That’s one of the pros for me.

4. What are the cons?

Some of that uncertainty can be stressful. It hasn’t happened to me but if there is a significant gap between assignments there would be some degree of worry, some financial worry about when would I next get an assignment and that could be a con. I think you have to learn some new skills – even at a basic level you have to be a company director and run your own business, albeit with the help of experts who can help you. But that’s something that isn’t for everyone and it’s certainly something I didn’t really particularly like doing and still find it a bit of a pain to be honest! And there are times when you are away from home, as in the first assignment I had. At times when I first started that one I felt a bit homesick, but it didn’t last long and I was fine.

5. Is it for everyone?

No. Definitely not. It’s not for me to say who it is for, that’s a personal judgement. It’s about how do you feel, how confident are you, is it the sort of change that is right for you at this time in your life, do your family circumstances and financial circumstances allow it. This wouldn’t always be the case – I was very lucky in both cases, financially and domestically it was absolutely right. But it isn’t for everybody, no. For a person who likes certainty, security and regularity, I would say they need to think very hard if they want to do it.

6. What advice would you offer anyone thinking of moving from permanent employment into interim management/consultancy?

I would say take some time out with someone who can counsel you as to what you really want to do with the rest of your working life. I did this, actually Newham paid for me to go for a day to a consultancy I respect a lot, which do a lot of mentoring, coaching and career planning. It was the best day I ever spent because we went through all sorts of analysis of what did I want to do with the rest of my working life and the consultant helped me through it. At the end of that process, after a bit of thinking, I was absolutely convinced that interim was the right thing to do. So my advice would be, talk through your options and choices and thoughts with a third party that you don’t necessarily know, who is independent and can look at it objectively and help you tease out those issues. Whilst it’s important to talk to those closest to you they don’t bring an objective viewpoint, they bring a whole set of other baggage with them.

7. How do you go about marketing yourself and what advice can you offer?

It’s a combination of things – there’s professional networks, social networks, CVs through recruitment agencies, CVs through outplacement agencies and it’s a combination of all these things. There isn’t just one solution but I would say the networks and the people you already know in your world are probably the most important.

8. What distinguishes a good Interim Management service provider from the not so good?

One who has as much commitment to the potential interim as to the paying client. In other words, they are working for two clients – the interim is as important a client for the agency because they are their resource. If the agency doesn’t have them to sell, it doesn’t matter if they’re the best consultancy in the world, they still have no resources. Paying attention to aftercare and follow up with the interim is important but also with the paying client. Being timely and quick with potential interims and showing due care and attention really. Looking after the interests of both is important – some will look after the interests of the client as opposed to the interim, which is out of balance. For me, agencies have to make sure they have this balance right.

9. What variety of assignments have you worked on?

I’ve worked on three different director assignments and one head of service in local government over the last two and a half years. They have varied from Director of Environment, Director of Customer Services, Head of Regeneration and now Director of Regeneration. So I’ve stayed in local government because that is my background but I have always said, even though my circumstances are slightly different now that I have got a semi-permanent role now in my current assignment, that I would quite like to go and work in central government or the voluntary sector or wherever really. I don’t believe I couldn’t do that but usually you will be put forward for assignments in the area for which you have most expertise and so I’ve stayed in local government.

10. Do you have periods of ‘feast or famine’ and if so, how do you deal with that?

Personally, I haven’t. I’ve been lucky as I could have worked every day if I’d wanted. But I know that it can and does happen and one needs to be prepared for it.

11. What is the first step for someone wanting to be an IM?

Having a conversation with yourself about why you want to do this, do you really want to do it? Secondly have that same conversation with those close to you and thirdly, importantly, as I advised earlier, talk it through with someone who can bring an objective, outside perspective on it. Then, when you’re comfortable you can say yes at the end of that, then it’s probably right for you. If you can’t and you’ve got any significant lingering doubts beyond the inevitable nervousness about would I get that first assignment, which is inevitable for everybody, then it probably isn’t for you.

12. Do you think taking regular holidays is important?

Yes, it’s vital! It’s absolutely vital. You can, if you want, work 230 days a year but you’re actually no good to people if you haven’t had holidays. Why should you approach your work/life balance any differently as an interim than you would as a permanent? Because, by definition, you’re an employee, so you need to remember to look after yourself. It’s just common sense really, so yes, make sure you take breaks and holidays.

13. Any other advice for anyone thinking about IM?

Make sure you take care of business and look after the paperwork. Because as a company director you have responsibilities – financial, tax, legal – and you have to make sure you keep on top of that. It’s not that difficult but it’s a fresh skill for some people to have to learn. It was for me, but I think I’m on top of it now!