Economic effectiveness: how an interim manager can help

Interim managers have the intuition and strategy to help businesses realise their goals even in times of economic conservatism

 
Author: David Pillinger
January 20, 2014

According to certain economic indicators, Europe could be creeping out of recession. Throughout the continent the media has become more confident and entrepreneurs speak more bullishly about investment.

More importantly, the money to finance such investment is beginning to crawl its way towards economically worthwhile projects from the vaults of lenders where it has festered for years.

Things are still slow compared to the good old days, but we are comforted by the knowledge that, although crashes come overnight, recovery creeps back slowly. It’s a matter of confidence. If recovery isn’t officially here yet, we are now talking ourselves into it, and it will be here soon.

Preparing for the unknown
At the outset of the crisis I offered my thoughts as a professional in corporate troubleshooting and interim management, to companies facing the onset of a world economic slowdown.

These thoughts focused on the critical and difficult actions companies needed to take: selling off or closing down low margin businesses, slimming the profit and loss account to hack out those “nice to have” expenses that had built up and were easily ignored during the good times, and concentrating on core activities in which the company had a comparative advantage over others.

In the end, the key differentiator of many of the companies that successfully rode out the recession was the ability to re-engineer their strategic outlook with the key purpose of surviving, and, if possible, protecting profitability.

[T]he key differentiator of many of the companies that successfully rode out the recession was the ability to re-engineer their strategic outlook with the key purpose of surviving

For many it was a distant philosophy from the one of perpetually enriching shareholder value through growth and improved profitability, which had formed the conventional wisdom before the crisis.

As companies now consider the prospect of an improving economic environment, that drive for increasing shareholder value is back on the agenda. If it never left the agenda, at least now it seems an achievable goal.

Managers are looking at strategic adjustments, acquisitions, and entering new markets with existing and new products. The “in limbo” years of survival are over and the return of focus on enhancing shareholder value is back.

Management is being challenged to make the most of the new order in the knowledge that the first mover will often gain the advantage. There are, however, three key problems many companies will encounter in getting to the starting blocks to manage these complex new challenges.

Companies may have people who are competent at the tasks required, but they are usually busy on their day-to-day jobs and are not able to apply themselves diligently to the specific tasks that require undivided attention.

Some companies struggle where a number may have people who know what needs to be done, but have not had prior experience in that area. This makes implementation slower, riskier and a successful outcome less certain.

Over time, companies may have developed accepted wisdoms whose justification is dubious, and whose authority is rarely challenged. It is difficult to dispel these from within.

Outsourcing professional assistance
This is where the Interim Manager can come in and add a new dimension, as this person is not an ordinary temporary worker used to fill a casual vacancy. It is someone who can become central to a company’s push for innovation, growth and investment; providing management, for a limited period, with the oxygen needed to cope with major new projects and change, while allowing them to carry on running the business.

They are professionals who dedicate their career to the provision of relevant services to business and normally come in at middle to senior management level. Interim Managers are widely available nowadays, and can be located through networks as well as through executive search agencies with dedicated departments.

A recent assignment

Cross-border acquisitions and mergers are always complex. Unfamiliarity with a foreign business environment, the potential for misunderstandings, and simply missing culturally different nuances, explain why so many internationally negotiated deals are never as attractive as first envisaged.

I was recently appointed by a group to work, initially, alongside an overstretched CFO in the process of assessing an overseas company for acquisition. The work culminated in my taking full responsibility for managing the business case analysis, the financial, commercial and legal due diligence, and negotiating the purchase price and key contractual terms and conditions.

The acquisition went ahead successfully at a price and with prospects that were generally considered to be beneficial to the buyer. My client’s knowledge that I had successfully managed such projects previously, that I had international negotiation experience and spoke the language of the vendors, allowed them to entrust the project largely to me.

The overstretched CFO ended up being less stretched, and I am now being asked to assist in certain aspects of the integration process into the mother group. One task often leads to another.

Before a company decides to hire an Interim Manager, it will have assessed the value of the additional expense of bringing such an individual onto the team. Interim Managers will tend to cost more than an equivalent level employee, although the cost will be much more flexible.

The company will also need to overcome the risk of a bad cultural fit, so that the manager can integrate and carry existing employees with him or her to a successful completion of the project.

This will require a series of meetings or interviews with different candidates, rather as in the hire of a full-time employee. So what are the key traits of an Interim Manager and how can he or she help companies avert the problems referred to above? The Interim Manager is a business leader, usually with considerable experience in corporate environments, who appreciates the goals of top management and is often able to work alongside them and manage large and complex projects.

They have expertise; can be left to their own devices and do not need to be supervised closely. This frees up company management to get on with running the company, and may avoid the need to hire an eventually more expensive long-term employee.

The Interim Manager is usually asked to carry out tasks they have dealt with before, with no requirement for on-the-job learning and has experience of navigating the pitfalls that disrupt or delay so many projects taken on by inexperienced teams.

It is key that they are independent and come to the job with an open disposition, an absence of pre-conceptions, history, allegiances, favours owed or owing, and are able to search for long-term alliances.

These traits allow the Interim Manager to avoid the politics and “treading on eggshells” that often mire organisations and prevent the right decisions being taken, for fear of going against a fashion or longstanding wisdoms (the so-called “sacred cows”).

Connecting for greater fluidity
Additional to these traits, there is an aspect of using an Interim Manager that many overlook and which transcends all others in the quest for effectiveness. It permits a level of fluidity to decision-making and action that is often difficult to achieve within companies.

The Interim Manager is usually hired with one particular objective or task in mind and he or she will be utterly focused on ensuring its successful completion. It is this last aspect, when combined with the wealth of experience and independence offered, that will make the use of Interim Managers so important in tackling strategically important projects when economic recovery arrives.

It is a certainty that the recovery will come, just as, proverbially, death and taxation cannot be avoided. Companies should already be thinking about aligning resources and selecting their external advisors.

The advice of an Interim Manager can even help companies manage their taxation. Maybe not avoid it, but certainly manage it better, which is worth considering.