I have interviewed many interim managers over the last ten years and the energy from candidates with strong leadership skills stands out a mile. I’ve often wondered how I can quantify this, and essentially, what makes an outstanding interim leader? As a sector what should we use as our guide to determine best fit for an executive level interim role? Theoretically there should be a role and organisation for everyone, but what leadership behaviours can we identify that make interim managers stand out from the crowd within the context of today’s requirements and what do exceptional interim leaders of the future look like?
Before the changes to the IR35 legislation in April 2017, the demand for an interim manager was often driven by the client’s need to engage an independent individual who would be seen as very separate to the organisation. This individual would not get embroiled in internal politics, would be able to offer a fresh perspective and bring with them a wealth of knowledge and experiences from previous assignments and different organisations. This type of interim manager would be expected to ‘hit the ground running’, to increase capacity, to drive change and transformation, or to take on the difficult task of breaking through old legacy issues that once done, the interim can leave without long-term worries around rebuilding potentially damaged internal relationships. The value of technical capability and background was often prioritised over generic corporate leadership skills.
This ‘traditional’ blueprint of an interim manager still exists and is still relied upon in organisations across the country; however, at the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and Senior Managers (Solace) we have witnessed a new breed of interim leader evolving. This next generation is born from the relaxation of restrictions which were necessary to enable interim contracts to fall out of scope of IR35. Now that many director-level interim posts in the public sector are deemed employed for tax purposes, there is no longer the requirement to ensure interim managers are not seen as an integral part of the organisation.
As a result, over the last 18 months we have seen a real move towards roles where the interim will be very much part of the corporate management team and as such would be required to be a good ‘fit’ in terms of the culture, values and journey of the organisation.
A corporate director from a northern unitary recently confided that she feels interims must understand the journey the council is on as this will be unique to each authority. She feels that ‘The right individual should be invested in the journey and truly commit to the council’s long term goals’, believing that ‘interims should now look beyond their current remit, taking a more holistic view of the impact that they will have on the wider organisation’.
Further to ensuring a good ‘fit’ with the organisation and the senior team, there is an increase in demand for strong collaboration and partnering skills. It is expected, now more than ever, that interims must navigate their way through the ‘growing complexity of the stakeholder world’*.
Margaret Heffernan (an author, serial entrepreneur and CEO) has commented that ‘leaders of tomorrow need to be brilliant collaborators and brilliant impresarios that spot and create partnering and crosshatching possibilities with other agencies’. Interim directors, in this sense, are no different to directors in a substantive post.
At Solace we are currently developing a CPD framework for local government leaders that will set out the core leadership and management behaviours, valued by our organisations and those we work with. The framework will continue to underpin our leadership support offer including our flagship national programmes Springboard, Total Leadership and Ignite. These skillsets will serve both interims and permanent local government leaders well and enable them to work in times of increasing complexity and ambiguity. Interims of today need to be flexible and adaptable for the 21st century, even if their experience and wisdom has been developed well before then.
In our conversations at the Local Government Association conference two weeks ago, one chief executive reinforced this view. He feels that external relationships need to be fostered over a long period of time and so for this reason he wouldn’t bring an interim in specifically to build partnerships externally, but he feels the skillset is needed across the board. For him ‘leadership is all about building personal relationships based on trust’.
In senior roles the significance of good corporate leadership skills is often now placed at a higher value than an individual’s technical aptitude. Leadership development has spent ‘too long on skills and knowledge and not enough time on shifting mindsets’*.
The ability to engage, motivate and build teams and organisations which are successful is the priority. This is why at Solace we focus on developing leaders at all levels, as we know top down heroic leadership is no longer what’s needed in our sector. One chief executive from an east of England district council commented that she is now pushing technical responsibilities further down the structure. Another director from a northern-based unitary believes many councils are rethinking the need for technical expertise within corporate leadership teams. The areas she feels are more critical are leadership style, driving change and the softer facilitation skills.
In response to this further focus on ‘fit’ we have also observed a change in the recruitment process for interim managers of this type. it is no longer solely about assessing experience and track record, but can take up to three stages, often with both officer and member involvement. This again confirms the changing nature of the role of an interim within local authorities.
Regardless of the client’s remit for ‘traditional’ interim leaders or the new breed of interim leader, it is critical they work with the organisation to create a sustainable legacy that will continue to thrive and grow once they’ve gone. It will be interesting to track how the client’s expectations of what they require from an interim manager, will shape and influence the skillset of interim managers going forward and how as recruiters we will respond to these emerging requirements.
Gemma Stevenson-Coupe is an assistant consultant at Solace in Business
*Tomorrow’s Leadership and the Necessary Revolution in Today’s Leadership Development (2017) – Peter Hawkins