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The change masters

Monday February 22nd, 2010

By Raj Tulsiani, CEO, Green Park Interim and Executive Resourcing

Successful implementation of interim management can have potentially huge benefits for the public sector, argues Raj Tulsiani.

From humble origins in the Netherlands in the late 1980s, interim management has grown into a mainstream strategic resource that an ever-increasing number of organisations are choosing to employ.

The public sector has largely been slower than the private sector in adopting interim management. However, with cost savings and increased commerciality in sharp focus in today’s ‘new normal’, the public sector has now taken to interim management with great enthusiasm.

In Q4 2009, figures from IPSOS Mori, on behalf of the Interim Management Association, show for the first time that the majority of interim managers employed in the UK are now working within the public sector. In time, I expect that the public sector will employ an even greater percentage of the country’s interims – possibly nearer to 60 per cent by 2012.

But what has attracted the public sector to interim management? In large part the attraction is a result of management consultancies coming under the spotlight, with huge payments for questionable results making for compelling headlines. Interim management has appeared as the cost effective equivalent, offering seven key benefits to public sector organisations.

Objectivity

Often we are asked to supply senior interims to extremely sensitive situations. Whether change is driven by growth or efficiency initiatives, it is likely to result in issues and challenges that stretch the resources and resolve of the incumbent team. Change is also likely to create tensions between stakeholders with conflicting agendas, and the resulting fallout can present a significant problem at a time when the organisation needs precision and collaboration. Interim managers are not encumbered by existing relationships, ideas or prejudices. They are mandated to tackle problems objectively and thereby help the various senior stakeholders attain the results they need to achieve for the business.

Seniority

The professional interims we work with offer their services at a level or two below their ‘natural’ organisational level if they are engaged on a permanent basis. They have faced the challenges they are committing to solving before, so they know the potential roadblocks and pitfalls they may face along the way. Part of the reason interims have become so popular is because they can take problems out of the hands of the people who hire them – their seniority is a big part of the reason they are able to do that.

Accountability

As described above, perhaps the most important factor in the rise of interim management has been the realisation that interims are a highly cost-effective alternative to external consultants. Part of the reason why they are so cost-effective is that they actually implement, rather than simply advise – they commit to delivering something, and then deliver it from within the organisation. That makes them a highly accountable resource when managed well. This is further enhanced by the fact that interims are ‘only as good as their last assignment’; they therefore have a compelling motivation to deliver the desired results.

Immediacy

Challenges and opportunities very often do not wait in the public sector context. Finding the right people can be difficult enough, but if you also need to wait for people to work out long notice periods before they join, it is very easy to see an opportunity slip away. Interims are generally immediately available, and specialist interim consultancies ought to be able high-quality shortlist within 48 hours. We often have people starting the day we receive the job brief. Well selected, pre-qualified networks are of enormous benefit that cannot afford to wait – particularly if they have a time-critical emergency on their hands.

Flexibility

Hiring the best can be difficult, particularly in fluctuating markets or at times of organisational uncertainty. Interims present the chance to strengthen your workforce in the short term, without committing to long notice periods or potential difficulties should there be a need to downsize at some point in the future. Another reason that flexibility is so important is that organisations often have finite projects that simply do not require a permanent hire.

In the public sector context, programme and project managers are good examples of the sorts of roles that naturally suit a flexible resource. In the past, organisations may have been forced to hire someone permanently and keep them on beyond the conclusion of the programme or project, which is not an ideal situation for either party.

Importing private sector best practice There was a time when the public sector ‘stuck to itself’, and only employed from within. The increased focus on commerciality in the public sector, and the realisation that best practice can be readily imported from the private sector, has changed that viewpoint. Interim management is an excellent way to import commerciality and best practice, without appointing permanently from the private sector, which can be perceived as a risk. By way of example, we recently had a high profile public sector client brief us to exclusively look outside the sector for a very senior procurement role – believing that best practice in that category would not be found within the Civil Service. That is an extreme example, but it is now normal for our public sector clients to ask for private sector benchmarks on their shortlists, whereas even five years ago that was not very often the case.

Knowledge transfer

Professional interims are very adept at helping incumbent teams improve their skills. In fact, part of any interim manager’s mandate (agreed at the start of the assignment) should be to leave a legacy of value, rather than building dependency, for which management consultancies are notorious. I often say that interim managers should help the permanent employees they work with ‘appreciate as corporate assets’. I do not really like the jargon (or people being described as assets!), but the sentiment is right – interims should be dispensing their skills and knowledge in a coaching capacity, so that they leave more effective teams behind them when they exit. I recently placed an interim HR director who had the task of preparing an internal candidate to take over the permanent role at the end of the assignment.

About 15 years ago, when I began supplying interim management services to the private and public sectors, I spent a lot of time explaining the concept to potential clients. I have to admit that it was not an easy sell to begin with. But in the last ten years, my clients – and the new clients I am lucky enough to meet – have become increasingly sophisticated, using interims across a broad range of functions, often at very high levels of seniority. The public sector has now embraced interim management, and it seems highly likely that public sector usage will continue to increase as more and more organisations realise the benefits and opportunities.

While there will always be a need for interim managers to cover for unexpected absence, organisations that understand the seven key opportunities outlined above are well positioned to utilise interims in a more strategic way – and thereby reap the benefits as increasingly sophisticated purchasers of services in a billion-pound industry.

For further information, please visit: www.green-park.co.uk

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