Using “Interim” Professionals to Bridge Key Vacancies: CEO, HR, IT and Finance

As companies operate with ever-leaner staff the prospect of losing a key employee can be overwhelming.  No matter the size of the company, IT, Finance or HR professionals are key positions.  They interact with everyone: they play a key role in business planning; and they have a strong role in controlling finances/efficiency.  When one of these staff members gives their notice several things must be done at once:

  • Figure out how to operate with a vacancy – no matter how speedy your recruitment it will take a while to get the right person in the seat
  • Make sure activities and processes don’t stall or slide backwards
  • Find a way to complete projects in development
  • Develop the recruitment strategy to find the right person.

We’ve all been tempted to rush the recruitment process in desperation.  A seemingly perfect candidate shows up at the right time and you hire them thinking it’s better to have an unknown person today than take precious time to find the right one tomorrow. Does this ever really work out?

Dilemma of Human Resource vacancy

A special dilemma emerges when your Human Resource manager or director gives his/her notice. When the IT person quits the HR person leads the search.  When the HR person is preparing to depart you have to make plans to cover the recruiting process with a non-HR person (bad idea), retain a recruiting firm (very expensive) or ignore the problem and hope it goes away (never a good thing).  An interim HR director can keep HR operations running and oversee the search for a hyper-critical role in company affairs. My interim HR assignments generally come about because the departing HR person frets about how the company will continue to move forward smoothly.  On two occasions, the owners ignored the problem a little too long.  As the departure day draws near the exiting HR person begins searching for someone to help bridge the gap.  Instinctively, he/she knows that rushing into a permanent hire can have disastrous consequences – picture a poor HR performer and you trying to counsel him/her on job performance problems.  Yikes!

Hiring an interim professional gives you time to breathe, plan and get onto better footing than can support a thoughtful, thorough hiring process.

What an interim professional can do for your company

Five potential functions can be served by an interim professional:

  1. Audit: assess the current state of affairs, uncover weaknesses or poor functioning and recommend improvements.  No matter how great the departing professional was weak performance areas are expected.  Over time, owners begin to overlook these weaknesses.  An interim professional will take a balanced, fresh look and not be afraid to say what areas need shoring up. Suggesting written policy amendments is something most interims do as a matter of course.
  2. Running operations: interim professionals have the skills to keep things moving, supervise staff and continue getting results while you search for the best replacement.
  3. Completing projects in transition: many business projects take months to complete.  Getting a key staff’s notice in the middle of a major project can be stressful.  Interims are typically well-trained in project management and may actually bring a broader, more seasoned expertise to the table.
  4. Help with the permanent hire: interim professionals can provide much-needed support to keep search activities moving forward.  They can review the job design and description as well as qualifications for the permanent replacement.  The longer the exiting professional has been in his/her position the more the world around you has changed.  This is the perfect time to get an objective review of how the position is designed and how it relates to the overall business team and goals. When the search is underway an interim professional can provide a keen eye to candidate experience and fit since they come at this from a place of deeper experience than the general recruitment team.
  5. Post placement support: an interim professional can help smooth the transition into an organization’s culture and process.  The best way to take advantage of this service is to use professional interims. Making this work to the company’s best advantage requires strong and consistent attention to what is best for the company.  If you have retained an interim who wants the position and things don’t work out, you may have difficulty with transitioning him/her out while bringing in the new person. Not impossible, but tricky!

What to do if the interim is a candidate for the permanent position?

There are two interim professional situations: Those who want the job and see this as a way to ease into it and professional interims.  Professional interims will generally be better at the audit, projects and recruitment part of the interim assignment.  They don’t want permanent or full-time jobs.  Often they are semi-retired and don’t need or want full-time employment.  Others just appreciate taking on new challenges.  In my case, I love the newness of interim assignments and I genuinely like helping a company, installing the perfect candidate and moving on.  Most of my referrals come from owners who don’t know how to begin the search and they want a placeholder.  Sometimes the owner’s objective comes from concerns about how things were handled by the exiting executive.  In the initial meeting, I describe the five interim functions noted above and let the hiring group decide what they want most from the interim assignment.

How interim professionals work

The beauty of working with an interim position is that a salary budget line item can fund the assignment.  Interims who work as contractors don’t take benefits or time off so even if the company used the entire salary/cash budget there is still likely to be savings.  In addition, many interims are so well-qualified and efficient that they may not require the full forty hours/five days per week to accomplish what you need.  In this case again, there can be expense line item savings. Interims can be hired either as contractors or paid as temporary employees.  Some interims prefer to work as a temporary employee and have payroll taxes withheld.  Some prefer to keep a contractual arrangement.  I have done this both ways.  Contractors save the company a bit of payroll tax but the difference isn’t significant.  One factor that may apply here is whom the interim professional will answer to and how much oversight there will be.  As a contractor I find it to be a little easier to assess policies and procedures frankly while maintaining a more arm’s-length status as a contractor. I also prefer to work a part-time schedule so I can maintain other client relationships.  Some clients insist I be on site five days per week but with electronic files, telecommuting makes this unnecessary plus, working three to four days per week means I can commute further from home to take interim assignments.  Demanding five days narrows the field of who you might tap to take an interim assignment.  Much of this depends on the nature of the position, how much auditing is needed and the current projects underway.

Making the arrangement

Interims working as contractors should provide a confidentiality agreement and contract describing the interim’s scope of responsibility.  Interims working as temporary employees are covered by the company’s confidentiality policies as well as all other policies maintained by the company. The most important factor before the assignment begins is ensuring the interim has essential qualifications (don’t be afraid to ask for references).

How do you find interims?

Word of mouth is how most of my interim assignments emerge.  I have had all of the following assignments in the last ten years: Nonprofit executive director, program director, operations director and human resources manager/director.  Once I’ve assessed the function and created an improvement plan the company is happy to spread the word. Where to look for a good interim would include: LinkedIn groups and searches, professional membership groups in your area, other business leaders through local Chambers of Commerce, etc. I have also helped organizations place an ad for a temporary or interim but this takes a little more time.  Baby boomers and semi-retired executives have a wealth of training and experience and are perfect markets for this type of work.  They may desire a less pressing schedule and the short duration offers down time in between assignments for travel or personal pursuits.  They don’t rattle easily and will take less business owner time to get things operating productively.

Advantages

When current staff are loyal to the former executive: The greatest advantage to working with interims is the transitional aspect. In most work environments staff are split about whether the former executive’s departing is a good thing.  When the departing person had questionable performance, using an interim to audit work practices or to help find and correct substandard procedures makes more sense that asking the new, permanent person to do so.  Interims are used to looking at the situation without ownership or the territoriality that may enter into the permanent replacement’s mind when building new relationships and prove themselves. When one begins a new permanent assignment there is a tendency to see the former person as less competent to justify the new, “better” approach. It is human nature to validate one’s own approach. For staff who really liked the departing person this can be off-putting.  Employees who are angry about the loss of the former professional can be resentful and resistant. Moving directly to a permanent replacement saddles the new person with auditing work, correcting mistakes and trying to lead.  I have seen times where the new permanent person lasted a year and left due to these social/psychological complications.

Disadvantages

The biggest disadvantage is that remaining staff have to get used to more than one individual.  This can’t be avoided.  There are ways to mitigate this through transition support.  Much depends upon the posture an interim takes as the process unfolds.  Good interims take note of issues that will span the transition time and reserve some decision-making room for the permanent executive’s preferences.  In addition, there are some projects that should simply wait for the new person.  When the permanent person is hired, the interim should provide enough introductory information for them to feel welcome but not so much control that the new person feels hemmed in.  The interim can also cultivate a positive start by reassuring staff that the new person will listen and support them.  Finally, involving supervisees in the final stages of the interview process can make a significant difference in staff buy-in.

My own interim assignments are limited by proximity to my home in New England but I consult with organizations throughout the country considering an interim about how to set up and monitor the assignment. Contact me at: sbenoit@benoitconsulting.com.