Temporarily stepping into someone’s shoes

Provisional, stop-gap, makeshift or caretaker? Dictionary definitions of the word interim are not exactly appealing, yet increasingly corporate communications professionals are keen on interim roles. Some are even marketing themselves as interim professionals, only seeking temporary positions rather than permanent appointments.

Interim positions can offer new challenges, the chance to extend and enhance your knowledge, high-level positions, longer holidays and flexibility, as well as very good money. What’s not to like?

Well, the downside is that you will have to get up to speed very quickly; you might be taking over someone else’s baby (and have to hand it back); you may have to start tomorrow, with little preparation; and when the job ends, you’ll be back to square one and looking for another vacancy.

Edwina Goldman, managing director at JFL Search & Selection, says that increasingly companies are turning to interim positions, possibly because of the wider uncertainty in the business environment right now.

‘We did see an increase in interim places at a senior level last year, largely because of the uncertainties in the run up to the Brexit Referendum. People were worried about market conditions, so lots of permanent hiring was put on hold and companies sought interims instead.’

Maternity covers and longterm sickness cover are amongst other common reasons for companies to create interim positions, which can be as short as three months but are more likely to be between six months and a year, or even slightly longer.

For businesses, there are lots of reasons to appoint an interim person – not least because it allows you to ‘try before you buy’, says Goldman. A company may not want to commit to a new director of communications because they are going through a period of change. ‘In large companies, there may be change management or transformation projects to manage, so it makes sense to hire an interim comms person, particularly on the internal comms side,’ she adds.

Jules Shelley, director of recruitment firm Ellwood Atfield, agrees that a tighter job market has increased the need for interims. ‘The permanent job market has become much more tight and slow-moving at the top. If senior people are not moving on that means there are fewer opportunities, all the way down an organisation.’

‘Now people recognise the benefit of taking on an interim role to reduce long gaps between roles and people also see that it is going to add value if they are then in the run for permanent roles.’

So what kind of person makes a good interim professional? Shelley says that the roles attract highly experienced people who are perhaps looking for something different.

‘They have probably worked in challenging environments – with all the frustrations and unpleasantness that can bring. They may be attracted by a job where there is one very clear role or objective. Sometimes when you reach the level of director of communications you can feel very far removed from the creative aspects of the job that you initially loved. For instance, you may barely speak to journalists anymore.’

This is not a job that suits all candidates. You will need to be able to work quickly and under pressure – especially if the job you take is in a new industry sector.

‘These are not positions for people who are learning on the job. Companies are often paying to have someone who is overqualified for the role,’ Shelley says. You will need to have considerable leadership experience and be highly flexible and adaptable. You will also need to be able to win the confidence of senior management colleagues in short order.

But if you are up for a challenge, an interim position is a great way to extend your knowledge and networks.

Pay for such positions can be substantial – anything between £500 and £1,500 a day for some exceptional candidates, according to Shelley. Some interim professionals work through their own limited companies and are paid a day rate – usually calculated as 30 per cent on top of their usual salary, divided by the number of days a year they work – while others are paid a pro-rata salary, quite often with benefits such as holiday.

Susan Tether believes that people arrive at interims for a reason – perhaps a redundancy, a death in the family or children.

Tether has just started maternity leave cover at asset manager Intermediate Capital Group. With 20 years in financial services at banks Santander, Citi, Macquarie, Coutts and RBS on her CV, she’s very much the epitome of the highly experienced interim professional.

‘Interim is not for everyone. There are definite advantages – quite a few in fact – but you do need resilience and confidence to enjoy the variety of challenges and you need a certain amount of empathy and judgment as you will encounter extremes of personality and cultures. Having a good cross section of experience is therefore key.

‘For some companies, hiring an experienced comms person on an interim basis is a bit like having a consultant: they get the benefit of experienced counsel, introductions to tested third party suppliers as well as someone who can roll up their sleeves and get on with the job.’

One of the things that Tether loves about her recent interim roles is the fact that when the job ends, she can have a break and put her life in order. With three teenage sons, she finds it a great way of checking back in with them, and also finding time for herself.

She advises people considering an interim path to get networking, as invariably it is your own connections who pass along opportunities. This is why interims can’t slack off or let standards slide, as Tether says: ‘People talk and maintaining your reputation is key.’

Successful interims also need to respect the internal culture of the organisations they are hired by. Each one will be different and what works for one organisation is unlikely to work for another, Tether says.

Interim positions can also crop up in your own organisation: whether a sideways move, that increases your experience, or a chance to step up. Sally Savory, is currently interim global head of corporate communications at US bank BNY Mellon. Savory is based in London where she was the bank’s global head of corporate internal communications but since August she has travelled to New York for a couple of weeks each month to run the global corporate communications function, in addition to her job in London.

She is doing this on an interim basis until a new head of corporate communications is hired.

Savory calls her new job a great learning experience. ‘Interim assignments provide terrific insights into other communications disciplines, enable you to develop a broader network of stakeholders and I’ve learnt a significant amount that I can take back to my internal communications role once this assignment comes to an end.’

She also sees it as an opportunity to develop some of her team since delegating more was essential if she was to manage the two roles.

Savory is determined to make an impact in the corp comms role, even if it is temporary. ‘Don’t think that you can’t make an impact – or can’t effect change – because an assignment is on an interim basis,’ she says. Nor should you be afraid of what you don’t know or let that stop you taking an interim position.

‘I had not previously had a media relations role but found myself leading our corporate media relations function,’ Savory says, undaunted about holding down two jobs that straddle the Atlantic.

Allyson Andrews is now job hunting after having had December off and time to spend with her teenage sons. Andrews cut her communications teeth with two of the biggest names in travel, Eurotunnel and British Airways, before moving into the commercial property world where she has worked for many of the big companies and is very well known.

In recent years she has also worked for a big international energy company, a big construction company and most recently the New West End Company, which helps to promote the district and businesses of the West End. Andrews says: ‘I have really, really enjoyed the diversity over the last few years and I have expanded my horizons, my knowledge and my networks. My area is general corporate communications – annual results, sustainability reports, stakeholder engagements. These are transferable skills. Most companies have to deal with these issues,’ she says.

Most of her jobs have come through her networks, often reuniting her with people she worked with years ago. She has always found that people are ‘welcoming and supportive’ on all the jobs she has done.

She acknowledges that there are downsides to this way of working – not least that it only feels like yesterday that she was last speaking to headhunters. But the next job she takes is likely to be another interim position that will get her through to the summer.

Emma Byrne has just started a new interim role as head of communications at Open Banking, just weeks after completing a year’s interim contract at challenger bank TSB, covering maternity leave for its head of media relations. ‘The bank had gone through rapid change in three years: first a listing, then a de-listing, then an acquisition by Spanish bank Sabadell. I realised that represented a very interesting challenge,’ says Byrne.

Byrne has spent the last 15 years as a head of corporate communications so technically the position was a step down for her – but that did not deter her. ‘Because of the position the bank was in, it was almost the more important role,’ she says.

The new job began with a six week handover period with Charlotte Sjoberg, who she was covering for. Byrne encouraged Sjoberg to be very clear about what she wanted the media relations function to look like in a year’s time. During the year Byrne was given a lot of flexibility by senior management to get on with the job but it was not just a case of keeping things ticking over. Under her guidance, the bank, which is considerably smaller than the big four of the high street, saw its press coverage increase dramatically and positive comments increase.

It began to punch above its weight in the sector, and campaigned successfully on overdraft charges, dominating that debate and winning awards for its campaign.

Towards the end of Byrne’s time the press office was voted the best in the banking sector by journalists, which Byrne took as real recognition that she had achieved what she had set out to.

‘Having a year to really get involved gives you that opportunity to make a difference,’ she says. Byrne likens herself to a nanny with years of childcare experience that is hired by new parents because she knows exactly what to do. ‘But just like a nanny, it is hard giving the baby back. I’m a total immersion type of person. I’m happy with what I have done, but you have to remember you are going to walk away.’

You are just the caretaker after all.