Strategy & Operations » Leadership & Management » The Secret FD: Interim appointment impacts long-term thinking

RECENTLY, I was faced with the unexpected and sudden departure of the excellent FD of one of my subsidiary businesses and I wanted to take the appropriate care and time to replace her, preferably from within the organisation. Unusually, I have taken the brave step of engaging an interim FD.

It was an adventure selecting an interim recruitment firm from among the well known suspects, and also from a number of specialist firms. Many of the larger firms, whilst they claim to possess deep sector knowledge, expertise and contacts – actually operate databases of thousands of candidates, many of whom are undoubtedly on everyone else’s databases.

At the opposite end of the recruiter spectrum, I was impressed to find specialist firms who work very closely with a relatively small number of interims in whom they invest considerable time and resource, and have ditched the ‘body shop’ approach. To the disgruntlement of my chums in the larger recruitment firms, I went with a specialist boutique and it has proved to be a resounding success.

Over-qualified, and over here

The successful candidate started recently and is overqualified, over-skilled, over-experienced and overpaid for this assignment. Initially I questioned his motivation and hunger for the role, but I have been proved wrong to do so. He became effective immediately (despite not receiving a handover), is totally focused on achieving results and, importantly, because he is profoundly indifferent to making any friends in the organisation he takes difficult decisions with alacrity.

In order to get things done, he repeatedly ignores the protocols of hierarchy and refuses to acknowledge the organisational silos. He is not distracted by the usual career-limiting dilemmas, claiming that his only career is that of a serial interim FD, and he plays even less of a part in politics than the average Liberal Democrat.

This makes him very effective, but rules him out as a candidate for the permanent role. Meanwhile, I am happy to reap the benefits for the organisation while they come without the baggage otherwise faced with a permanent employment contract.

I have tried in vain to understand what life must be like as an interim FD, not that they are all the same. There are turnaround specialists; experts in M&A, disposals, acquisition integration; deal supporters; transformation leaders; aspiring permanent FDs; babysitters; etc. Against the regular uncertainty of finding the next assignment, life on the road and dodging the taxman, the advantages of freedom, lucrative fees, and varied stimulating assignments appear to be very attractive to them.

From my perspective as CFO, I have invested significant time in defining the role and its objectives, limits etc, constantly calibrating the issues and priorities, and facilitating introductions to all the key players. One major challenge for me has been to ensure the interim FD is perceived by the organisation to have the appropriate authority, so I have avoided using the word ‘interim’ in any references that I make towards him, and I believe this approach has worked successfully.

The recruitment firm suggested a back end-loaded fee structure including success and completion elements. However, it is not in the DNA of my interim FD to leave this assignment before its completion, and failure is not an option that he would ever consider. I suspect this attitude is par for the course for many interims, so to invent a contingent fee structure does little more than create nugatory work for people in the more dubious of HR roles.

The interim raises the bar

One unexpected result of this phase with the interim FD has been to make the task of finding the permanent replacement more demanding, because he has caused us to be more choosy. This interim FD has accidentally raised the bar with his staff and other colleagues in my organisation, because he has brought a fresh perspective at a higher level, and constantly calls upon his experiences from other assignments in other sectors. Also, my other FDs are visibly uncomfortable that their performances are being compared to his.

I believe this situation is more good than bad, and I would be happy to engage an interim FD again…and soon. In fact, I am beginning to realise that I may have to do so!

Last month the SFD learned a great deal about transformation from Donald Brydon speaking about the Royal Mail at a dinner, and enjoyed the Capital One Cup Final at Wembley