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A temp in the corner office? It’s more common than you think
By Wallace Immen
Featured in The Globe and Mail
When his international employer wound down its operations in Canada last year, Nick DiRenzo hoped to find a permanent senior executive role with another company.
So he was skeptical when he was asked by national recruiting firm Odgers Berndtson whether he would serve as an interim executive on a six-month contract for a company that was searching for a permanent hire.
“I’m not wired to be a free agent. I like going in to a role with a five-year time frame,” Mr. DiRenzo said.
But serving as interim vice-president of personal banking at Alterna Savings Credit Union Ltd. in Toronto was a good fit with his skills and experience. And he turned out to be a good fit for Alterna. His contract was extended to 12 months, and last month he was offered the job permanently, which he accepted.
“Taking on an interim assignment as a way to get into an organization and find opportunities is a heck of a lot better than sending out résumés and pounding the pavement,” Mr. DiRenzo said.
He is one among many senior executives whose temporary assignments become permanent.
“About 40 per cent of interim placements end up getting hired on in a full-time permanent position with a client,” said Frances Randle, Toronto-based managing director of the interim management practice of Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions.
Knightsbridge’s international roster of executives ready to work on interim contracts has swelled to 10,000, up 40 per cent since 2008 when the global financial crisis spurred many companies to downsize their staff.
About 60 per cent of Knightsbridge’s clients are older executives who do not want to retire but are reluctant to make another long-term commitment to senior management, Ms. Randle said.
The rest are managers who hope to parlay their interim experience into a full-time job, or those who prefer the flexibility and variety that short-term assignments can provide.
Human resources and finance are the most in-demand functions for interim assignments, said Sheila Hamilton, managing principal of the Osborne Group, a Toronto recruiter that pioneered interim staffing for mid-level executives nearly 20 years ago.
In the past three years, the big growth has been in the demand for C-suite executives, she said.
“Five years ago, companies were reluctant to open up their secrets to someone who is only going to be on the job for a few months.
But there is a faster turnover at the top executive posts, and they are more willing to bring in someone on a shorter term who has the experience in that role,” Ms. Hamilton said.
The demand for temporary executives is the result of a “perfect storm” hitting organizations large and small, said Jane Matthews, president of Toronto-based Odgers Interim Canada, a specialized practice that Odgers Berndtson created two years ago.
As executives in the baby-boom generation reach retirement age, the pool of younger managers ready to replace them is smaller. At the same time, employers are becoming more specific about what they are looking for in new hires, she explained.
That means the search for replacements at senior levels can drag on for months. “Even if the company has the staff to cover for a protracted vacancy, the risk of having someone take on [too many] tasks in their spare time is growing as business becomes more complex and fast-paced,” Ms. Matthews said.
That was the situation facing Alterna Savings when a senior vice-president of personal banking decided to leave after only a few months on the job.
“We had to decide whether to leave the position open while doing another executive search, which at that level could take four to six months. I didn’t feel we could wait that long, ” recalled Josette Gauthier, Alterna’s senior vice-president of human resources.
A call to Odgers Berndtson, which she had used for other executive searches, brought a choice of 10 experienced, qualified candidates. Two weeks later, Mr. DiRenzo was on the job.
It became a cram course for Mr. DiRenzo, who was aware of the challenges of parachuting into a role. “I knew employers expect interim hires to start having an impact from the day they start,” he recalled. “I spoke with the senior management team and the team that was going to be reporting to me. They were assessing me as much as I was assessing them.”
Mr. DiRenzo found four factors that are key to success as an interim manager:
1. Be a quick study:
“Make the company comfortable that you know the challenges facing the company and have priorities – in people products, reporting and strategy.”
2. Get team buy-in:
“Meet all the senior managers and your reports before you start. If you’re meeting resistance, you’re going to have immediate problems.”
3. Aim for quick wins:
Identify major issues that have to be dealt with immediately and start taking action on your priorities in the first week on the job.
4. Know yourself:
“You need to have confidence that you will succeed, and take on the role as though it were permanent.”
Advice from a hired gun
Who: Ian McKinnon, 58
Current position: Interim CEO the Canadian Association of Chain Drug Stores in Toronto; the six-month term started in April.
Last permanent role: CEO of software company Certicom Corp., 2002 to 2007.
Previous interim roles: Eight months as CEO of another software company and six months as CEO of a technology firm.
Advice: “You have to go in to the interview with the same enthusiasm and due diligence … as if you were taking a permanent CEO position.”
Lessons learned: Being an expert on subject matter isn’t as essential as strategic expertise. But you need enough of a crash course on the industry to be able to get involved in conversations that can uncover areas that need your attention.