Are The Days Of The Generalist HR Interim Manager Numbered?

One of the questions I am most frequently asked by Interim Managers is “How are you finding the market?” to which there is not a straightforward answer.

Much has changed in the Interim HR space over the past five to ten years that has shaped how it operates today. In my previous article, I looked at how the Interim HR recruitment process has evolved; fuelled by an overabundance of choice, lower appetite for risk (perceived or otherwise) and a different commercial model. Following that piece I wanted to look in more detail at how Interim HR Managers can capitalise on these changes to increase their desirability in the market.

Perceived Choice Changed Client Demands

Following the recession, the Interim HR market became flooded with out of work candidates seeking any port in a storm, whether the contractual type was Interim, FTC, ‘Interim to perm’ or permanent. Bluntly, HR had a clean out, but some excellent candidates within that emerged and entered the Interim market for the first time.

More choice in the market meant that clients could be more selective and specific around the type of skills and experiences they required when hiring an Interim Manager. Previously, only a few available ‘career’ HR Interim Managers would have had the skill sets and experience the client needed. Now there were many more individuals from which to choose.

Clients became less biased towards the inherent qualities of an experienced Interim Manager, critical as these may be (change focussed, objective, over-qualified, able to hit the ground running, trusted to stay the course etc). Instead, clients became equally focussed on specific experiential fit, and in particular, the combination of deep sector experience with a precise cultural match with the organisation.

Now it’s much more common and acceptable for candidates to move between Interim and permanent roles – the market is much less binary. At the same time, we have seen a rise in direct sourcing by clients through LinkedIn and through personal connections – particularly in the HR community that tends to be well networked. In short, the marketplace for all of us is more competitive than ever.

What Clients Are Looking For Now

Whether we like it or not, commercially, the days of the generalist Interim Manager are gone. Clients don’t come to Savannah with a straightforward ‘vanilla’ Interim HR requirement. Steady state, gap fill projects make up only a small percentage of what we now do. Clients come to Savannah when they have an urgent and niche requirement which calls for expert knowledge as an organisation goes through change – be that growth, restructuring/organisational redesign, M&A, downsizing etc.

In addition, confidentiality frequently plays a significant part. The role may be in a specific sector or geography, call for a particular skill set or recent experience of a similar issue. If the analogous experience isn’t recent or convincing, then the client typically won’t move forward with the hire.

From a provider perspective, that means our search and vetting process has had to evolve too. With a much larger pool of talent to draw from, locating the best available individuals is no longer solely about relying on a portfolio of the best career Interim Managers in the HR space. Instead, an expansive process, more akin to a rapid executive search is needed. We identify the closest match available candidates in the whole HR market at a specific point in time, selecting and validating these people. Clients work with us because we make a judgment and selection based on a knowledge of that relevant available HR market – and quickly.

How Should An HR Interim Manager Position Themselves?

From a candidate perspective, my advice is to find your niche (your ‘spike’ and area of real demonstrable strength). HR change professionals must be seen to be adding quantifiable business value in a critical area to justify their cost. Fine tune those strengths and market them with confidence.

Nigel Turner is an experienced interim HRD having led transformation projects for Argos, Royal Mail and Northern Rock. Nigel explains that businesses are now far less picky about where the talent contribution comes from, and in a crowded market you have to stand out and be adaptable. “There’s a spectrum of fluid, high-value labour in the marketplace. If you have your spike, the opportunities come along less frequently, so to maintain a commercial edge means using the gap between big interim pieces of work to work the speaker circuits, develop your network, and take on select pieces of strategic consulting.”

By doing this, Nigel continues to develop the relationships, specific skills and knowledge that helps him to secure the work that he specialises in and has built up a track record of delivering – transforming big, well-resourced, complex organisations.

David Billingham is an Interim HR and Change director who has held both board level positions and led major change initiatives for Capita, Serco and IMI. From being both client side and interim side, David believes that nowadays, technical supremacy is taken for granted, and clients are looking for individuals who can hit the ground running. This means:

Being able to understand and navigate the top team processes in order to influence and affect change
Being able to work horizontally and vertically across the organisation to understand the issues
Being able to grab a team and ensure it is aligned and delivering
Being able to work strategically and operationally to deliver.
Interim managers need to be able to evidence those attributes alongside technical proficiency if they are going to position themselves as able to deliver the greatest client value.

The Interim Market Is Just As Demanding As The Permanent Market

The Interim market is often wrongly perceived by the candidate community as an opportunity to easily move in to new sectors or sub functions. The reality is that the client market is now every bit as demanding for Interim hires as for permanent. Interim is certainly not something you drop into while you wait for your next permanent role.

Clients are increasingly sophisticated and have usually worked with senior Interim Managers many times before. They have an understanding of what ‘good’ looks like. Our most successful candidates know their niche and appreciate that roles in their ‘sweet spot’ may only come around a few times a year- but when they do their chances of serious consideration are high. These candidates have a strong track record of success which is backed up with testimonials.

Is There No Place For A Generalist HR Interim Manager?

Nigel commented that most senior HR leaders have a broad range of experiences, having held executive positions for a number of years. This can, in turn, make them seem like a generalist.

Julie Smith is Managing Director of Metamize – an Executive coaching, business and HR consultancy. Julie has experience as both an Interim HRD and as a hiring manager for Interim HR positions, and believes there is still a role for interim generalists but increasingly this is limited to SMEs.

In larger organisations, Julie points out, most HR functions have typically followed an Ulrich model with centres of excellence, business partners and operational HR people. When an interim role arises, it will likely be for a project where particular expertise will be sought rather than generalist capabilities.

Operational cover roles such as maternity cover for a year do come onto the interim market, and those are the types of roles that generalists will be best positioned for. Broad experience is a good thing, but for the bigger, more complex and more lucrative roles, having defined capabilities and experiences in a particular area is what most clients are looking for.

First Time Interim Managers

If you are considering Interim Management for the first time, my advice is to be aware of the new dynamic and demands of the HR Interim world and use peers and trusted advisors to help you refine what your ‘spike’ is as it will help you tremendously when speaking to Interim Management providers.

We are looking for individuals with the right attitude, approach and experiences; in those circumstances we shortlist these people, regardless of whether they have delivered an Interim assignment before. Locating the very best person in the market for the client’s situation remains our aim and having a strong permanent Executive Search arm to our business gives us excellent visibility of such candidates.

Julie recommends that when you start up independently you need to think about what your focus will be. “The temptation is to be as much of a generalist as possible in order to be approachable for a wide range of roles and therefore secure paid work. If you want to truly utilise your expertise however, it’s worth focusing on what you enjoy doing and have the experience and expertise to demonstrate your capability in that specific area”. For Julie, that’s about working strategically at a senior level, and bringing her international experience of both start-ups and restructuring to defined projects regardless of sector or size.

David adds that engaging with the provider base is also vital in order to help them in the shaping and crystallising of client thinking. This shifts the buyer/seller relationship towards partners with a shared interest in business development rather than a transactional one. Over time, this approach favours the interims who have a long term interest in building their own capital in a succession of successful client engagements.

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