Interim Executives: Their Role on Existing and New Business Trends

By:  Michael Kaiser

rainbow after storm

Interim executives can be the perfect solution to fill leadership gaps as companies weather the storms of commercial demands.

One of the most visible, even dramatic changes in the leadership of companies is the growing number of Interim Executives. Until a few years back, they were considered as transitional appointments to cover C-level executives that either resigned or where fired. Usually it was left to the board of directors to choose the interim replacement until the permanent one was hired. That is no longer the case because those interim executives (herein: interims) navigate from small to large companies, and in some cases may occupy C-level positions for an extended period of time, at the behest of boards and investors.

More often than not, the interims are characterized by having additional skills that their permanent predecessors lacked or did not apply in their tenure, e.g., communication ability, charisma, flexibility and the ability to simultaneously think in tactical and strategic terms. As expected, the appointment of an interim is followed by immediate pressure to add value and benefit, often in very high-change environments. Unlike management consultancy, interims focus on implementation, team working, coaching and mentoring the existing team. It is a critical process best described as the quintessential “hands-on assignment”.

A few weeks ago someone asked me what my role was as an interim and I replied that it was akin to a sort of “corporate Clint Eastwood”, which first elicited a surprised look from my interlocutor, followed by laughter. So much for the fun of it! As noted above, this is a critical process that requires multitasking. The interim’s role demands change, not just filling the spot left by a departing executive or the challenge of a new project, notoriously difficult assignments for both the client and the interim.

The increased need for interims to act as short-term permanent executives or managers (it sounds like an oxymoron, but it is not) even in well established corporations, took off with the onset of the 2008 Great Recession in the U.S. as well as the fragile economy of the European Union represented by the loss of key executive/managerial jobs. Another reason lies in the fact that the crisis was followed by new information technologies and communication tools that significantly accelerate business-to-business interactions such as R&D, implementation and commercialization. Let me make clear that the role of the full-time permanent corporate executive has not been replaced, but what we are witnessing is also the emergence of a new business trend that is here to stay for the foreseeable future, best explained as the “doppelgänger”, i.e., one that works in parallel with C-level personnel and employees.

Nowhere are interims more in demand than with start-ups, small and medium-size companies in areas as different as the life sciences, public relations, software and hardware. Some of the reasons for that surge are: change and/or crisis management, IPOs, mergers and acquisitions, etc. In those scenarios, as well as in other similar or different ones, the interim becomes an integral part of the C-level management and his client’s workforce.

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