Diversity, globalisation and integrity: the evolution of the interim industry

When I started out in the interim industry around 25 years ago, it was a notably different environment. Businesses were much more focused around rigid structures and roles, where an interim was usually required to fill a gap caused by a death or a firing!

The typical interim was also much more narrowly defined: almost always a white male in their 40s or 50s. Placing a candidate was entirely about their skills and qualifications, with minimal attention on sector-specific knowledge or experience.

Many interims were victims of ageism in the workplace – forced into being self employed, often after redundancy, yet able to offer their substantial skills as a stopgap.

A remarkable journey

Over time, interims have moved from being seen as tactical substitutions to a strategic necessity – and it’s been fascinating to be a part of this journey.

Today, interims are integral to major business transformations, financial recoveries and delivery of projects worth multimillions. They’re typically aged from 30 up to 75, are increasingly women and their ethnic diversity is increasing all the time.

The nature of interim assignments has expanded vastly too. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the majority of contract and interim work was in certain professional disciplines such as finance, legal, senior management and, increasingly, IT.

There are now interims in almost every discipline you can imagine, including change management, customer insight, data science and digital transformation. Importantly, too, the companies that hire them today are often multinationals.

The shrinking globe

The business world has become much more closely connected and it is easier than ever for companies to expand outside their country of origin. Technology obviously plays a key part in this, but there are clear cultural influences too. Successful interims today have experience of working across many international territories.

As a result, there are many more factors that influence whether an interim will be the right match for a client and their assignment. They need not just skills and sector knowledge, but also cultural exposure and flexibility to adapt to different requirements.

Languages are increasingly important, along with the ability and appetite for regular business travel and irregular working hours.

Key traits in top interims

Interestingly, though, the most successful interims in the early days have many attributes in common with those I work with today. Of course skills, experience and aptitudes are essential, but there are some transcending characteristics that are equally important.

One is enthusiasm. To deliver a successful assignment you need to have a genuine interest in a company, its challenges and opportunities and the desire to make a difference. It’s not uncommon in discussions about a potential interim assignment for the candidate to ask more questions than the client!

Another is the desire for self-improvement. The best interims seek advice from others on how to approach a certain challenge and make sure they are well informed about the latest moves and trends in their sector. They see every assignment as an opportunity to learn and develop, as well as delivering on the client’s expectations.

Finally, a fundamental asset is to have strong instinct. Reading a situation and responding accordingly is a subtle skill, but can spell the difference between success and failure. In some cases, the instinct can be to walk away – an enormously challenging decision, but one that I have seen proved right on many occasions.

The pace of business change is ever accelerating, and I thoroughly enjoy the unexpected twists and turns along the way. It’s good, too, to see that while the specific skills and insights may change, the proven attitudes, strengths and traits for success do not.

Malcolm Alexander joined Russam GMS as Associate Director in April 2018, bringing 25 years’ experience of interim management. He established Interregna in 1998 to supply senior interim managers and directors, both in the UK and overseas, following several years as a successful interim manager specialising in turnaround situations and the restructuring of companies experiencing major change.

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