From my earliest days in the consulting business, I have really liked project-based work. And I’ve become pretty decent at it!
Give me a 15-week IT strategy or a 6-week program assessment or even a 10-day rapid due diligence, and my colleagues and I will put our heads together to produce fantastic results that offer strong recommendations and a clear plan of action forward for our clients.
And I still love that work. But mixed in among those deliverable-based projects we are seeing an increase in demand for senior folks who would be willing to stick around longer. Much longer.
Clients are asking us if some of our more tenured advisors would be willing to accept interim executive roles for an extended period. And given the right match of role and talent, we are happy to oblige.
Drivers of Demand for Interim Leadership
We see a few trends affecting demand for these services:
1) The labor market is tight right now for leadership roles.
Our current historic unemployment level in the US (under 4%) is typically a good thing macroeconomically, but that also means one’s ability to source the perfect candidate for an executive role can be constrained.
You’re fishing in a smaller pond.
Not only are clients faced with a small talent pool, but a successful search process also takes an average of 90 days. This 3-month window to hire a replacement can stretch to 6 months before any relief is truly achieved depending on terms reached with a candidate and the length of any non-compete, transition, and onboarding.
2) Companies haven’t stopped taking on transformational programs
There will always be technology platforms that need modernization. There will always be company acquisitions or mergers to execute. And there will always be that new major product taken to market globally.
Sometimes it’s difficult for a company to temporarily reassign an executive to programs like these. It’s a high-risk, high-reward proposition. For example, if the acquisition falls through, will your old job still be there? Once the platform is migrated or product launched, are you sure there’s another one on its heels?
3) Fast-growing companies need to test the waters of an expanded C-suite.
Sure, everyone has their CEO, COO, CIO, and CFO. But fancy a Chief Revenue Officer, a Chief Innovation Officer, a Chief Product Officer? Overall employment of top executives is projected to grow 6 percent from 2021 to 2023, and our observation is that some of that growth is due to expansion in these new executive roles.
The Chief Sales Officer role may find value in adding a Chief Revenue Officer role to care for the entire revenue management life cycle. The COO may need to shift their focus to back-office and production, leaving front office and customer-facing services to be handled by a Chief Customer Officer role.
That leadership growth ripples down to VP and Director roles, as well, and taking on these newer roles can come with risk for both company and colleague.
4) Family leave policies have become more generous
A senior executive for a global payments company reached out to Further because a VP of Commercial Payments was taking parental leave for six months, and she asked if we had anyone who might be a good fit and interested in the interim role.
Indeed, we had someone who was perfect, and she effectively served in that role, delivering on the day-to-day responsibilities and even leading, coaching, and mentoring client employees working for her.
This is becoming more common as companies – especially in the US – adopt more generous leave policies.
Beyond just family reasons, leaves of absence and sabbaticals overall are expected to increase over 40% in 2023 from last year, for reasons such as caring for a loved one, burnout or mental health needs, and sick-related requests.
Enter the Interim Executive
Sourcing a capable interim leader is often the right solution for any of the above demand drivers.
There are advisory firms with talented practitioners who are used to working in the context of a project – a start date, end date, clear objectives, and known resource constraints of time, budget, and expertise.
Sharing my own experience… During one engagement, I was brought in as the “Director of Business Systems” (an innocuous title if ever there was) under the direction of the COO to get multiple failing projects back on track.
Efforts included implementation of a scaled Agile framework and an improved operating model, with solid delineation of individual and team responsibilities. Together with the client, we articulated the traits of a more permanent CIO who would move the IT and shared service functions forward, we conducted the executive search, and we concluded my engagement with the transition and onboarding of a new CIO.
What to Look for in an Interim Leader
With no expectation of longevity in a position of power, an interim leader who can bring these traits can be the right choice:
- A fast and interactive learner: They are able to quickly learn and meld with the organization, its priorities, and its people to provide solid traction toward progress based on common understanding. Actively sharing with others during interactions provides the opportunities to validate what’s learned and build relationships based on mutual understanding of how each other thinks. This is a critical trust-building trait.
- An empathetic ear. It’s important to be a team player, and a big part of that is applying empathy to every client and stakeholder interaction. Relationships must be cultivated that are supportive of others and sends the clear message, “I understand, and I am here to lighten your burden.”
- Ability to advance the cause. It’s less common, but sometimes an interim leader is brought in as caretaker to just keep things going and not rock the boat until the permanent role is filled. This could be the case for filling a gap left behind by the successful leader on leave with full expectation of return. More often, the interim leader is brought in to be a catalyst for a significant change or keep one or more key initiatives moving. Regardless of priorities assigned, the interim leader must be able to focus on advancing the agenda of the client, minimizing delays, creatively solving immediate-term problems, and continue executing.
- An outside perspective. If you have ever used consulting services, one of the most valuable traits good consultants bring to the table is new perspective based on years of experience doing the very thing you’re asking them to do.
- Accountability. Interim leaders must eliminate any perception by others that there’s no need to be accountable for decisions made and actions taken. There’s no value in communicating, “Hey, I’m just a temp.” The willingness to be accountable is an inherent trait of any effective leader, but for the interim leader, it’s even more important. That may sound counter-intuitive, but the best interim leaders know that credibility is the key to a long and fruitful consulting career.
The Bottom Line
If you can find the right person for the job internally, fantastic!
But if you can’t, the interim executive path can be a successful strategy. The keys to success are to establish clarity for why the interim role is being filled, finding the right interim leader, and quickly moving forward.
And for the consultant, just call it an “extended project,” and it’ll all make sense.
Jeff Catalina contributed to this article.
As part of our Leadership and Execution service offering, Further Advisory provides companies with access to senior advisors, seasoned program managers, former executives, and industry thought leaders for consideration in interim executive leadership roles. Whether the role is in support of the business, operations, or technology — or the intersection of all three — our consultants help make strategy become a reality.