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Should Your Next Job be an Interim Executive Role?

By Marji McClure, CareerSmart Advisor

For most executives in transition, the end goal is landing a new full-time position in their industry. But many are starting to find that short-term (or interim) assignments are a viable career option that can provide the salary and work experience they need as they continue their quest for a permanent placement.

Still more prominent in Europe, interim posts are increasingly gaining traction in the US with both organizations and executives for a variety of reasons.

Executive search firms, which bring hiring companies and job-seeking executives together, are also benefitting from this interest in interim executive positions. According to data from ExecuNet’s Executive Job Market Intelligence Report (EJMIR), those firms supplemented their recruiting business with a 36 percent increase in interim executive placements in 2009. They are certainly seeing an increase in candidates interested in and available for such placements.

For both companies and executives, interim positions yield many benefits, as they are a viable way in which business operations and careers can move forward without the risks associated with permanent staffing.

“I have seen a significant trend in companies using interim executives and professionals to meet a short-term need,” says Peter Rosen, president of Atlanta-based HR Strategies & Solutions. “There is a very large pool of very talented people who are not working and are willing to do this. There is also a new breed of talent who have chosen this path as their new career.”

In addition, company business plans used to span five years, says Vince Papi, principal of Executive Smarts LLC, while those plans today are much shorter — just one or two years long. By bringing in an interim project manager, companies can more easily change gears after a year or two, if necessary.

Interim assignments are being used in companies to fill director-level and above positions, and they can be used to manage specific projects or even fill needs created by acquisitions. “Some companies are looking at projects that might be a year or two in length, and they need some help on the team,” says Papi. “They realize that after a year or two, they might not have a place for these people. So interim makes sense. You don’t have the cost of recruiting, moving them and a [severance] package if they have to terminate them a year or two down the road.”

Who Accepts Interim Posts?

While many executives who seek interim positions today are individuals in transition seeking a new opportunity, some are more financially secure and in the later stages of their career — and are instead only seeking a leadership challenge. “Some executives are doing this because they don’t have other career options, and some are choosing to take this route because they find it stimulating, rewarding and enjoy the flexibility,” says Rosen.

“The typical interim executive is sensibly overqualified,” adds Papi. “They’re coming into a situation where they’re working as an interim at a level below they were in the full-time world. They’ve got a lot of expertise, so they can ramp-up pretty quickly and hit the ground running. Unlike consultants who come in and make recommendations, the interim will also follow through on the recommendations for project completion.” Yet, one ExecuNet member recognized that changes in the marketplace meant a change in her career strategy was necessary, and she opted for interim work. “The market was terrible, and I was fairly confident that healthcare IT vendors were not going to be investing in marketing and product management executives during such uncertain times,” says ExecuNet member Carrie Bauman, who served as an interim director of new product development. “Since my husband was laid off too, it made business sense for our family for me to take an interim role even though it meant more travel than I was comfortable with.”

For ExecuNet member Mike Wichelns, an interim assignment didn’t represent a major change in career strategy, since he was accustomed to project work as a consultant. “My consulting plate was not too ‘full’ at the time, and they were willing to pay me well for my services,” explains Wichelns, who worked as an interim president and general manager. “I just viewed the interim position like any other consulting project. So having it last just three to five months did not seem that out of the ordinary for me.”

How Interim Positions Work

The typical interim assignment can last from nine months to a year, but some can even last two or three years. Companies sometimes begin with a short contract to ensure they are pleased with the executive’s work. Once they are, they are more apt to extend that interim contract.

ExecuNet member Jerry Happel says three of his interim posts lasted five years, 10 years and five years, respectively. “My fourth interim CEO position was supposed to be for three to four months and it lasted 12 months.”

Wichelns’ role was projected to last about three months, but was extended to five months — enough time to meet the objectives of the work. “Toward the end of five months, I recommended shutting down that office and moving the functions to another location in the Northeast,” he explains. “That strategy was approved by the owner, and I facilitated the shut down and move.”

Interim assignments require a formal contract among all parties: between the interim executive and a firm like Papi’s, as well as one between Papi’s company and the client company, which hires the executive. The executive and the company then agree on the deliverables and outcomes the relationship is expected to yield. Salary is discussed at this point. If the interim assignment is not in an executive’s local area, he can usually expect to be compensated for living expenses.

Executives agree that adhering to tight deadlines — typical of interim work — can be challenging, yet rewarding.

“A lot of interim managers tell me that an interim assignment is like drinking through a fire hose,” says Papi. “It’s usually extremely fast-paced, long hours.”

While the prospect of a steady (if short-lived) income is enticing, some executives are concerned about how an interim assignment will look on their résumé. “There may be some prospective employers who may look negatively on such a short tenure if they don’t understand the interim nature of the assignment,” says Wichelns.

But experts say not having a gap in employment history is more important. “Most interims will use that experience to show companies that they’ve been able to learn new skills or give them additional skills to make them much more valuable to the new organization,” says Papi.

Yielding All the Benefits

But circumstances can create a full-time post. “There have been assignments where the company didn’t intend to hire the interim, but the chemistry was so great and good things happened with the business,” and the company decided to hire the executive full-time, says Papi, noting that scenario occurs about 10 percent of the time.

Time and Travel Still Main Concerns Executives need to understand that interim executive positions oftentimes require a temporary relocation (sometimes within the US, sometimes across the globe). “If someone wants to do interim work, they’ve got to recognize it could mean they’re going to be away from home,” he says. “They’re probably going to have to travel for some assignments. So they’ve got to be prepared for that.” But Happel notes employers will usually pay for executives to visit their homes once or twice a month.

Nonetheless, time management — especially when still seeking a full-time post — can be a true challenge. “It cuts into the time you can spend job hunting,” says Bauman. “This means less family time and/or less sleep if you want to keep looking while you’re in an interim assignment. Any travel needed will further diminish your available time to look.”

Still, the benefits of interim employment seem to outweigh the drawbacks, ExecuNet members agree. “If the right opportunity presents itself, definitely consider an interim assignment,” suggests Bauman. “Even if it’s not perfect, it’s not forever. You can do most anything for three to six months.”

“If it was possible to stay steadily employed, I would enjoy doing these types of assignments on a permanent basis in lieu of a regular long-term assignment,” adds Wichelns. “There is a special adrenaline rush that comes from taking on these types of assignments and virtually no opportunity to ever feel stale or stagnant.” I

Some of the benefits of an interim position are:

• The ability to continue a search while making income.

• Minimizing your employment gaps.

• Staying connected with current events and people.

• Becoming familiar with a new marketplace.

• Having the luxury of previewing a company.

Building their skill set as well as their network through an interim assignment can prove invaluable to executives as they continue their career journey. These assignments may be temporary, but their effects can be long lasting.

“It filled (what could have been) a large gap in my résumé until the market started to recover and HIT vendors began hiring once again,” says Bauman. “I ended up landing an even better position with a very large HIT vendor, and it was good to expand my skills and network during the transition.”

Transitioning to Full-Time

Sometimes, interim positions can lead to full-time work with the employer. But executives shouldn’t expect such an outcome when they accept an interim post.

“Most companies would prefer an interim who is not looking for a full-time job,” says Papi. “There are multiple reasons. When an interim comes into an organization, he or she doesn’t have to play the politics of the organization. If an interim starts to look for a job within the corporation, it may cloud their judgment. It’s much cleaner if they’re not looking.”

“The best way to approach these interim roles from the executive’s perspective is to look at it as an interim role and not a path to the offer,” advises Rosen. “It’s easy to take your eye off the ball if you are looking too far out.”

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