Giving away the trade secrets – 7 things you need to know as an interim

Being an interim isn't just like having a permanent job for a short while - there's a whole set of skills and behaviours to learn and adopt

If you are thinking about becoming an interim manager then you need to attack it like owning a business. After all that's exactly what you will be doing.

Sure you won't have stock on the shelves or a load of employees working in a factory. In fact most of the time it will just be you on your lonesome doing what you do. But it's a business nonetheless and you'll need to get up to speed with real world skills sooner rather than later.

I've been an interim manager for almost two decades now and I've learnt a few things along the way.

In the early days it was by trial and error and stealing a few tricks from the other interims I met. It was hard going but it worked and now I'm passing on some more of the trade secrets so that future interim managers can get a head start.

Now this isn't a complete list and it's not in any particular order (although it's roughly in chronological order) but it will give you a good start on your journey. 

  1. understand yourself - before you even think about taking an interim role you need to be brutally honest about your own personality. If you hate uncertainty, hate change and get worried by financial instability then you are going to struggle. Most of the time I have been unemployed on Monday and working the week after and at the end of the contract I've not been certain I'm going to finish until I'm walking out of the door*. If you think you won't be able to handle that kind of uncertainty then don't even try the interim lifestyle.
  2. learn the company quick - as an interim you are there to do a job so you don't get the luxury of spending the next three months finding out about the business. In fact in one company I worked for there was an accountant who'd been there 5 years and hadn't bothered to speak to any of the operations people.** You need to get in,understand what the company does, how it does it and what makes it tick. It doesn't really matter what you are doing whether it be statutory accounts, management accounting or a systems project, that deep understanding of what is important will make your work so much easier and of infinitely better quality.
  3. lose the attitude - nobody cares that you were like a god at the last place you worked. Nobody cares that you were at one of the big practices and nobody cares that you knew Oracle backwards in your last role. All they care about is that you can do the job and do it well. This can be great if you were a dick at the last place you worked because you can reinvent yourself but it can be a bit of a pain if you are a lovely lovely person (like me***) because you have to prove yourself all over again. I love that. See point 1.
  4. learn to ask smart stupid questions - Part of this comes from point 1 and 3. You have to not worry about asking basic questions and you have to learn the company quickly. So you need to ask what look like stupid questions that are actually pin point accurate in terms of what the company does, how it does it and what is important. Similarly you need to be able to ask why people do what they do in a non-threatening way. Check out six sigma and the way it reduces waste for an example. I guarantee that most finance teams produce at least one report that takes ages, has a deadline and that nobody reads.
  5. find the guru - there's always one. The guru may well not be in a high position in the company (in fact they probably won't be) but they will know everything because they've been there years. More importantly they will be able to give you accurate answers to your smart stupid questions without bias. Buy this person coffee and cake regularly because they will save you time and headaches.
  6. track your progress and publicise your results - really really important for people who are working on a change project. So can you remember the last time you had toothache? It really hurt a lot didn't it? But now you think it wasn't so bad. Humans are great at re-writing the past. So your commissioning manager will have a massive pain point that is causing them sleepless nights and the moment you fix it they will begin to forget how bad the pain actually was. Make sure you write up an 'as is' report at the start of the project and then report on all of your successes as you go along . Do it cumulatively so that by the end of the gig your manager has a clear sight of just how bad it was and what a difference you have made. Marketing is everything.
  7. manage upwards - we've probably all been in a job where we have a demanding manager who doesn't understand how difficult or risky a job is. Or we have a boss who won't sign stuff off, misses meetings, doesn't communicate etc. Well I'm afraid that as an interim part of your job is to make sure things get done and not have a cry in the toilets if your guvner hasn't authorised everyone's timesheets. Learning to manage upwards is one of the key skill you need to get in place. It's so important that I may even write another blog piece on it!

If you are an interim or if you are thinking of becoming one then I hope this has been of some help.

If you are an experienced interim and have other points you think are useful then please do comment. Be aware that I may steal you ideas though!


*I was once given a card by my team on the day I was due to leave and then immediately approached by an FD of another company in the group who asked if he could have a quick word. It led to another three months at the same company working for a different boss.

** This goes to point 1. You need to be a pretty outgoing person as an interim and not lock yourself away in an office and not speak to people.

*** and modest too!

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