Towards the future: why professional interim managers have a role to play in the post COVID-19 transition period

The crisis phase of the COVID-19 pandemic has continued to evolve at an unprecedented pace. But while those charged with leading and governing organisations – across all sectors – remain focused on steadying the ship, the last week marks a sizeable shift in thinking and attitude. In particular, the many leaders we have stayed in touch with during this period – wherever they are working – have now started to look ahead. 

Few will tell you that they have the answers. Like most of us, they have been listening to an increasing number of influential voices, each busy painting a picture of what our lives may look like as we come out of the biggest global health crisis of our lifetimes. From these varied sources, we are all starting to shape our own view, and piece together our own emerging picture of what the future could hold post lockdown and, longer term, post coronavirus. 

Even in such unprecedented times – and very likely precisely because of them – effective leadership depends on practical, real world solutions. For many organisations, continued uncertainty and ambiguity will delay long term commitments. However, the skills of interim managers – especially in handling change and transformation, and in sense-making from chaos – will make these professionals a fundamental part of the senior transition team.

Here are our top six observations on how best to source and utilise the best interim talent:

1.As we emerge from crisis management to business continuity, organisations are likely to find internal capacity is limited and look to appoint strategic advisors on a short-term basis, for example in areas such as workforce planning or financial modelling.

2.A recent YouGov poll commissioned by the RSA( showed that fewer than 10% of people want a complete return to normal after lockdown is lifted and organisations will already be thinking about their future delivery models and the impact on their workforce. Even though people feel confined by lockdown, most have valued the time at home and agile working. Digital capacity within organisations was mobilised at lightning speed and will likely go further.  As organisations build capacity and seek investment in technologies to enable more remote working, we expect to see a spike in requirements for interims with experience of digital transformation and innovation.

3.Organisations will be starting to onboard employees virtually; this will continue and can be utilised for Interim hires. Interims have proven track records in their fields and can be relied upon to deliver on objectives set even in a virtual environment.

4.The future of some organisations is already uncertain. We are expecting to see more collaboration (including mergers) between similar organisations to survive; this puts added strain on stretched workforces. We work with many Interims who have specific talents around Mergers and Acquisitions, Restructuring, Organisational Design. Strategic intervention at this time could add significant value. You may not have the expertise internally and acting quickly will pay dividends. External interim leaders can make tough decisions without fear of fallout from the organisation.

5.The environment we are working in now is unchartered territory especially for CEOs – consider hiring Interim expertise at CEO level, Interim Managers can empower you to make the best strategic decisions for your organisation. 

6. You may have gaps on your leadership team and a weakened infrastructure at this time means more work for the CEO – Interim Managers can help fill these gaps and give extra capacity to executive teams.

The interim market is strong. Outstanding experienced leaders can be accessed quickly and cost effectively by any organisation looking for remedial or specialist support. Like everyone else, people who have chosen to invest in an interim leadership career are keen to add value and expertise to organisations in these changing times. Many are uniquely equipped to join senior teams at short notice and provide essential support with their trademark resilience. As we move deeper into the stocktaking and transition phases of the COVID-19 response, we would encourage organisations to think laterally about the solutions they may need, and to consider the benefits that this community can offer.

Can you really hire to roles in the Social Sector in such difficult times?

The last few weeks have seen more dramatic change and upheaval than many of us have experienced in our lifetimes, with limitless different personal and organisational reactions to the covid-19 situation as it has continued to unfold. Despite everything, organisations still need leaders who can help strengthen their response to the crisis, and transition out of it, whether new Board members, interim or permanent staff. 

We have been asked the question about when and if it is worth recruiting at the present time. Starfish Search has remained available to support the Sector during this period and our advice to those leading organisations, based on our own experience, recognises the unprecedented times we are in. Here are our top five observations:

  1. While organisations choose to respond one way or another, response to this situation is personal. As one client put it, when deciding whether to continue hiring in such a fast moving situation “this is both everything and nothing”. The nature of this particular stage of the crisis, and lack of precedent for it, has elicited the widest range of personal responses and about as many shifts in perspective and priority. The most challenging aspect of searching in these conditions is the requirement to connect with people at a time when there are so many different reactions, and before people can really see the light at the end of the tunnel. It can be hard to anticipate and takes skill, sensitivity and time.     
  1. Messaging needs careful thought. While we have been searching throughout this period, the style of engagement we have used has been different. Searches at the moment need to be framed in the current context, highlighting the hiring organisation’s role and position. A strong focus on delivering outcomes for the organisation and those who depend on it, rather than the ‘process’ of recruitment, is helpful along with clear and honest messaging. 
  1. Professionalism will mean loyalty for many. Accepting and respecting values is everything when hiring at this precise moment. For some CEOs and Directors, it is not the right time to consider a move although many will happily start the conversation and forge links. Those who had planned to make a move this year, pre coronavirus, are engaging well and searches are moving because of them. Those who can see how their organisations may transition out of it are also engaging, although it may feel like early days. The real test lies in the ability to secure commitment from top candidates. Many feel a strong sense of duty to their current organisations and teams. When leaders have been furloughing staff, they are naturally concerned about the ethics and optics of recruiting at the same time. But again, the situation is moving quickly.
  1. Time and access is on our side. Longer timescales are giving people the mental space they need to consider a new opportunity properly and at a pace they can manage as they lead organisations while juggling work and home lives. Technology – such as Zoom – has made it easy to engage with people meaningfully despite social distancing measures. In some instances, engaging with people outside of the confines of a traditional office environment have made for a richer connection, and of course, we are all expecting the practices of old to change for good. As ever, flexibility in the process is helpful. Levels of accessibility at the moment are exceptional making this a productive time to hold conversations with people about their current experience and pressures, along with their plans for the future.   
  1. Proceed with non-executive search. Levels of availability, combined with the emphasis on good governance and stewardship to steer the course make this a good time to search for non-executives. Bear in mind that highly effective non-executives with existing board appointments may be in increasing demand by their current boards as the impact the coronavirus crisis starts to become clear, and the route out of it. Some non-executives may find that, after all, they are not in a position to consider taking on something new. For them, this is not just about the period of lockdown, but about being there to support the longer term future of their organisations.

Many organisations are holding off making decisions about hiring now for obvious reasons – they are still in crisis mode, are experiencing major financial and broader uncertainty, or are simply not yet in a position to prioritise particular posts. But it is, for many, a question of time; as the situation evolves, organisations and the sector at large will begin the process of transition. We will all have a role to play in shaping the ‘new normal’ and building the future together.

However, others will need to and want to proceed with recruitment for key roles at the present time and there is no need not to, so long as the process remains sensitive to the circumstances. Flexibility is key. Some searches will move slower than others depending on the role or even the prevailing values within that community. But all search can succeed with sound and realistic planning and an authentic focus on engagement and connection.