Types of interim executives and types of clients

I have run into too many people in healthcare administration that believe that executives are interchangeable.   To them, getting a CFO or other executive is like going to the store and buying a tool.  One is as good as another.  Sadly, many of these folks look at interim executives the same way.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  A frequent cause of executive ‘failure’ is not that the executive did not have appropriate skills and experience.  The problem was that either the skill and experience match was not correct or the cultural fit was not right .

People have different reasons for going into the interim business and some of them have nothing to do with getting the best result for the firms they serve.  Similarly, decision makers and the organizations they represent often do not consider their own state of sophistication and have no idea how to get the best from an interim executive.  All too often, they are looking to get a warm body into a role ASAP.

When I was doing my dissertation research (RAS Dissertation 130530), I came across an article written by Goss and Bridson titled Understanding Interim Management.  Among other things, this article lays out the varying levels of interims and organizations.  When there is a mismatch between the interim and organization, the engagement is likely to fail to reach its potential to provide maximum value.   I have not seen an organization put this kind of thought into the selection of an interim executive.

Supply Side characteristics of the individual     Demand side organizational requirements  
Type of Interim Motive Capability   Need Role
Simple Route to a permanent job Operational and supervisory competencies Instrumental stopgap Managerial temp
Formal Best present option High level functional specialism Functional stopgap Applied consultant
Sophisticated Commitment to interim management career Strategic, entrepreneurial competencies and executive experience Transitional stopgap Transformational leader

One of the first questions this table raises from the perspective of an organization is what kind of interim are you looking for?  The sophistication of the interim and organization increases as they move down the table.  Two of the three types of interims are not really interim executives.  They are people that are looking for something to do or extra money as they seek a ‘permanent’ job.  Some of them are motivated to use the interim engagement as a means of bypassing the typical retained search processes that accompany executive transitions.  This is one reason why some recruiters do not like interim executives.  It is not because they do not appreciate the potential of an interim to add value to their mutual client but some of them have seen their searches disrupted by an interim that was angling for the job instead of properly supporting the transition.

The phenomena of an interim becoming an employee is more common than many people think.  This occurs in spite of the fact that there may not be intention on either side of getting into an employment relationship at the beginning of the interim engagement.  In the business, an interim that becomes an employee is typically described as a conversion (to employment).  When I worked with Tatum, we were told that the firm experienced a 25% – 30% conversion rate.  I looked into this issue as a part of my dissertation research.  Of my respondent decision makers, 35.9% have hired an interim executive.  Of this group, 45.5% have considered hiring their last interim executive and 34.7% of them were successful.  In other words, when a decision maker decided to try to hire their interim, they were successful in getting the interim to convert 76.3% of the time.  Had I known this in advance, I would have asked some questions designed to assess the sophistication of the decision maker to see if it made a difference in their tendency to try to convert their interim.

I understand the tendency of an interim to be solicited for employment.  It has happened to me on nearly every one of my engagements.  I selected interim executive services as a career for a number of reasons that in my mind make it preferable in my personal situation to employment.  This and other characteristics of how I approach an interim engagement meet the criteria of a sophisticated interim executive and my services to the organizations I serve are typically strategic and transformational.  In a future blog, I will address the topic of evolution of an interim executive engagement.

The table above shows that it is more likely than not that the interim you are considering is in a transition is either either using the interim engagement as a route to a permanent job or having nothing better to do at the moment.  This is a big problem for the engaging organization from my perspective.  If the interim is looking for the permanent job in your organization, they will not be objective and independent.  Every decision they make will be weighted on the scale of the degree to which engaging in a potentially difficult situation will affect their candidacy as a permanent employee.  If this is not the case, they could be using you as a safe harbor while they continue their search for a ‘real’ job.  Most of these types of interims are too dim to realize that no job is ‘permanent.’  The primary difference between an interim and and an employee is how they are paid.  Not only that, I consider it theft to be working on anything other Thant the engagement when I am on my client’s clock.  It is the mindset that goes along with the interim service that determines how much value an organization gets from the interim’s service.

To get the best from an interim, they should fall into the sophisticated category.  I uniformly recommend that organizations do not put their interims into their searches.  If an interim is interested in the job, they should compete for the job on the same basis and with the same handicaps as all other applicants.  They should not be trying to leverage their role to gain an advantage in a search.   I advise my clients that putting an employee into an interim role then ‘running’ them for the permanent job also results in sub-optimization of the role and its potential to benefit the organization.  In my opinion, an interim executive that is also a candidate for the position they are filling is conflicted by definition.  I would not take advantage of interim service as a means to get a job and I will not tolerate it if I am a decision maker on an interim assignment.  I do not think that is fair or honorable to the client, especially if the client is unsophisticated and not likely to recognize the conflict.

It is not hard to assess the level of sophistication of an interim.  Look at their track record and ask questions that are designed to gain insight into their personal plans and aspirations.  It should be easy to figure out how sophisticated your interim prospect is.  Similarly, if you are a true interim executive, make sure your client is sophisticated enough to use your services effectively.  If all they are looking for is a warm body to keep a chair occupied, you run a risk of being frustrated with your inability to address obvious problems in an organization.

Please feel free to contact me to discuss any questions or observations you might have about these blogs or interim executive services in general.  As the only practicing Interim Executive that has done a dissertation on Interim Executive Services in healthcare in the US, I might have an idea or two you would find value in.  I can also help with career transitions or career planning.
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If you would like to discuss any of this content or ask questions, I may be reached at ras2@me.com. I look forward to engaging in productive discussion with anyone that is a practicing interim executive or a decision maker with experience engaging interim executives in healthcare.

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