Interim management – what makes it so appealing

As a profession, interim management has been around for some time now. Nonetheless, it is still seen as something modern, a part of the contemporary scene. What does an interim manager actually do? And what are their competencies and characteristics? We’ll try to answer the three questions most frequently asked both by those who aspire to exercise the profession and by companies considering hiring one.

What does an interim manager do? The competencies

Interim management is a peculiar activity that blends several different types of competencies:

  • vertical competencies, related to one’s own area of specialization (hard skills)
  • horizontal competencies (soft skills), what it takes to be able to infuse a company with efficiency, harmony, healthy competition, satisfaction and a sense of belonging, and thus growth and success (whether of a team, a department or the whole company).

One could argue that hard and soft skills are a must for any manager, be they stable or interim. True, but the interim manager faces a rather different task, requiring these two kinds of competencies to be more tightly entwined. This is because they are called in to solve critical situations, specific problems that the company’s management believes cannot be solved by internal resources alone within a required timeframe.

That is the starting point:  a company with a problem. (A list of case history of Contract Manager can be found here). Often, the problems are technical, specific and quite obvious. Here are some examples:

  • the manager of a production plant hands in his resignation and the company cannot afford to wait while a search is made for a suitable replacement.
  • the company wants to seize a business opportunity and break into in a new market but lacks the necessary competencies in house. So, it hires an expert for a fixed term, and only later, having gained experience of the context, will it select the right person to take up the position.
  • top management realizes they need technological innovation in their production processes if they are to stay competitive, but they lack the new competencies that this requires.

Other times the problem may be more complex, more strategic. It may be about finding a way out for a company in crisis, bridging the transition from founder to heirs, managing an M&A operation or a spin-off, or even organizing and carrying out a radical change-management transition.  Obviously, between these two categories of assignments there are infinite shades of grey.

Able to identify and face challenges

However simple or complex, localized or widespread, tactical or strategic the problem may be, the interim manager must sometimes face challenges that turn out to be different from those described, or undetected pre-existent problems. Such challenges may have nothing to do with specific technical issues; they may stem from long-entrenched personal relations between colleagues or between managers and their teams.

There can be a whole range of reactions when a company decides to call in an interim manager: resistance to change, frustration, the feeling that an internal resource would have been a better choice than someone from outside. Of course, full-time managers also experience similar pushbacks. The difference lies in the time each has in which to face them and to manage passive resistance. A permanent manager is responsible for appraising their co-workers to a wider extent and over a much longer time than any interim manager. This provides greater scope for tackling resistance.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of the interim manager: their activity, their competencies (we’ll take the hard skills for granted, as they are not what this article is about), the situation they find themselves in.

What does an interim manager do? Day by day

The journey is made up of several different stages. We’ll split it up day by day, describing not only the activities carried out but also the spirit with which each challenge is faced.

Day Zero – The assignment

Being selected by Contract Manager for a strategic assignment is in itself quite a challenge. Rather than selling yourself as best you can, the right approach is to be self-critical, ready to weigh up whether you are right for the role. An interim assignment implies an urgent, demanding company issue to solve: Contract Manager’s objective is not just to secure the assignment but to meet a need. If you feel you are not up to the task, you should be honest with yourself: a colleague might do a better job. The attitude should be “step aside if you are not 110% right for the job”. So, if you feel you are right for the challenge, and already endorsed by Contract Manager and the client, let the journey begin!

First Day- Excitement, like at school

The first day of assignment is just like the first day at school: you know nothing, you are handed information at such a speed you will never be able to remember everything, you feel like a glass full to the brim into which someone keeps pouring water and you can’t say “stop” because you are expected to be up and running from the word go; there’s no time to waste. You are introduced to people whose names and jobs you forget an hour later when you bump into them in the corridor. Like a broken record, you recite who you are, what you’ve done so far and why you are there to the dozens of colleagues you need to know to get the job done. You are introduced as the Deus ex-machina in your own field: expectations are high, and you know someone will be lying in wait. A fixed, weak smile on your face, and the feeling of being sweaty without having taken any exercise whatsoever accompany you through this first, never-ending day.

First Week- study hard

You have been bombarded with papers and reports. You have held your first meetings, all interesting and demanding. You have got to know a lot of people and have taken reams of notes. You have spent evenings poring over your notes, drafting plans and trying to come up with the best solution to the problem. Soon, however, you realize that you are missing some information, that you have to cross-check what data you have with other stakeholders, understand other points of view, assess their opinions and seek out the root causes. You are at the investigation stage, and you wonder whether you are asking the right questions, guided by the different answers you are given.

Break- Example 1

Let’s stop our chronicle for a moment and imagine a specific assignment for an interim manager: training the son or daughter of an entrepreneur for succession in a family company.

This is probably one of hardest assignments of all. Suppose the heir, notwithstanding training, turns out to be unsuitable. This will, of course, have a negative impact on many people, while it actually delivers a benefit for the company: it avoids putting the wrong person into a leading role. The negative impact lies in the disappointment and frustration of the heir, the parent/entrepreneur and the family.
The responsibility the interim manager takes on is thus huge: it involves the future of several people and of an entire company. The interim manager is also aware that the training should take place within a limited timeframe. This implies considerable effort from the heir of the entrepreneur, requiring an appreciation of the beauty of entrepreneurship, a deep respect for the company’s people and the work they perform, and a serious, responsible attitude to the role. To do so, the interim manager needs to cast aside any personal likes and dislikes. Or rather, the manager needs to be able to transform any possible aversion into a deep love for the assignment under way.
Try and imagine the whirlwind of contrasting emotions, the constant fear of falling prey to personal bias in the selection of options to propose to the entrepreneur and the heir, factors that play no part in achieving the desired objective. It is very hard. Like a teacher, the interim manager should be able to lead and motivate the whole class, including the less brilliant students: their empathy should touch all, without exception.

Half-way there

At last you have become part of the picture!
You are an interim manager. At first you were regarded as an outsider, someone not to bother too much about, soon to be replaced by someone else who will have real decision-making powers over pay, roles and careers. However, with patience, tenacity and intellectual honesty, you have earned the trust of most of them. Trust is what underpins good collaboration and you have earned it thanks to the ability to listen and to good judgement. You know how to listen, you are honest, you know how to exercise unhesitatingly the authority that has been delegated to you. Your people have seen that you are not only impartial but competent and willing to help anyone who risks being left behind. 90% of your time is spent trying to understand problems and finding solutions to them. You let your co-workers enjoy the limelight when due.

Break- Example 2

Let’s imagine now our interim manager tasked with an assignment as General Manager.
The entrepreneur decides to sell the company to a private equity fund, attracted by its potential for growth. The problem is that, over the years, the company has invested less and less in processes and products. It must now find a way to reinvent itself, and the way it works, if it is to persuade the fund to invest.
The interim manager has to face countless challenges: wide-ranging powers to manage the whole company (R&D, production, sales, administration finance and control, management and motivation of personnel, suppliers, innovation and relaunch).
The stakes are high. The fund may not be satisfied with results and withdraw its offer. The owner may wind up with the original problem unsolved and indeed worsened. Employees may lose heart and lack the resilience to step up to the mark. All in all, failure would bring about a whole range of consequences.
The interim manager is daunted by this, but relies on experience, wisdom and speed of decision and execution. What is needed is a multi-faceted plan to give the company renewed competitiveness in a set timeframe. Such a plan requires action on human resources, suppliers, third-party manufacturers, potential partners abroad and so on.  It will take time, time the interim manager simply doesn’t have. The plan must be prepared in detail very quickly and presented to the decision-makers of the private equity fund, who may not be familiar with the company’s sector.
At this stage an 8-hour day would be pure luxury for the interim manager. Evenings are spent struggling with doubts arising from details of the plan. The numbers have to add up, however much the scenario may change. It is a task of extreme complexity and responsibility.


’T was now the hour, which homeward turns the longing,
and melts the heart of those that sail the sea,
the day they’ve said goodbye to tender friends.

(Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purgatory, Canto VIII)

Only Dante could have found such a vivid way to express the moment in which the heart melts upon finishing a journey and bidding farewell to companions.  This is what our interim manager experiences upon fulfilling the assignment for the client company, having carried it out with the utmost commitment, professionality, intellectual honesty, responsibility and competence. Our interim manager has fallen in love with the assignment, which has been a source of satisfaction and motivation. It has meant learning many new things in a short time. It has meant building bridges, large and small, and solving any nature of problems.

How can you not love this profession?

Paolo Bottura
Senior Manager
Contract Manager s.r.l.