A professional interim? That’s just a temp isn’t it?

If you are thinking about employing someone to complete a specific project or to steady the ship for a while then you may be considering employing an interim manager. But many people think that an interim is simply a posh name for a temp.

In fact there are a whole series of skills and attributes that an experienced and successful interim will bring to the table that make an interim professional much more of a value add proposition.

The first skill that you’ll probably see when you meet up with an interim is the ability to produce clarity. It’s likely that the first evidence of this will be before the assignment even begins as a good professional interim will want to examine exactly what you want to achieve from their appointment.

It may feel a little like you are being grilled but it’s all in a good cause. Being able to put some clarity around what it is that you actually want and what would be best for your business will make it much more likely that you’ll achieve a successful outcome.

The second attribute visible will be honesty.

This may sound a bit odd, because we usually expect that our hires in general and our financial specialists will be honest but I’m talking about a specific type of honesty here.

If the role looks like a non-starter then a good professional interim will tell you so. They will have plenty of experience and will be able to tell whether you are being unrealistic or not.

A great interim is probably identified as much by the roles they don’t take as the ones they do.

They’ll be honest about the skills they have and whether they think they can achieve what you want, they’ll be honest about whether you are being unrealistic with budget, timescale or outcomes and they’ll be honest about the resources that will be needed.

Again this may seem brutal, but the plain fact is that everyone needs to be on the same page from the start otherwise there will be upset along the way and there’s no benefit in an interim telling you that something can be done when it plainly can’t. It may give you a nice warm feeling but in the long run it will end in tears.

A great interim manager will have superb analytical skills. They’ll be able to tell very quickly where the problems are and what the skill levels of the employees are like.

An interim manager is most likely to be a high level, seasoned executive. They are not the sort of person to turn up with a host of problems and expect you to solve them. A great interim will come to you with a clear explanation of the issue but they’ll also have a selection of solutions for you to choose from. These will either be methods they’ve seen work elsewhere in their career or they will be solutions that they’ve worked up specifically for your business.

That having been said it is likely that you’ll only get to see the major problems that need addressing at a high level. An experienced interim manager is ‘fire and forget’. You can give them a task to complete and they’ll do so with the minimum of handholding or management, only coming to you or the board when they have something that requires further input.

One of the key attributes of a successful interim is their ability with soft skills.

An interim doesn’t have a long time to work out who is who and then build relationships. Instead they will be able to understand people’s places in the organisation very quickly and will then form effective business relationships very quickly indeed.

Communication is often crucial to the success of a short term role. Being able to effectively communicate at all levels of the organisation means that the interim is able to obtain accurate information quickly, analyse and then disseminate to the right people in the right way.

Building a great team, even if it is an informal one is another key skill that a superb interim has mastered. The experienced interim manager understands that they are just one person and consequently they won’t be able to do everything themselves. Instead they are able to bring colleagues along and leverage their specific knowledge and resources to achieve things that one person alone could not manage.

Starting and leaving a job every six months or so can be an emotionally difficult concept, as can the highs and lows of a project type role. An experienced interim has seen this all before and tends to be emotionally stable and resilient so that they are able to take the ’slings and arrows’ with good humour and a sense of perspective. Many people assume that their interim will get upset at the end of a contract but this isn’t the case. It’s just something that the interim accepts as part of their way of life.

A typical interim executive will be completely goal oriented. They’ll have built their career on achieving what the client needs quickly and effectively. Indeed their future roles depend on their track record, so getting a great result for you is all important to them. Having someone who isn’t thinking about their career in your organisation or the politics of the firm but instead are totally focused on the task in hand is incredibly powerful.

Finally your interim manager will bring the skills needed to complete whatever task you have set them but they will also bring vast knowledge of other companies and sectors allowing them to add value to other parts of your organisation. In fact executives often find that their interim becomes more of a sounding board for ideas as time goes on.

Hiring an experienced professional interim manager can be amazingly powerful for a business that needs to complete a project or is in a period of change. The skills that they carry with them and the knowledge that they bring to bear allows them to add significant value to their clients.

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

Business recovery through liquidation

It may seem counter intuitive, but one of the best ways to ensure recovery of a distressed business is to go through a quick liquidation process.

Whilst winding up a limited company means the end of the legal entity that is the company this is no reason to think that the actual business of the firm needs to stop. In fact it is a more common occurrence than people think for a business to close but for the trading style, brand and assets of the firm to continue.

If we imagine a very healthy company that has been saddled with historical debts but has a profitable trading business, it makes sense that the ‘good’ business is separated from the ‘bad’ allowing the new company to flourish and provide jobs in the future. Eliminating a firm simply due to some bad decisions that may have been taken years before or by people no longer with the firm seems irrational.

This makes sense when viewed from the point of view of the employees of course as they are able to continue in their jobs but with the knowledge that they have the security of a healthy and flourishing business behind them.

It is often the case that a business may be essentially profitable at an operational level but may be saddled with very high interest payments on legacy debt, may be tied in to a very large contract that has ceased to be profitable or to a lease on premises that are costly and no longer meet its needs. In these cases the day to day profitability will be eroded by the legacy issues and the firm may find itself facing Administration.

By taking quick action the directors could ensure that the legal entity that is the company is wound up in a structured and professional way by a licenced insolvency practitioner, and a new ‘phoenix’ company (newco) is formed which buys the assets and the good business from the old.

The old company retains those aspects of the bad business and is liquidated with any remaining cash and of course the proceeds of the sale to the ‘newco’. Using this structured and managed way to close a limited company ensures that maximum value is retained for the creditors.

Again it may seem that this presents a rather unattractive proposition for creditors however the alternative is even less palatable. Let’s imagine the same company carrying on as long as it can. Before long the interest or lease payments take their toll and the firms’ bills start to take longer and longer to pay. Eventually the directors lose the battle and the company is faced with insolvency but any reasonable chance of saving the trading company is lost along with any remaining value for the now larger list of creditors. The employees also suffer as the firm then closes down with loss of jobs as a result.

A managed liquidation of a company is also better for the directors. Opting for a quick liquidation is cheaper than waiting until it is forced upon them by bankruptcy. The chances of accusations of wrongful trading through insolvency are reduced and the directors can then be free to get on with managing the newco secure in the knowledge that they have done their legal duty .

Restructuring a limited company in this way ensures that the brand and trading styles of a business can be retained. It means that the firm is still able to serve its customers and given that it should now be a profitable and cash positive company may well mean that it is able to expand and grow. All of which means that a restructured firm that was to all intents and purposes failing now becomes a valuable asset to society providing jobs and of course taxation income for the economy.

Liquidation isn’t right for every company and there are other ways the firms can restructure. There are also clearly costs and legal implications so we’d always advocate that specialist advice is taken from a licenced Insolvency Practitioner before making any decisions. However liquidation in the right circumstances can prove to be good for the directors, employees, creditors and customers of an insolvent company.

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

To compromise or not? that is the question

Seemingly simple decisions can get stuck in the mud and seem to be intractable when you are working on a project. The inspiration for this entry comes from a talk given by Sophie Personne at a networking event I attended recently. Sophie runs an excellent local business called Sophisticated Singles and spoke eloquently about the power of compromise.

Sadly compromise is something that is often lacking in project meetings with political game playing, resistance to change and downright obstinance all playing a part, so how can you push decisions through when things get tough? Here are a few tips to help you on the way.

Tip 1 – Speak to people privately. Sometimes taking 5 minutes out of a meeting environment can help people understand the other’s point of view. Simply taking time to listen can often show up misunderstandings that actually would be masked in a meeting room.

Tip 2 – Find out the real reason. Often people will dig their heels in on an issue for an unrelated reason. I remember one project where an accountant absolutely refused to budge on an issue. It turned out that this was as a result of management not spelling out where he fitted into the organisation post project. Once he’d been given clear sight of his future position he became a positive and valuable team player.

Tip 3 – Understand the impact of everyone’s suggested course of action. If a course of action has no impact on the project, won’t cost anything but makes people feel more included then why wouldn’t you adopt it? Sometimes sitting down with each side and spelling out what the consequences will be can often produce a compromise position easily.

Tip 4 – Use peer power. If people can see how their actions are affecting others then often they will at least compromise or sometimes back down entirely. In a group setting spell out what effect the impasse is having on the rest of the team.

Tip 5 – Get the project sponsor involved. Sometimes whatever you do people refuse to back down. Get the sponsor in to sit people down and clear the blocker. This needs to be used sparingly because the power of the sponsor and the shock of them getting involved tends to wane when they turn up every day to mediate on minor disagreements!

Tip 6 – Get an outsider in. Often people that work together every day will react differently (and be much more grown up) when an outside agency becomes involved. Get an independent (ahem!) professional in to do a project review and see how that moves things along.

If you need help with your project then get in touch for an initial chat and we’ll see if we can get your team to compromise!

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

What should be in the board pack?

A Board of Directors has a series of responsibilities that can only be discharged properly by having access to the right information – but how do you decide what should be in the board pack?

One of the difficulties of sitting on a board, especially if you are a Non Executive Director (or NED) is that the focus needs to change from the day to day running of the company to a more strategic and oversight role. This is where many NEDs suffer because it’s a natural reaction, especially if you have many years experience in a managerial capacity to want lots of in depth material. It’s a reaction that can prove counter-productive because lots of detail can lead to a loss of focus on the job directors are there to do.

So how do you decide what needs to be included in the board pack?

This is almost like a ‘piece of string’ question because companies are all different. Larger companies may have more onerous reporting requirements and a bigger board but there are some general rules of thumb that can help.

Executive Summary – and it really should be a summary. It’s sponsored by the MD whose aim should be to give the board an overall high level view of what has happened since the last board. It’s the entree if you like to the more meaty reports from the leaders in the functional areas. Of course often the MD feels they are the most important person in the room and will try and write a novel but that’s not the point of the exercise. It really is only the precursor to the main event. Keep it to a side of A4 if possible.

KPIs – this again should be a high level report based around the key drivers of the business. The KPIs themselves should be chosen well in advance by the board and should be a result of their understanding of how the business runs and what they key drivers are. A really well designed KPI report will include around half a dozen metrics that will encapsulate exactly how the business is doing and will again fit on one side of A4. In an ideal world each of the functional departments will have a KPI that they will report on in subsequent sections so that the whole pack forms a pyramid.

Finance – Above all the board are the keepers of the shareholders’ money so a finance report is a key component of a board pack. Remember though that your FD is a numbers man/lady and they’ll want to include information down to a low level. They really should only give you the information one level down from the KPI’s and then use this as a method of stimulating questions because it’s the discussion in a board where the real value lies.

Marketing – for any company the driver to success has to be an effective and active marketing department. For companies that practice a customer focused methodology then it’s crucial as marketing will influence everything from product development right through to after sales servicing. Of course marketers are fantastic salespeople and will love to tell you everything in great detail. Again they need to be focused on providing a level of information appropriate for strategic discussion and not how many hits the website has had.

Operations – This is probably the area where companies will differ the most but of course it is also the engine room of the business. This report needs to be all about how the firm goes about it’s work. What’s working well and what not so. What does the company need to do differently and what investment needs to be made to make things better?

Compliance – often firms need to report out to an external body such as OFSTED, CSCI etc. It’s important that these bodies are given comfort that their concerns are given prominence at board level but also that the firm internally considers matters of compliance all year round and not just at reporting time. Again this needs to be at a high level and could take a similar form to the risk register.

Risk/Audit – The Directors are custodians of the firm so they need to be mindful of risks that may turn up in the future, assess these and mitigate where required. A comprehensive and updated risk register is the key here and again forms the spur to discussion. Similarly they need to plan an audit and work on the findings and the level of information will naturally change just before and after an audit.

Projects/special reports – there are points throughout the year where something may be happening that requires The Directors attention. It may be the findings of the remuneration committee or a large company wide project that is occurring but whatever it is the board need a good high level overview of how things are progressing.

PESTLE – this really goes to the heart of what the board are there to do. It doesn’t need to take the form of the ubiquitous PESTLE (Political,Economic,Sociological,Technological, Legal and Environmental) format but there needs to be an appreciation of the firm’s place in the world and the external factors that could affect it. After all if The Directors don’t understand where the rocks are how will they steer the ship?

It’s also really important to think about how this information will be consumed and used. SME NEDs often only get one day a month paid and will be expected to attend a meeting for half a day. The pack needs to be light enough that it can be read and understood within an hour or so. It needs to strike a balance between enough detail for good understanding but not too much that it takes an age to read because trust me – people won’t read it. Remember also that we are all different. I hate paper information, some people love it so be prepared to provide it in whatever way is most comfortable for your individual Directors.

Consistency is important as time spent looking for where the latest sales figures are will put people off but also mean that they have less time to actually understand the numbers. Keep a consistent format and style for each report each month and make sure that the pack is distributed at the same time every month so that the directors know when to expect it.

The aim of the board pack is to educate and inform but also to stimulate debate. As a general rule of thumb one quarter of the meeting should be given over to presentation of the reports for each area and three quarters should be allowed for discussion because as started earlier this is where the real value is added. The overriding message has to be focus,focus,focus.

Although there is no ‘standard’ board pack, following the guidelines above should get you most of the way towards a good level of content for your company to make the most of it’s Board of Directors’ talents.

Isango8 specialise in information presentation. If you’d like us to help you reformat your board pack and identify your KPIs then please get in touch for an informal chat and we can tell you how we can help.

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

The top 5 signs that your project might be going wrong

As a non executive director you’ll probably have oversight of a number of projects during your tenure but how can you tell if things are going awry when you are remote from the project team? These are my top 5 signs that things might be going wrong.

One of the great things about being a non executive director is that you have the opportunity to take a detached higher level view. This gives you a chance to spot things that look out of place when someone much closer and more invested in the project may not be able to see the signs.

There’s an old saying that ‘there’s nothing new in the world’ and in the universe of projects that’s especially true. One thing that shines out from the reams and reams of literature on implementations is the consistency of the type of problems that projects face. The good news is that NEDs can use that consistency to spot when their firm may be facing issues.

There are really only 3 ways in which a project can be classed a failure – the system is late,  over budget and it’s not to the specification required. Here I present my top 5 ways to spot if any of these is on the horizon.

5 – High spending very early on. Projects, especially those that need infrastructure will incur higher costs early on for things like servers, cabling etc. but staff costs should generally be higher towards the end when you are entering the testing/training phase. If your project has used up a very high proportion of its budget or the spending is not matching the project cash flow predictions then it’s time to ask questions because it may well end up using up all of the money when it’s too late to turn back. Make sure a ‘Cost to complete’ is included in the project reports that the board should be getting regularly from the project team.

4 – Things mysteriously disappear from the schedule. I have honestly seen software houses just leave things out of a project report because they decided it was too difficult to deliver. They hoped that if they didn’t mention it then people would forget that they’d asked for it in the first place! Good organisation is the key here. Make sure that when you receive project reports they include all aspects of the proposed implementation and that the risk register is kept up to date.

3 – Missing early deadlines. Through the life of the project there will be mini deadlines that crop up. Producing a system for a ‘look and feel’ demonstration system for instance. It’s usually a sign of how the company providing the goods does business and it’s folly to think that this leopard will change it’s spots halfway through a project. If your provider starts to miss early deadlines then you need to start exercising the firm’s authority and exert proper control over targets.

2 – The project sponsor goes AWOL. One of the key critical success factors cited in the literature is full high level back up from the project sponsor. Unfortunately they are generally very busy people and often, although the project is the focus of their attention on day one, by the time they get halfway through your sponsor will have moved on to more pressing matters. The difficulty is that this is the point at which their input is most needed. As a NED the sponsor is also your direct link to the project so get them to focus. If something else is taking them away then reassign the task.

1 – Lack of clear direction. This is my absolute number 1 priority for any project big or small. The great thing for a NED is that this can be seen right from day 1. If you read the project description and there is no clear and unequivocal statement of what actually will be achieved by investing the firms money then your project will fail. This is also the point where a good NED can add the most value. Challenge (in a constructive way obviously) all the way to the point where the contract is signed. Make sure that the proposed system is properly and completely planned and scoped so that everyone has a clear sight of what the company want to achieve. If you don’t then you can expect trouble!

Above all my advice is to trust your intuition. If something doesn’t sound right, if the project manager becomes evasive or people begin to stare at their feet when budgets or schedules are on the agenda then it may be time to dig a little deeper!

 

Isango8 - providing project management and accounting support for SMEs in the South and South West

War stories

 

It’s an interesting thought

All project people have war stories. We can tell you about all the bad things that have happened on projects and the reasons why.

We are fitted with perfect 20/20 hindsight. This is handy because we can use the hindsight to predict what might go wrong on projects in the future.

One of my favourite PM sayings is that firms who can’t find the money to do it right the first time always find the money to do it twice.

Another is that you shouldn’t spoil the ship for a h’aporth of tar.

So my advice for anyone thinking of kicking off a project – hire a professional right at the start. Yes it will cost you money but it will probably stop you making a big, expensive mistake. Don’t spend a million pounds* on a piece of software and £25 on project management!

 

 

*Don’t worry – most software implementations don’t cost a million! This was just an example

6 Rules of effective software implementation

If you want to get your software implementation right, on time and on budget then there are six clear rules to follow.

Decide what you want before you start – it’s very tempting to just lurch in and then call whatever you end up with the system but to be honest it’s the project management equivalent of sticking a pin in a map and calling it your destination.
Don’t rush it – take your time. Good things always come to those that wait. We’re not really advocating waiting around, but take your time over scoping out what you want and making sure that you get the configuration right.
Get the team right – none of us like dealing with sulky teenagers right? Nothing upsets people like being forced to do something they don’t want to do or being excluded from a great trip to the beach, just because they are in the wrong department.
Work out the money then add a bit – this installation is going to cost you more than your software vendor is telling you. They’re not being dishonest just optimistic. Add on a bit extra to the budget then if it’s still left at the end we can have a party.
Make sure you allow your team enough time to get properly involved – Don’t expect people to just shoehorn it into their day. You’re a busy company right? Get in a temp or two if you have to and let people have some time to get the software right.
Get some independent advice – not your mum, or the chap down the pub or the person who is trying to sell you their latest super duper system. Find someone who has implemented more than one system for more than one type of company.

Rule 1 Deciding what you want
This may seem obvious but it’s actually one of the biggest causes of so called ‘failure’. In fact what happens is a company decides to implement part of a package and then along the way finds all sorts of super wonderful things that they’d like to have (prompted of course by the implementation consultants). The budget comes under stress, the timescale increases and people get demotivated.
Be clear at the outset what your definition of success is. IF other things turn up then put them into Phase 2 and plan that separately. Scope the project correctly, make sure you have a plan with timings, costs and people. Make sure you share the definitions of success right at the start with the stakeholders just so that everyone understands what is going on.

Rule 2 Don’t rush it – take your time
Throwing in a system might seem like a really good idea. This is what happens in entrepreneurial big picture type companies. The executives think they are being clever and decisive. Ask Michael Dell how clever and decisive their implementation was. It cost millions and was eventually consigned to the bin.
Take long enough to scope your project, choose your system and make your plan. Every £1 spent planning saves £3 in wasted effort

Rule 3 get your team right
You’d be amazed at how many software projects go ahead with people that can’t be found jobs elsewhere in the organisation or people who have a ‘bit of an idea about IT’. Don’t appoint people because they play golf with the boss, appoint them because they are good at projects.
Make sure you have a full spread of people from the departments that will be affected by the software, that way you’ll not only retain buy in from the very people who will have to use your system, but also have people on your team that may be able to spot potential practical issues before they become a problem. In fact I’d go further and say that if you appoint all executives to your team THEY WILL MISS SOMETHING. Appoint at as low a level as you can and you’ll grab a lot more of the jobs that actually make your organisation run.

Rule 4 – work out the money then add a bit
Trust me this will cost more than you think. IT always does. We always underestimate the number of users, the number of licences, how long implementation will take. FACT. Make sure your project plan has fat, not only in terms of money but also time because that tricky data cleanse will take an awful lot longer than you think.

Rule 5 Make sure you allow your team enough time to get involved
A surprising number of projects are started with the view that Doris from accounts will be able to do her normal day job alongside her duties to the project. Well she won’t. Plan backfill by getting in temps or get a project specialist to work on the team instead but make sure you have enough resource

Rule 6 get some independent advice
Would you buy a used car without getting it checked over first. How much weight do you put on the salesmans words when he says it’s a nice little runner? So why do people commit to very expensive software based purely on the world of what after all is a salesman?

Find someone with experience in choosing (choosing, not implementing, running or selling) software. They’ll make sure it’s the right fit for your company and guide you through the beauty parade. They’ll point you in the right direction for planning the project, deciding on who will do the job and how to go forward. They may even Project Manage it for you. Getting it right at this point will save you a lot of time and money.

If you’re not the customer…

…then you’re the product

I took the title for my latest post from this blog by Seth Godin here Seth’s blog

He makes a very good point that if you are getting something for free then you are probably the product.

We hear a lot in the business world about ‘monetization’. In other words how to take something and turn it into cash.

You can monetize a box of widgets by selling them to a customer. You can monetize your addressbook by selling the email addresses and facebook, linkedin, Google+ and all these other lovely free services monetize you by selling access to you.

In this lovely connected world one of the problems we face is actually only being connected when we want to be. I fully expect to see companies sprouting up offering to disconnect you so that you aren’t marketed at 24/7.

Of course I’m not sure how they’ll monetize that service.

Sometimes things go right

Sometimes things go right.

In my job there are often times when it gets very tedious. You spend a lot of time crossing Ts and dotting Is.

That’s because it’s all about detail and preparation. If you put the groundwork in then nine times out of ten things will go well. If you don’t then you’re in the lap of the gods.

Today things went well. We spent time getting detail right, practicing, testing and finally doing.

It was a boring job – migrating a clients chart of accounts from an old state of affairs to a new, shiny, tidy version.

The best compliment was when the users looked at me as though I was mad when I spent time walking the floor asking if everything was OK. 

 After all – why wouldn’t it be?

Numbers and levers

In the second of this series I’m looking at why you should always present a number with a lever attached.

When you present numbers to a director or a manager what do they want?

Generally if you ask they’ll say words like ‘clarity’ or ‘understanding’ but in fact what they are really after is the information to make a decision.

The question they are really asking is ‘should I pull this lever’.

Levers can be all sorts of things – ‘do I increase my adwords spend?’, ‘Should we buy more stock?’, ‘Where should we invest our surplus cash?’

What’s important is what drives your business. There’s actually very few drivers for most businesses. British Airways for example found that the one Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for their business was the gate turnaround time. If they turned their very expensive aircraft round quickly they were able to run more routes thus increasing their profit.

The question you need to ask is ‘what thing drives my business?’ There may be more than one of course but it’s unlikely there’d be more than say half a dozen.

Some examples of drivers

If you run a shop then a key performance indicator could be the sales per square foot. If  you change your stock mix, increase your prices or bring in new lines then it’s likely that your sales per square foot will be affected. Make a change and watch how your KPI changes. You then know whether you should pull the lever that says ‘buy different stock’.

A bakery might monitor waste. If you throw a lot of bread away then it suggests you’re either not baking what people want to buy or simply baking too much. It tells you to pull the lever marked ‘change your bake plan’.

A transport company may monitor MPG. When the vehicles start using more fuel then they are either worn and in need of replacement or a service.

Of course there are things that really aren’t KPIs with levers attached. Monitoring your rent is usually not productive. Most firms rent doesn’t change month on month and because they are tied to a lease there’s little they can actually do about it. No lever. Reporting the rent is simply confusing the picture.

In summary then the figures you report need to be something you can affect by your behaviour. A lever is something that is not only variable but can be affected by management action and all figures reported must have a lever attached.