Three reasons why interim leaders can help HR drive change out of a crisis 

Interim leaders can be stabilising and create confidence about a new era after problematic times, says New Street Consulting Group's director

Following a series of leadership departures and absences, the Post Office has decided to make short-term hires in key positions. Why?

The organisation has chosen to appoint interims in its chief operating officer and chief financial officer roles, which follows the recent selection of a new chair on a 12-month contract.

Leadership changes are being ushered in as the Post Office recovers from a series of crises. Hard-hitting findings and verdicts continue to be delivered in the ongoing public inquiry into the Horizon IT scandal. The organisation’s CEO has also faced allegations of bullying from a member of staff, which he refuted and was recently cleared of during an investigation by an independent barrister.

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Messages from the Post Office are that it is in transition and is focused on changing its culture and rebuilding trust. Taking this, and the scale of the headline-grabbing problems the organisation has faced into account, it would have been understandable for new, permanent leadership hires to be made during such a crisis. There’s the view that long-term hires demonstrate commitment to change. They can prove stabilising and create confidence about a new era after problematic times. So, why have interim hires being made?

There are three key reasons for this.

1) Interims prioritise problem solving  

Interim hires are well suited to resolving issues and crises because they have a unique freedom to prioritise the problems at hand. They will be tasked with a specific brief or challenge, and this becomes their sole professional purpose. In many organisations, there will be team dynamics, structures, progression plans and conventional ways of working that are crucial to creating a climate of success. During a crisis, these factors can, inadvertently, impact the decision-making and actions of permanent employees who may be worried about issues affecting their careers. Interims can operate outside of these concerns. They can act in the interests of truly solving a problem, instead of choices and actions being tempered by any fears about their prospects in an organisation.   

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Success and satisfaction for interims is driven by their ability to fulfil a brief and deliver long-term, sustainable change. Projects will be broken down into logical segments, with a clearly defined and timed path plotted from problem to solution. This involves HR teams from the outset, with consideration given to engaging employees to understand how wider issues have impacted them.

Interims will work closely with teams to get to the root cause of a crisis and to determine the most effective ways of taking people on a journey of recovery. Fixing problems will be tough, and transformation can be challenging. Interims share an appreciation of this with HR, and create change management strategies that are practical and palatable for workforces who may be sceptical and fatigued because of previous problems.  

2) Interims are conditioned to thrive in high-pressure environments

Data from the Institute of Interim Management shows that the average interim has spent 9.5 years working in such a capacity, with the average length of each assignment lasting around 10 months. They are professionals who have transitioned to a new way of working, which has equipped them with an eclectic wealth of knowledge, insight and experience.

The very nature of short-term roles and projects focused on troubleshooting builds resilience in interims. It also strengthens their assertiveness and confidence, and, just as importantly, their adaptability. Interims can quickly read a room and dissect a situation to present solutions in an authoritative and engaging manner. They acclimatise to different working environments to constructively contribute to solving issues.

Dealing with complex problems is an interim’s bread and butter and is second nature to them. They are less likely to be fazed by crisis situations and can maintain a methodical way of working that avoids oversights to implement effective changes. Interim professionals will draw on learnings from across a multitude of sectors, workplace cultures and challenging tasks to bring fresh thinking when time is of the essence, and all other solutions have come up short. This will be delivered with a measured calm, which isn’t compromised by the noise and pressure created by a crisis.  

3) Interims are objective and independent

HR and leadership teams value interims for their impartiality. Interim professionals coming into an organisation will approach tasks free from the bias and confines that can naturally exist in any workplace. In many cases, they will be ‘parachuted in’ when challenges are stretching teams beyond capacity. The usual problem-solving abilities of permanent employees can be clouded, leaving solutions and change seemingly out of reach. Interims bring fresh resource and an outsider’s perspective that’s independent and objective and driven by what should be possible. Their strategic thinking isn’t restricted by familiar ways of doing things that are ingrained in the fabric of day-to-day processes and practices.

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An interim is goal-oriented, which starts with their full understanding of a project’s desired outcomes. They work backwards from this, plotting timescales and key milestones for evaluating performance and progress. An important element of this involves the quick wins and immediate resolutions needed to start turning a crisis around. However, near-term actions are grounded in long-term thinking which will far exceed an interim’s tenure.

Well-experienced interims have the ability to drive transformation and start laying solid foundations for a permanent successor to build on. They solve problems and create time for HR teams and other key stakeholders to properly understand why a crisis occurred in the first place and to determine the leadership attributes they truly need of a long-term hire.

By Gavin Wingfield, director – head of private sector at people advisory business, New Street Consulting Group