The project-based executive, also known as an interim executive has been around for 30+ years, having originated in the Netherlands, later expanding to the UK, the rest of Europe and finally reaching America around 2000.
The early model for interim engagements was invariably focused on turnaround and distress situations: an organization in pain would eventually decide they couldn’t solve the problem on their own, and would seek an outside resource, often through executive search firms, where the executive was never a permanent employee.
Interims have played a part since the early days of private equity funds, where fund managers would use executive search services as part and parcel of their post-acquisition ownership strategy. A fund would see big potential in a struggling company, and would realize big returns by bringing in an outside executive to turn the company around. Thus the early version of interim – interim 1.0 – was all about fixing what was broken.
The next phase in interim executive deployment launched in the US, arguably emerging out of the tech community. Look at Yahoo as the standout example. In Yahoo’s earliest days, even before the company had been incorporated, an interim CEO was responsible for taking Yahoo’s founders, Jerry Yang and David Filo, out of their trailer on the campus of Stanford University, hiring the initial management team, taking in venture capital funding from Sequoia, serving as chairman of the board during Yahoo’s IPO, and hiring the first permanent CEO, Tim Koogle.
Thus was Interim 2.0 born – the increasing use of expert interim executives to head up fast growing companies.
Philip Monego, Interim CEO of Yahoo, may not have realized he was at the vanguard of a career shift worldwide that would redefine how company owners, boards and investors would think about leadership talent.
While permanent executives were well trained to execute on long-term plans and keep the train on the tracks, a new type of leader emerged that was geared more towards working with companies during big points of change and of growth. Version 2.0 of interim leadership became an executive-as-a-service. An executive staffing solution. A type of on demand exec that could be called on individually or as a team to have maximum impact setting up a company for success.
Many dramatic examples of the power of interim executives now come from fast growing companies seeking transformation in short order.
A few years following Yahoo’s dramatic IPO, a similar example played out at cybersecurity company Websense, which grew in its first three years from zero to 20,000 enterprise customers. Cleve Adams, CEO of Websense, realized he could take the skills he’d acquired in rapidly growing teams, channel development, distribution, and partnerships, to other companies. Having grown Websense from pre-revenue to a $1 Billion IPO, Cleve then became a serial CEO, creating high growth situations in his next five engagements.
Dedicated interim executives – those executives who truly specialize in interim management – have similar stories of launching companies, spinning off divisions of larger corporations, or applying Fortune 500 training to smaller companies that all aspire to greater success.
How do interim executives produce above-market and above-average returns? It comes from both an attitude and track record that accepts higher risk. Because many permanent executives won’t make waves – won’t truly challenge their board of directors to create breakthrough products or revolutionary strategies, results tend to stay within the pack. But for fast growth companies, me-too strategies are company killers.
Some companies may be turned off by the label of project, interim or contract in front of the word executive. But ultimately with an interim, title doesn’t matter. Maybe you call them CEO or CFO. Maybe it’s Chief Experience Officer or Director of Innovation. Something showing they are the executive team’s right hand. Interims are choosy about projects because they want to make an impact. Ultimately its about the scope of the assignment and the challenge that will determine if they engage.
Fortunately for fast growing companies, the sense of purpose, excitement, and growth is gasoline poured on a fire when a success-seeking interim executive begins to consider what to take on next. When thinking about project-based resources to help a company scale, interim is not just a typical executive staffing solution. These executives are not keeping a seat warm. They are laying out a roadmap and getting the gears moving to help you achieve the growth you dream of.