What is the value proposition of an Interim Executive?

Interim Executive Services as defined in my ‘About‘ page is not as common in the US as it is in Europe.  On the continent, in order to practice as an interim executive, a person needs to have a certification similar to a CPA in the US.  In the US, it is still the wild west when it comes to interim executives.  A few years back, a private enterprise in NC attempted to establish a credential for interim executives but the effort failed so now it is a buyer beware market.  There are firms providing interim services but in my experience these firms do very little in terms of either training or providing oversight for their interims.  The interims are placed and they are usually on their own from that point.  This raises the question of the value proposition of an interim executive because the proposed pricing is usually higher than the hourly rate for the employee being replaced.

In my experience dealing with buyers of interim services, the first and often most heavily weighed consideration is the cost of the interim resource.  The less sophisticated the decision maker, the more likely that they will be motivated primarily if not exclusively by cost.  This is because they do not get or choose to ignore the value proposition.  This has happened to me time after time.  Each time, I held my ground and demanded a fair premium for my services.  In each case, I told my client that if they did not find value in my services, they could terminate me without cause or notice.  Once they had a chance to experience what a sophisticated interim executive could provide, the cost issue was not raised again.  A decision maker that seizes an opportunity to buy interim services at a small or no premium should be worried about what they will be getting for their money.

I am aware of interim firms that prey on executives in transition that are desperate for income.  Some of these interims will take any job at any price.  The interim firm then sells their services based on price alone and is successful getting a markup of 30% to 50% while providing a price sensitive decision maker just what they paid for.

What would rationalize a premium for a sophisticated interim executive?  There are many considerations that a decision maker should contemplate in addition or in lieu of rate.  I am making repetitive use of the adjective ‘sophisticated’ when referring to interim executives.  There are differences in the sophistication of interim executives and the decision makers that engage them.  These differences are discussed in an earlier article.

The criteria below while useful in understanding the value proposition of a sophisticated interim executive may be equally if not more valuable in evaluating potential interim resources for fit in your organization.

I would advise against hiring the first interim you see unless you have a recommendation from a source that you highly trust.  When I worked with Tatum, they made it a habit to present at least two resources on each project so that the decision maker would have the ability to see more than one alternative and make their own choice instead of letting the interim firm sell them on whoever happened to be currently sitting on their bench with nothing better to be doing at the time.

Experience – One thing worth paying a premium for is experience.  The typical interim executive is a late career individual with a lot of experience, usually in a number of organizations.  The depth and breadth of this experience allows them to assimilate quickly an organization and to begin creating value almost immediately.  This is particularly true if the interim has on-point experience, something you should always look for.

In addition to career experience, it is worth paying a premium for an interim executive with multiple interim engagements on their CV.  The approach to a position as an interim is radically different from what one would take as an employee.  It is worth paying a premium for an experienced interim unless you already have another interim in the organization that can serve as a mentor.

Credentials – In addition to being highly experienced, sophisticated interims tend to carry above average credentials.  Things like advanced degrees, CPA certifications, ACHE, HFMA  and/or fellowships.  These credentials may or may not specifically make one person better than another but the probability that a credentialed executive is going to have a higher level of cognitive capability and an innate drive toward personal excellence is a pretty safe bet.  Another consideration is that no one requires executives to seek advanced education and professional credentialing.  In a situation where everything else is equal, I will always favor a credentialed individual because the very fact that they have obtained a credential is proof of their drive to go beyond the minimum required to get by.  In my experience, credentialed executives are always superior for this reason alone.  As most of us that are credentialed know, you do actually learn something in the credentialing process that might come in handy once in a while.

Expertise – Knowing what you are doing should count for something.  I have seen more than one decision maker hire the first resource they could find that had a heart beat only to make the situation infinitely worse when the interim executive failed.  Most decision makers I have met do not know how to supervise or manage an interim executive.  For example, I would argue that most CEOs do not have the ability to manage a CFO from a technical or risk management standpoint.  I discuss this phenomenon in an earlier article.  The risk for the decision maker is that if the interim fails, the decision maker will usually be held accountable.  The interim will go on to the next gig while the decision maker that may not have been considering relocating finds himself hanging paper from home.

MentorshipSophisticated interims are invaluable in the potential they present to mentor rising executives in an organization.  A sophisticated interim executive that knows how to mentor properly can help turn younger leaders into rising stars.  In addition, interim engagements  frequently lead to demand for additional interim resources that were not anticipated at the beginning of an engagement.  In this situation, an interim that has the capability to manage and/or mentor other interims can bring a very high value to an organization.  I have engaged a number of interims while serving as an interim myself.  I can say from experience that I believe I have delivered substantial value by making sure that the other interims were doing what they are supposed to be doing.

Judgment – You have probably heard the one liner that says, “Good judgment comes from experience that we get by exercising bad judgment.”  I would argue that having the ability to bring above average experience and judgment to bear on a problem is worth paying for.  Experienced executives, especially interim executives can be expected to have better judgment than a decision maker might be accustomed to.

Stability – A transition situation is unstable by definition.  My practice has shown me that the only thing you can be certain of in a transitory situation is that you cannot be certain of anything.  Some people have difficulty dealing with unstable, unpredictable situations.  After or arguably before a decision maker initiates a transition, they should be thinking ahead about their next steps and high among them should be an effort to stabilize the situation so that a business interruption or a bad outcome may be avoided.

Morphing deals – Some people need predictability and stability in order to function effectively.  They are unnerved by constantly changing circumstances and seize up.  An experienced interim executive knows that as a project progresses, things will happen and changes will become necessary that were not initially expected.  The project morphs from one set of circumstances to another.  It is worth paying for experience that can not only help stabilize a situation but experience that can adapt to unforeseen challenges.

Easy to sever – I have seen interim engagements fail.  There is no way that I know of  to accurately predict in advance if the interim executive will be what was expected or whether or not they will be effective in your organization.  In the event that the engagement is not working, you should have the ability to have the interim replaced immediately without cause or reason.  I discuss this in my article about contracting.  If the interim deal is not working, it is highly unlikely that it will improve.  I have had to terminate an interim before the end of their second week in an organization.  In the event that something like this occurs, the sooner you act, the less the potential for damage.  The other side of this is that the issue may not be anything worse than a bad fit.  I am happy to be the easiest person in the organization to get rid of but if I am expected to bear this risk, part the premium I receive justifies me taking this risk.

Interim services firms will endeavor to mitigate this risk by asking for minimum engagement time periods.  My advice would be to pay the premium and refuse to accept a minimum term as explained in my contracting article.

Velocity – In my article about contracting, I talk about the importance of velocity as it relates to interim engagements.  Frequently, decision makers procrastinate about making a decision but once they make up their minds, they want the resource TOMORROW.  Providing this kind of flexibility is worth paying a premium for especially if the resource you want has been waiting for you to make a decision.  If you want a resource to sit around waiting for you make a decision and be at you beck and call at any time, you need to be prepared to pay a premium for this luxury.

Rapid acclimation – When I was at Tatum, the firm’s mantra was ‘Velocity.’  The connotation is that the firm focused on rapid response.  What I have learned from the stages of an interim engagement is that once a decision maker decides to bring an interim executive in, they want them tomorrow.  Part of the premium a decision maker pays is to get  an interim executive  to get to their site quickly,   Sophisticated interim executives also know how to assess a situation quickly.  This skill and experience allows them to become productive much faster than would be expected of an employee.  Decision makers tend to vacillate and procrastinate about a decision to bring in interim resources.  They should not be unhappy about paying a premium for a resource that can help them compensate for the time it took to get the interim on their site.

No benefits – An interim deal is simple from the perspective that it usually only involves the professional fee and out of pocket expenses.  Unsophisticated decision makers will compare the salary rate of the departed employee with the billing rate of the interim and conclude that the interim is expensive without taking into consideration that the employee had benefit cost somewhere in the range of 25% of their compensation.  Not having an interim executive on the organization’s benefit plan is clean and can be a cost saving aspect of the engagement.

Living and travel burden – If you don’t think an interim executive deserves a premium, try living in a hotel and traveling every week.  Not only does this create an expense that substantially adds to the cost of an interim engagement, it is very hard on the interim executive.  The longer the engagement lasts, the harder this becomes on the interim.  It is too easy for decision makers to forget the interim executive as they are going home a warm meal and the privilege of going to bed with their spouse while the interim is separated from their family, eating out and going to sleep in a cold bed.  This aspect of interim executive consulting by itself warrants a premium.  I accept that the burden of travel goes with Interim work but I wonder if the price my family and marriage have paid for me to do this work has been worth any amount of money.  I have lost my sensitively about what I ask for my services primarily be causes of the burden that the interim lifestyle places on the consultant.  I discuss this in detail in my article about becoming a an interim executive.

While I could take the position that it is not a problem of mine, I deeply resent the cost associated with being an interim executive.  Travel, food, temporary lodging and other costs associated with an interim executive is a significant proportion of the total cost of an interim resource.  It drives me crazy to pay these costs or incur them on behalf of a client.  This is one of the strongest reasons for making sure that you are getting your money’s worth from any interim you engage.

Hired independently or via a firm – My experience is showing me that there is a growing population of ‘free agent’ interim executives.  Firms that place interims will take somewhere in the range of 30% – 50% of the total professional fee for their overhead and profit.  In addition, because of what I would describe as oppressive government overreach, most if not all firms now require their interims to work on a W-2 instead of a 1099 or K-1.  This can result in the interim losing tax benefit in the best case and paying tax on out-of-pocket expenses in the worst case.  While free agent interims can be harder to find because you have to know how to network to find them, they can be less expensive because they are not taking a hair cut in a direct deal.  In my experience, a free-lance interim is likely to be much better than interims that come from firms for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article.

Summary – I could go on but I trust that as a decision maker or an interim for that matter, you can see that there is plenty of justification for a premium for interim executive services.  The premiums I have seen run 50% or more over the base salary of the executive being replaced.  If you are a decision maker, you should not be afraid of paying a premium to get superior skills and resources brought to bear quickly on complex or dangerous business problems and or transitions.  Quibbling over rate can slow down the process of getting the right resource and can prevent you from getting the best possible skill in place.  One of the most profound value propositions of an interim executive is their ability to raise the probability that the decision maker that hired them will not also become a victim of the transitions that created the need for the interim in the first place.  In my experience, decision makers routinely discount this aspect of an interim engagement’s value that is in  my opinion one of the strongest reasons for paying a premium for the right interim.

If you are an interim executive, you should not ever sell yourself short.  I took a haircut on a deal that was only supposed to last 3 months to mitigate on behalf of the firm something that I had nothing to do with.  After three months, the firm would not get my rate corrected and the engagement ended up lasting thirteen months.  I will not work with that firm again because they have demonstrated in more than one case involving me that they cannot be trusted.  As an aside, from my perspective in this case, the firm detracted significantly from its value to me while adding insignificantly to the client’s value.  If you have experience as an interim, you know that one certainty is that you are probably going into a situation that will turn out to be significantly different from what was described and invariably more challenging.  You also know that there is a very high probability that you are going to be in the organization much longer than the decision maker assumes at the onset.  In my  experience once you have proven your value, decision makers will take considerably more time getting you out than they took getting you in.  I have helped decision makers over the cost hump by reminding them that hiring me is a no risk proposition.  They can send me packing the day that they decide that the engagement is not working or that I am failing to produce more value than they expected.  I am happy to take this risk as long as I am being appropriately compensated.  I have yet to be sent packing.  In every case, I have remained much longer than initially expected or planned.  Some interim firms prey on unsophisticated executives in transition by buying them at or below what they were receiving as an employee and reselling them at a market consulting rate.  If you allow yourself to be prostituted in this manner it is your own fault.

In closing, I believe there is substantial justification for paying a premium for interim executive services.  I postulate that the time usually lost by decision makers that struggle with the decision to bring an interim in can quickly create costs and/or losses that far exceed any premium.  As I said in an earlier article, if you are a decision maker, make a decision.

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 that might be valuable to you.  I can also help with career transitions or career planning.

The easiest way to keep abreast of this blog is to become a follower.  You will be notified of all updates as they occur.  To become a follower, just click the “Following” link that usually appears as a bubble near the bottom this web page.

This is original work.  This material is copyrighted by me with reproduction prohibited without prior permission.  I note and  provide links to supporting documentation for non-original material.

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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