One of your key Directors has resigned. Your immediate instinct might be to replace them as soon as possible with a permanent appointment, particularly if it is an area crucial to the ongoing health and stability of the organisation. And let’s be frank – the very best situation is to have a team of excellent permanent staff in key positions, giving you excellent advice and doing an outstanding job. Even where you have an interim post, that must be the long-term aim. It’s not always immediately achievable.
Vacancies give you an opportunity to stop and think, and to probe into an area that you won’t get once you have filled that post. When might it be the right time to pause, and use interim resource to analyse and keep the show on the road?
1. When you want to investigate a problem
Bringing in a permanent appointment, who might be new to the HE sector, to undertake an analysis of the problems and take tough decisions can be a great learning process, but is extremely difficult to achieve. New appointments don’t always understand the wider context of HE, or the circumstances of the department they are now in charge of. They want to impress their senior leadership by making quick decisions and changes that may not be right for the longer term, but they will also be very careful about making enemies. HE has a long record of shifting difficult decisions to other areas and delaying them – very few people came into HE to fire people or take on significant change management, and that area can be very tough.
An experienced interim appointment, who has the credibility of having seen and done all of this before, can make bold decisions without fear of what it means for their future standing and relationships. They bring wider sector knowledge and can openly analyse a problem without fear of political ramifications. They might be able to give you the answers you want where you know there is a problem, but can’t quite see what’s causing it.
2. When there is a shortage of talent
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever been given is “better a vacancy than an idiot”. That’s a pretty blunt way of putting the issue, but we have all been in interview situations where we are tempted to appoint the “least bad” candidate. The area is important to you, you need someone in that post, and things are falling through the cracks while there is a vacancy. But in areas where there is a shortage of talent, this can lead to making appointment errors just to fill a post.
An interim will give you time to make a good decision, and go back to the market if you aren’t happy with the shortlist.
3. When the vacancy is sudden
It might be that you have an excellent person running a brilliant department, but they have to depart rapidly for a whole host of personal reasons. You might therefore need someone to start fairly immediately, and interim can give you the option to bring someone in within weeks, rather than months.
But isn’t acting up a better way to cover a gap?
Acting up into a role can be an excellent opportunity for team members to show their worth, and take on a “long interview” for the role they are acting into. It can be particularly effective if they are supported with mentoring and coaching, but it certainly isn’t always the best option.
Firstly, you need a clear candidate who can do the role in order to have someone acting up. If you have no-one, or if you have several people, the task is much harder. By choosing only one of a group of hopefuls to act up, you may be giving an unfair advantage, and also setting expectations that may not be met. Hiring a strategic interim can help to get the best out of the team below them, who want to impress their leadership, without handing the role to one of them to sink or swim by.
What type of interim work do you need?
There are many firms who offer to link you to interim managers and leaders. At Halpin, we believe an interim position should be part of a wider consulting team, so that you can get access to the very best advice when you need it. Your interim might be in Finance, but you can also call on the advice or former COOs, Vice-Chancellors and Directors of other professional areas to get the precise advice you need. If you have difficult problems to grapple with and solve, we would love to help you.
Shaun Horan is Joint CEO of Halpin, a management consultancy designed specifically for the higher education sector.