Bridging The Brexit Gap With Interim Consulting

by Trevor Moulton

Now that the UK knows the outcome of the referendum vote, it is back to ‘business as usual’ for British industry. There is no alternative, as Article 50 has yet to be invoked and the simple truth is that nobody actually knows what the implications of Brexit will be. Meanwhile, although many companies are - through necessity - adopting a more positive outlook, an underlying air of caution prevails. Companies that rely on exports to the EU may suffer a severe blow if access to the single EU market is denied or if tough penalties are applied. Therefore, they need to strike a balance between continuing as normal and being prepared to react to a sharp downturn in fortune.

The interim solution

For many companies, employee costs represent the largest overhead. There is widespread acceptance that contractors can be engaged as a variable overhead, but fewer organizations apply this thinking to more critical executive roles.  While contractors provide delivery-focused skills and services, interim consultants provide strategic managerial expertise.

As the implications for Brexit gradually unfold, we are likely to see an increase in companies using interim consultants to keep momentum going while riding out the period of economic uncertainty. As the post Brexit commercial environment unravels, demand for interims to manage restructuring programs or transformation projects may increase. These will typically be operational roles, but interim expertise in the UK now spans a broad range of disciplines including finance, marketing, IT, HR and communications.  

Finding the right candidates

Premium interim candidates are often not available on the open market.  Finding them requires an experienced interim search firm that adopts the same approach as permanent C-level search.

Some executive search firms have an interim arm that is integrated into the business and is governed by the same operating principles. Such firms typically go to great lengths to understand their client’s business, culture and hiring requirements and to represent their brand in the market.

They tend to have extensive cross-industry and cross-geography market intelligence and a global network of referenced and vetted candidates. When sourcing candidates, they put great emphasis on quality and proven track record. Once a match has been identified, they follow the same in-depth evaluation process as they do in their sister executive search businesses.

Partnership programs

Companies that use high-end interims often have a long-standing relationship with a search partner who knows the client well and can hit the ground running when a new brief comes in. A handful of companies that rely on interim expertise now have a more sophisticated, pro-active arrangement whereby a retained search firm builds and maintains an interim talent pool designed around the client’s required competencies and experience profiles.

The onus is on readiness to provide the right talent quickly in response to rapidly evolving requirements. Properly managed, such partnership programs mitigate the risk of delays due to the absence of appropriate expertise or failure due to unqualified or inexperienced interims being hired through ‘quick fix’ routes.

Beware of RPO

Recruitment Process Outsourcing (RPO) is well suited to contract recruitment, yet some RPO service providers apply the same cost-based model to high end interim roles. It is important that clients going down the RPO route differentiate between volume suppliers of contractors and search firms providing interims. Otherwise, by driving down the price, they also drive down quality, suffocating their ability to access top interim talent. The interim search firm’s fee level has to reflect the experience of the interim, the size and complexity of the task and the quality of the service provided.

Leveraging investment in interims

Once a company has engaged a qualified search firm to find a suitable interim candidate, the chances are that they will succeed in landing someone who can excel in the position. While the best interims are not available on tap, the talent is definitely out there.  Those looking to bridge the Brexit gap via interim headhunters will not need to compromise on quality. The top end of the interim market in the UK is attracting senior corporate talent, accomplished executives who choose to pursue interim careers as a life choice and to exercise their strategic and turnaround prowess.

However, just as with permanent searches, landing the candidate is not the end of the journey. Employers need to think carefully about how to extract value from interim consultants, ensuring that when they move on from their assignment there is a lasting legacy.

To achieve that, there are a few basic rules of thumb:

1. Integrate interims into the organization

Allow interims to get close to key stakeholders and establish mutual understanding. Shared ownership and goals will help them garner vital support and can make the difference between adoption or rejection of strategic change. Interims need to work hard at building bridges but it is also incumbent upon the HR function to have an onboarding plan in place and create a climate in which interims can achieve success. Due diligence is the mother of good luck.

2. Focus on delivery of tangible change

Ensure that interims document and measure their output. As well as setting strategic direction, they should put an implementation plan or roadmap in place that can be actioned by others during and after their departure. Make sure that all key stakeholders are aligned, have bought into the plan, understand its impact and have a vested interest in its execution. The quality of expectation determines the quality of action.

3. Remember that interims are flexible

Interims are required to be impartial advisors. They are driven and resolute in getting the job done. While clients do not want to hinder their progress, they should be mindful that interims are also open minded and adaptable.  If the company is undergoing restructuring or organizational change, the brief may be subject to modification. Interims are willing to adjust goalposts, recalibrate plans and extend the duration of contracts to get the best result.

4. Encourage mentoring

Experienced interims bring immense value, so clients should capture as much of that value as they can. Empower them to be mentors, sowing seed on fertile ground by upskilling and developing the team around them. Ask them to scope out the role and required skillset of their successor. Even better, enlist their help in recruiting and coaching the successor to harvest the crop that has been planted. That way a client will continue to reap value from an interim long after the completion of an assignment.

5. Take a long term view

An interim’s tenure will span a defined period, but clients should set the horizon further. Arrange for them to come back for a series of progress meetings after their departure. This could be done as part of a steering group. For the interim, it shows commitment, belief and accountability, all of which add to their reputation. For the client, it keeps the interim’s legacy alive and kicking, increasing the chance of the investment paying dividend.  

The UK has voted and Brexit is going to happen. The positive side is that the UK regains its sovereignty, the right to decide where to invest funds raised from UK taxes and the right to control its borders. The negative side is that UK business may lose access to the EU single market. That is not certain to happen as other countries like Norway and Switzerland are not members of the EU but are still granted access, albeit with conditions attached. If the UK is cut off from the EU trade market, there will be short to medium term pain for a large slice of British industry as new trade deals with the rest of the world are established.  Adaptation and cost control will be paramount and interim consulting can form a key part of the talent solution. As well as offering a variable overhead, interims offer the compelling benefit of being adept at navigating change and are an asset to any company undergoing transformation or adaptation to a new set of rules and processes.