What makes a great interim leader in turbulent times

Amid the continuing shockwaves of pandemic, war, economic and political turmoil it is reassuring to know that there are business leaders who positively thrive in periods of crisis and chaos.

It is more heartening still to know that their remarkable skillsets are available and at short notice. These are the Interim leaders, a critical subset of the Executive Search market, and their services have never been as relevant and coveted as in these turbulent times.

Savannah Group has an extensive network of brilliant interim leaders, from CEOs and CFOs to technology visionaries and HR powerhouses. “People who go into Interim often thrive under pressure – they like disruption and change,” says Simon Gough, Managing Partner, Savannah Group “They don’t need things to be calm and to have a stable environment. They excel amongst chaos.”

For example, Savannah was called by the private equity owner of a B2B services business shortly after a tense board meeting. The pandemic forced a new way of working on the business overnight leading to a significant drop in performance. The CEO was under pressure and had been influencing the top team to revolt against the PE owner. The mandate was to stablise the business by replacing the CEO, and then the rest of the top team within a fortnight.  The new team brought the skills and experience needed to execute operationally in the short term and set, and then deliver, a strategy for the medium term.

Businesses are facing a unique set of circumstances. This is not like the great recession of 2008, says Nick Hart, Head of Interim Private Equity and Commercial, but uncharted waters. “In 2008 it was largely financial and was almost a linear recession where everyone knew what had to happen to get through it,” he says. “But the only thing we are sure of now is that change will continue to happen. What you need is a leader who is resilient, who can roll with the punches and say ‘What are you throwing at me tomorrow?’”

An energy storage company was experiencing worryingly fast-rising fuel costs because of the war in Ukraine. The CEO, who’s background was in relatively low-change, low pressure sectors, was struggling with the level of challenge. The business needed a CEO to bring control and stability, to right-size the company for a 12-month period. They hired an interim CEO with significant experience in industrial restructuring to steer them through this tricky period.  

Today’s business leaders fret over their fracturing customer bases, loss of senior staff, supply chains breaking and systems crashing. “If you talk to a CEO or CFO in any small, medium or large business, risk is what is keeping them up at night,” says Hart.

With many companies unsure of what the future holds for them, the Interim leadership talent pool offers an immediate opportunity to “spot what the need is” by bringing in someone who is comfortable working in difficult circumstances. “People who have led through crises are used to managing under duress,” he notes. “That kind of mentality and profile lends itself to the kind of constant chaos we have seen since the end of 2019 through to today.”

Savannah Group’s Interim talent pool provides “far deeper access to a broader range of people” because it is managed by skillset not sector, says Mary Driscoll, Head of Interim HR & Operations “When there is a scarcity of talent, as there is at the moment, access to a deeper pool of candidates is more likely to satisfy your needs rather than just access to your sector.” The talent is divided by Savannah into functional specialisms; finance, technology, commercial, human resources & operations. Each network is continually extended and developed by a bespoke team.

Speed is another distinct advantage in choosing an Interim leader over a permanent appointment, says Hart. “Interims can be deployed at pace – we will typically shortlist for clients within a week, possibly quicker than that,” he says. “In the changing world we live in at the moment, a permanent person might not be deployed for three, six, nine months.”

By that time, the good Interim leader will have been able to “navigate the business through a difficult period whilst defining the strategy and resources for the long term” he says.

Better still, an Interim hire can more easily drive through transition strategies because their temporary leadership status gives them “political neutrality” within the organisation, points out Driscoll.  “They are not aligned to internal politics and so in delivering change they are less concerned with upsetting people. It helps them tackle problems quickly,” she says. “They are not thinking forward to what this means for their career in five years, they are entirely focused on delivering the project.”

Savannah’s emphasis on functional specialism enables it to transfer knowledge from one sector to another, Driscoll points out. Interim leaders who once delivered digital transition to retail companies can bring that expertise to the utilities sector, which has been slower to adapt. Gough, who identifies a similar relationship between the manufacturing 4.0 and automotive sectors, says pioneering companies “need to think about other sectors that are tangential and have gone through change – not organisations in your own sector with no experience.”

Interim leaders are by definition a stop gap but they can play a critical role in the turnaround, restructuring and growth of businesses in this period of unprecedented economic headwinds.

The best quality of an Interim is “focus”, says Hart, and the best transitional managers are those who have planned their departure from their first day in post. “You are coming into an organisation for a relatively short period of time and need to prioritise a set of objectives you can deliver,” he says.  “What makes a great Interim leader is a great exit strategy.”

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