Scanning someone’s career history, what does it mean when you see the word acting in a title?
The language around interim executives, executives who specialize in growing, transforming and turning around companies can be tricky as executives in the specialty don’t always identify themselves with the same language. But in some cases acting can be another indicator that you have found an interim.
Consider your audience: is the executive being presented to the board of directors, the company at large, or to the general public?
When it comes to public companies, the language is precise and if an executive has temporarily stepped in while a permanent search takes place, they will be described as interim or acting. Things get confusing because public companies often appoint board members to this interim or acting role who serve as more of a baby sitter or placeholder. Beware that this is not the same thing as a career interim who can be identified by their career history taking on high impact engagement after engagement, helping cause companies to grow or turnaround.
The far larger use of interim executives is in private companies worldwide, whether for profit or nonprofit.
Bill Merchantz, founder of Lakeview Technology, has done pretty well. His first company went public after he exited and his second sold to a big PE fund. But he told me he had one regret in forming a company – he wished he’d had a formal board of directors early on.
An active board filled with diverse skillsets can save an entrepreneur from himself.
Successful entrepreneurs forming a company have to master the paradox of being both stubborn and thick-skinned while simultaneously listening and being open to change. The best vehicle for that sounding board is a board, so why don’t more entrepreneurs create a brain trust?
The overriding, ever present recurring theme of PE fund managers is dealflow. What keeps a PE fund manager up at night? Dealflow. What gets a them up in the morning? More deals. What drives them to stay connected and answer the phone while on vacation? That would be more deals.
And dealflow’s brother is price. As dealflow becomes more pressured and harder to come by, prices of companies go up. And seemingly everything gets shopped since fund after fund are grabbing for the same opportunities.
Proprietary access to deals is the holy grail. Into this challenge, how does a professional investor win, if you can’t even get to the start line?
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.
Many owners and boards are new to the game of hiring an executive specializing in interim management.
As the gig economy has gained momentum, more companies are drawing on executive level resources for specific growth initiatives or to help troubleshoot inefficiencies or problems. Interims come in on a project basis as contractors, therefore not adding to permanent overhead.
Because the majority of companies have never written a contract for an interim, they draw on what they know – the playbook for searching and hiring a full-time exec.
Yet, interim management and permanent employment are two different worlds.
Private equity funds or venture capital funds get one use of their dollar. Just one. Fund managers have a sacred charge of evaluating opportunities and investing the funds they’ve been entrusted with by their limited partners in hopes of maximum returns.
We view deploying executives into companies in a similar way: we get one chance to make a great match, one chance to deploy the executive to best advantage. Like finding a great investment opportunity, deploying interims is a timing game. We must catch an executive during the brief period of time they are in between assignments assessing the next opportunity they want to take on.
So how do we best deploy genius leadership when we only get one chance every day to maximize everyone’s time, unique skillset and results? We start by being selective about the clients we work with.
The concept of an Interim Executive Director (ED) isn’t well known in the nonprofit arena…yet. But, it’s becoming more mainstream and for many good business reasons.
Did you know? On average, it takes a Board of Directors 9 months to recruit a new Executive Director. By the time they are on-boarded and contributing, a year may have passed since the departure of their prior leader. While Board members may step up to “mind the gap”, the truth is that employees, partners and funders can lose confidence in your organization during this leadership transition and key employees may leave. Just organizing payroll, developing a budget and/or supervising the employees may keep the lights on, but without professional leadership, your organization can be harmed and stymied while the Board should be focused on finding your next leader.
Interim, acting, project, contract, fractional. The array of titles can make your head spin, but they all point to a specialized type of executive that companies call on when they are going through transformation. So let’s break it down:
Interim Executive: Interim executives typically engage for 1 month to 2 years. This title can cover a lot of use cases, but in all cases, the company needs some kind of change or upgrade. The organization may have a leadership gap. Maybe they are not sure if they are on the right track, and they need an executive to create an operational roadmap and then execute and implement to ramp up growth. Maybe its technology or security issues; or an effective leader to reposition the company, update brand and build out a best-practices sales team to bring them into the new digital era. In all cases, executives across the C-suite can be drawn on for these types of assignments: CEO, CFO, COO, CIO, CMO, CSO.
Acting Executive: Acting executive is another word for interim, though typically points to a time frame where an executive is stepping into a role for a short time while the permanent search takes place.
Most HR execs have been trained to look for candidates who have a track record sticking with companies for long periods of time. For many companies going through upheaval, rapid growth, or dramatic changes in their markets, that long-term permanent employee mindset may actually be more detrimental. When a company must evolve quickly, an executive hired on full-time may not be the right leader nine months or a year down the road.
The speed at which companies move in today’s world to stay relevant has paved the way for the new specialty of interim management, which includes executives focused on operations to finance, technology, sales and marketing. Interims are skilled operators who run, build, grow, and fix businesses. They take on accountability in C-level roles making decisions, reporting to the board, and being held responsible for the results.
Unlike executives who choose long-term, permanent jobs, interims are wired for transformation and usually are called in when companies need a leadership boost to get them on the right path. Once an interim brings an organization, division, or department to a better state of affairs, that new-found clarity and direction gives the HR team a cleaner slate by which to recruit and hire the next permanent person in the role.
In the Computerworld article “The latest in IT services? CIO hired guns“, Robert Jordan, CEO of the Association of Interim Executives explained to Computerworld that interim executives are responsible for “hiring, firing and making decisions”.
Thank you to RED Team members, Damon Neth and Dean Samuels, who also provided great insights. Dean Samuels, Interim CIO, said “This is exactly what the future is. We’ve gone from an IT asset portfolio to an IT service portfolio. So if IT has transformed into a services portfolio, why wouldn’t you get an IT service-oriented CIO as a service?”
Interim CIO, Damon Neth explained the honesty that comes with interim executives adding “I have no problem selling unpopular messages if I believe that they’re right for the organization or addressing the elephant in the room.”