How to make a success of an Executive Interim career

Executive Interim Contractor – Alison Kennedy

As more and more organisations demand executive interim management roles, senior candidates are weighing up the pros and cons of switching to this career model.  With a highly successful HR career spanning 20 years, Alison Kennedy made the choice to become a career contractor in 2009. An experienced Executive Remuneration Professional and Change Manager, Alison agreed to share the insights she’s gained over the last 8 years.

Alison, it’s a big decision to strike out on your own into the world of Executive Interim assignments. What was the driver?

At the time it was more around life circumstances than a career choice. I was a single parent of a 5 year old, doing an MBA and the excessive hours and pressure that came with the role I had at PwC just wasn’t working anymore. At the time I took 3 months off to figure out what approach to my career was going to work (and to sleep for a bit!). My first client appeared nearly by accident as a GM HR reached out to me to provide an executive remuneration review for their management team. That project turned into a 3 year client and a wide variety of interesting work.
Before too long I had a number of longer term clients and a mix of projects. The working pattern was controllable and I was able to take breaks when I needed them, or say no to work when it wasn’t of interest. The key driver for me was flexibility and a good match to a work style.

When you started out, what were the stand out differences you noticed between being a permanent employee and working on an interim basis?

The emotional freedom is the biggest difference. Personally I am very committed to the people I work for and with. Everyone understands that the political environment sometimes gets in the way of doing your best work. As an external employee, the politics bother me less and I am able to focus more on the quality of the work and worry less about the detractors that might sit inside the business.
Having an end date gives me the drive to work as hard as I can, knowing that there is a break coming up. Mostly I fall over after big pieces of work as I tend to give a bit too much personal energy in the process. Not everyone is suited to the intensity of that style of working. It can be a challenge to ensure that you look after your own well being when you are caught inside some significantly constrained deadlines. It’s a work life full of intense periods of work contrasted with the break where nothing is on.

What sort of assignments do you generally work on and how long do the normally last?

There is no normal when it comes to a career of projects! I’ve had projects that have been more aligned to ongoing retainers (being a couple of hours) to 6 weeks, through to longer term pieces that are 3-4 years. Sometimes I find myself returning to a business to manage the annual remuneration review 3 years running. Each time is a little different, new challenges and extending on the previous years work. I aim to always leave a business in a better position than when I arrived.

In terms of the assignments – I now describe my core skill as someone who sees a clear solution through the mess: whether the mess be data, technology, structural or physical (I also have a business working with Chronic Hoarders). There is a theme of remuneration management technology implementations, remuneration strategy and frameworks, data improvement and incentive design. I can’t count how many Annual Remuneration Reviews I’ve worked on!

At the moment, I am focused on building a recognition strategy and platform which is a really interesting piece that is bringing together human behaviour in relation to reward and experiences of organisations in urgent need of culture change. I’m a big believer in the need for organisations to begin to see their employees as more than assets. It’s a one on one relationship – and relationships require both parties to meet each other’s needs. It’s a new era of skepticism and truth seeking – and I think that the employer – employee relationship is about to face some harsh new truths about what’s acceptable and what’s required for success.

Tell us about your most challenging assignment

You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. It resulted in working 16 hours a day for 6 days a week for 8 weeks straight. Massive project with no other resources. I engaged with the HR business partners early on and they became my off-siders on the data needs. I also engaged on day 2 with the tech provider Pivot Software – and the trust based relationship we already had developed over the years, allowed me to focus on the absolute necessary and let them worry about the technology. Without the day to day fast delivery from the HR team and the support from Pivot – I never would have made it to the finish line.
I slept on a beach in Fiji for a week after that one.

What advice would you have for senior HR professionals venturing into the executive interim market for the first time?

Best advice is to walk in with the primary goal to “make your boss and others around you look good” – Interim work doesn’t come with a lot of long term praise of thanks. So you need to be a little tougher than most and get your satisfaction from the buzz that comes from delivering quality work in short timeframes and leaving the business in a better state that when you arrived.
Next advice – would be to talk to your accountant and make sure you plan your finances. Interim project work doesn’t always go end to end and you need to continue to pay yourself in the breaks. A consulting style career requires family agreement and the ability to make sure you can financially manage the down time. It’s a risk that permanent employees don’t face, so get financially educated and prepare for it.

And for our clients thinking of engaging an executive interim manager, what are the key things they should put in place to ensure success?

Be flexible in the outcome. Interim workers come with the benefit of more experience over shorter periods of time, current market knowledge and sometimes they can take a piece of work to places that you didn’t expect. So work with their experience and take advantage of the outsiders view. A project outline can be coloured by the internal politics and “the way things get done” – be open to new ideas and approaches and your project will over deliver every time.

Be sure to meet with them each week to stay in touch. Be aware of the risk of over-working your consultant on projects that are set up to fail. Many times a project has too many goals and doesn’t account for realistic time frames.

Thanks very much for sharing details of your professional journey with the HR community Alison, such valuable insights!

If you would like to know more about Alison’s experience or suitability for a project you might have, then please contact our Executive Interim Director Matt Long