How Interim Executives are Driving Growth and Transformation
On May 29th Jason Peetsma – Managing Director of Odgers Interim – moderated a panel discussion hosted by Toronto Region Board of Trade on the Future of Talent. The focus was on how North American organizations are increasingly using on-demand executives to drive innovation, develop scale-up strategies and streamline operations, to gain a competitive edge.
Panelists Kristen McAlister (Co-Owner, Cerius Executives), Steve Attridge (CFO, Mastronardi Produce) and interim executive Michael Gagnier (an expert in technology & disruption) joined Jason to discuss how these executive movers and shakers are uniquely positioned to help drive growth in our current business environment.
The Evolving Demand for Interim Executives
Today’s talent wars are fiercer than ever, influenced by globalization, demographics, digital disruption and some of the lowest unemployment rates North America has seen in 40 years. In fact, employers have reported the highest global talent shortage since 2007 and all these factors are contributing to a dramatic shift in how organizations are looking at their executive recruitment, addressing their most critical business needs with creative talent solutions.
Rather than defining long-term roles to be filled, many companies are parceling out high-priority projects to senior short-term hires with specialized skill sets and deep functional expertise. These independent executives are tasked with quickly acclimatizing to the organization, analyzing the most urgent challenges that may be holding the business back from growth, as well as helping to position companies to innovate and grow.
Kristen McAlister of Cerius Executives - which offers clients customized interim executive solutions - has seen a wide variety of business sizes benefit from the skills and expertise of interim executives. She’s seen scale-ups grow with coaching from CEO advisors, and blue-chip companies who’ve outgrown their operations and opted to bring in experienced part-time directors to put better processes in place. She also shared a story about a Fortune 50 company who went through a split and brought in an interim CMO to run the subsidiary for 3-months to put a strategy in place that spanned the transition and set up the new business for success.
The demand for Michael Gagnier's services as a seasoned interim IT executive over the past fifteen years has been fueled by growing organizational needs for technological transformation to increase efficiency and innovate customer experience.
"Many industries are heavily underinvested in technology and are getting caught off guard by disruption in their market." He often sees that internal talent, particularly on the IT team, is too busy running day-to-day operations (and may not have the skills) to tackle a large-scale technology implementation.
This has driven demand for external senior talent to drive change: from assessing the needs to highlighting the existing challenges, to running the transformation. "There are very few industries these days who aren't impacted by change," Michael continued "Either they're high-growth, they're trying to protect themselves from disruption, or they're going down the wrong path and trying to figure out how to change their model.”
As the CFO of a company who has been leveraging interim executives to triple growth rates over the past six years, Steve Attridge couldn't agree more. "We were underinvested in talent and it was impeding growth. We lacked the operational infrastructure and the right leadership to make progress, but we weren’t prepared to slow the company down as we built that”.
He continued to explain that building the right expertise in key functional areas such as HR and Technology has enabled his company to hire ahead of the growth curve. For example, under the direction of an experienced interim executive, one of his functional teams has progressed from understanding the basics to taking a much broader perspective. He also noted that it's become much easier to recruit higher-caliber junior team members on a permanent basis because they are drawn to the experience and reputation of the interim executive.
Why work with Interim Executives?
Extra horsepower to drive short-term projects
“It’s impossible for my clients to predict where their business will be 6 months from now. How can they know what talent they’ll need?” said Kristen. She emphasized that three to five-year plans are a thing of the past, and that this pace of change has created a strong case to bring in short-term senior expertise to tackle urgent challenges on a project basis. She explained that interim executives can also be instrumental in determining the talent needs for their permanent successors.
Proven expertise when the stakes are high
Michael spoke to the need for senior leadership when emergencies come up – from pivoting to win against a new competitor, to implementing new security measures. "It's worth bringing in senior talent when you need to find and fix fires as quickly as possible." Interim executives who have tackled similar situations know what to look out for, and can reset the organization with a roadmap for the future. These fixers, builders and change-makers are not necessarily looking for permanent positions or interested in maintaining business as usual, but prefer taking on high-intensity, change-management projects on shorter timelines. Kristen added that leveraging interim executives to put out fires when the business is in a transitional period will both set up future permanent hires for success and improve the attractiveness of the opportunity to potential candidates for the long-term role.
Try before you buy
From Steve’s perspective, interim executive contracts offer appealingly lower risk than full-time; namely the flexibility to swiftly end the engagement if the relationship doesn’t work out. “Out of four interim executives we’ve brought into our company, one of our hires ended up not being a great fit. While terminating an employee is never a great experience, this was easier for both parties with an interim contract”. On the plus side, bringing senior talent in this capacity offers the opportunity to “try before you buy” if the organization decides that they’d like to offer the interim a full-time position.
What skills are required to be a successful Interim Executive?
"Like any executive search, fit is the top priority" shared Steve. He also emphasized the need to find individuals who can hit the ground running, quickly assess the situation, develop relationships with key stakeholders and start delivering value in 30 days or less.
From her many years of recruiting experience, Kristen shared that her team can identify a great interim executive candidate in about twenty minutes. Here’s what they look for:
Interim management isn’t about learning on the job. It’s crucial to identify if they’ve tackled this type of situation over, and over, again. Ideally, interim executives are coming into your organization to bring you up to speed, not for you to bring them up to speed.
Sense of urgency
Interim executives need to recognize the urgency required to achieve results quickly. In our business environment, 18-24 months is too long to build momentum. They need to be able to speak to what they accomplish in one month, even two weeks.
Return on investment
If an interim executive has run multiple projects, they should be able to demonstrate the return on investment of similar assignments. If an executive team is investing in their expertise, they will want to see the numbers.
Is this the future of talent?
There is no question that organizations have been changing their approach to talent. Rather than keeping functions siloed, barriers are coming down, and cross-functional teams are coming together to tackle interdisciplinary projects. The timeframe for achieving results is getting shorter and shorter, and the demand for high-caliber expertise on a short-term basis will only grow. The panel agreed that all of this will continue to drive the demand for interim executives who can step in and get fast results.
Kristen’s advice to companies looking to hire interim executives: take the time to really think through the nature of the business challenge you’re trying to solve, not the role you think you need to fill. Then identify the kind of expertise you need to drive the KPIs that matter most. This will ensure you bring in an executive who is best suited to deliver the results you’re after.
Rene Vierling, Chief Marketing Officer at Toronto Region Board of Trade addresses the crowd and introduces the panel.
Jason Peetsma moderates the panel discussion.
Kristen McAlister speaks during the panel discussion.
Michael Gagnier makes a point during the discussion next to the other panelists.
From left to right: Michael Gagnier, Kristen McAlister, Steve Attridge and Jason Peetsma.