A-Z of interim: V is for…Volunteering

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Change happens in increments.

Which is probably why it’s taken me about three years to commit fully to living – and working – in Belgium. It’s not easy saying ‘cheers‘ to a cherished interim career in the UK, and ‘aangenaam kennis te maken‘ to an unknown future in a flat, foreign land…even though I’ve relocated to one of the nicest cities in the world and have never had a bad business lunch – the cuisine is truly great!

The trouble always is that just as I mentally commit to becoming gainfully employed in Belgium, some wonderful assignment pops up and whoosh, I’m off. This year work has taken me to Berlin, Tbilisi and New York. My laptop is well-travelled!

So when my assignment concluded and summer rolled around, I decided to take some time off before deciding how and where I wanted to establish myself. Instead of pounding pavements in Brussels, I decided to put myself to the test and volunteered to work for two small local charities.

No good deed goes unpunished, or so they say…

Here’s what I learned:

Double Dutch! Belgians are amazing. They speak three languages so they switch fluently between French, Dutch and English to accommodate visitors. I’m now at the point that my husband and I confuse waiters in restaurants by speaking Dutch to them, and English to each other. Still, I felt I needed more practice. So, I transcribed textbooks for blind and partially sighted children at De-Kade. After 300 pages of religion, I know know more about Dutch Jesus than I will ever need to, and after 650 pages of Dutch grammar, I can safely say that my language skills are ‘redelijk goed’.

Using your skills to help others is fun. My hobby is photography so I also volunteered to photograph toys for the Speel-o-Theek, a toy lending library for children and adults with disabilities. They are updating their website and needed 2000 good quality shots to advertise their catalogue of games, puzzles and educational toys. I approach my shoots with the same mindset as my assignments. Get in, do a great job, and leave something good behind. This time, I even have the photographic evidence to show for it. It feels good to help people who appreciate what you do.

A change is as good as a holiday. I love being a change agent, but I must admit after 17 years of delivering complex transformation, it was useful to switch gears for a few months. It’s given me the mental whitespace to plan the next stage of my interim career. It’s given me a feel for Belgian culture, because I’ve got to know people who wouldn’t normally be in my professional orbit. And it’s allowed me to take that first, scary step to find work in another country.

If you’d like to know more about the charities I’ve supported, you can follow the embedded links in the blog.

And yes, I’m job hunting, so if you’d interested in how I build and deliver transformation programmes with real staying power, please connect with me via my professional profile, here: Lisa Bondesio

A-Z of interim: W is for … Well-being

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I was talking with a former colleague the other day. She was recounting her recent experience as an interim at a company with a culture that she described as ‘going back to the 80’s’. And not in a good way…

Evidently, this kind of “work till you drop dead, crush your (work) enemies, trust no one” style of working still exists. Eh? At this point I’m thinking, W is for What the flamingo!!?

Needless to say, the culture was toxic and the teams and individuals she worked with operated in one of two modes: high-anxiety or super-stressed. Not much of a choice.

Now don ‘t get me wrong. I’m realistic. I know that as interims, we are never brought into a client if everything is going swimmingly and nothing needs to change. We are fixers and do-ers. We use our expertise to bring solutions and steer a way through in difficult times. We work hard. Long hours, challenging clients and complex organisational problems can be the norm.

Which is exactly why you owe it to yourself – and your clients – to ensure you stay well enough to work well.

‘I wish I’d spent more time at the office’ said no one’s gravestone, ever!

Workplace stress and burn-out is rising significantly – In a recent article, the US Institute of Stress, cites 42 worrying workplace stress statistics. And the European picture isn’t much brighter. In a recent study, ‘The workforce view in Europe’ highlights Polish, British and French workers as having the greatest amount of stress, compared to other countries.

Wellbeing isn’t something woo-woo. As far as I’m concerned it’s an essential tool for today’s interim. Just as you would ensure you service your car regularly to keep it on the road, making sure you have good foundational health habits – sleep, exercise, hydration – prevents you from being another interim casualty languishing in the lay-by. We all know we are sharper, more productive and generally better human beings when we take care of ourselves. 

My advice…? Take the time to switch off on weekends by switching off your phone, getting outside or indulging in your favourite hobby. Make sleep an important priority. Carve out time in your working week to walk, or think or read. Whatever energises and inspires you.  And for all you A-types out there, I’m advocating the 80/20 rule.  Work hard, and remember it doesn’t have to be hard work, health-wise.

A-Z of Interim: U is for…Unexpected

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Image: Lisa Bondesio | 2019

It’s always good when you get the ‘Miracle Fish’ in your Christmas Cracker!  Place the cellophane fish in your palm, and its movements will indicate your fortune.  Spoiler alert! If the fish is motionless, it is a dead one! Great party trick, but not so great for helping you navigate the unexpected…

Unexpectedness, is definitely something to be expected in today’s workplace. Whether you work as an interim or not. For instance, 2018 for me was a year where a fantastic new client and assignment came out of left field, thanks to a personal recommendation from one of my Linked-In network.  I’d like to say this was expected. A carefully plotted opportunity as a result of meticulous networking and a solid business plan. Nope. It was the right thing at the right time. Unexpected but good!

2018 was also the year where another personal recommendation led to a complete waste of my time and effort.  An unscrupulous potential client who shall remain nameless, but who will not be forgiven for assuming that 1) I work for free… and 2) it’s okay to steal someone’s ideas and pass them off as your own. I’d like to say this was expected. That I trusted my gut like I should have, and said ‘no thanks’ at the outset of the conversation. Nope. I thought they would behave professionally. They didn’t. Unexpected, and bad business karma besides!

Both these occurrences have me thinking about the best way to flourish in times of great uncertainty. If you choose to work for yourself, you do choose a path less travelled. Less secure. Less certain. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, unless you crave 9-5 and a regular pay-cheque until you reach a pensionable age. In that case, this probably isn’t the blog post for you!

Of course, there are some things you can do to mitigate the vagaries of living in an age of unexpectedness.  Here are my top tips:

Don’t take it personally.  Unless you yourself have done something hugely unprofessional (see paragraph 3, above) – losing out on an opportunity, having projects stalled, cancelled or just generally petering out is actually not about you. Trust me, it’s not. It’s usually about stuff you cannot control, so don’t waste time and valuable energy ruminating over what went wrong or why the other candidate was better qualified.  Chalk it up to experience, learn and move on!

See the unexpected as an opportunity to do something different, differently. Even the most skilled professionals experience a cosmic butt-kicking at least once in their career. Whether it’s a long period prospecting for new assignments without pay-off, or a change in the direction of your assignment which means you and the client must part ways gracefully. Be graceful. Accept the challenge. Shift your mental gears and figure out a new way of dealing with the circumstances. P.S. There is always a way!

Action is the antidote to despair. Comfort zones are great, but nothing much grows there.  In other words, don’t let discomfort keep you from continuing to move forward. Bad days, just like good days come and go. Of course, there will be times when – of necessity – you will need to pause and reflect, but camping out in a spiral of doom isn’t really the way to feel motivated. Keep taking action, because sooner or later opportunity – cunningly disguised as the unexpected – comes knocking.

Create your own safety net. Well-being is no longer in the realms of the touchy-feely. It’s a weapon against the unknown.  Your safety net could be financial – as in a 6-month cash buffer. Personal – as in a good network of colleagues or family who can support you. Physical – as in a hobby that gets you out of your head and into the fresh air!  All of the above? Or something else entirely.  Whatever it looks like for you, make sure you have one!

Fortune telling fish, or not…I’m looking forward to 2019. My wish for you is that it brings good clients, great work and even better achievements.  Happy New Year!

A-Z of Interim: T is for…Teamwork

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I’m writing this in an airport, en route from New York to home.  I’ve spent 2 – very full -days with a leadership team, facilitating a retreat which required us to move from strategy to implementation. So far, so very consultant.  But, here’s the thing…

This particular workshop was full of people with a strong moral diligence, and a passion for what they do in the world. High integrity individuals, each as different and unique as a snowflake. From a facilitation perspective, this could have been a disaster…but it wasn’t.

As I reflected overnight on how the first day had gone, what struck me most about the group was their absolute commitment to work together to resolve some very thorny organisational issues – without personal agenda, and with a collective commitment to the greater good of their organisation.

At this point, I should probably declare that I live with The Belgian (a.k.a. my husband) and we are partially based in a country whose political system exemplifies compromise for a greater good.  Give a little of yourself, get a lot for everyone. In short, team-work.

Which brings me to today’s post. As an interim specialising in transformation, I have to deal a lot with big egos and even bigger personal agendas. Both were absent over the last few days. How refreshing, I hear you say! Indeed.

Yet, I was not facilitating a group of meek, understated ‘yes-people’.  Far from it. Everybody felt able to express their opinions, concerns and perspective. Yet, everyone was prepared to roll-up sleeves and work together to reach an optimum solution. Team-work in action (a.k.a. ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’).  Thanks, Aristotle!

My point is, that as an interim – your ability to galvanise teams is critical.  I’ve lost count of the number of arrogant individuals I’ve encountered who think it’s ok to step into an organisation and deploy cultural and operational landmines in the name of transformation and then think that justifies their day-rate. Really? My point is, that as an interim – it’s wrong to assume you are single-handedly going to save the organisation. You are there to bring people together, to build a collective solution that works for your client, long after you exit the building. The whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

A-Z of Interim: S is for…Skills!

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What’s your particular interim superpower? Mine happens to be working with CEOs and their teams to help them navigate change successfully. Of course, I wasn’t bitten by a radioactive spider – so while some of this ability might be innate, my skill in this area comes from a combination of graft and experience – a.k.a. hard work and multiple client engagements over more than a decade!

Although I make my living from change, I also am in the process of changing countries – swapping home life in the UK for wedded bliss in Bruges, Belgium.  To help in this adjustment, I’ve spent the last 6 months formally studying Dutch.  I’m pleased to say that I’m now about 80% fluent (give or take the odd verb) but this prolonged period of self improvement has made me think deeply about keeping current as an interim.  Is it really necessary?

The short answer is ‘Yes’.

Clearly, there is no substitute for experience, but in today’s interim market, it’s wise to remember that ‘old ways, do not open new doors’.  Here are my top tips for staying skilful and staying ahead:

Be relevant.  Do your skills still matter in today’s gig economy? Are you au fait with developments in your industry or discipline?  Once on assignment, it can be hard to make time to bone up on the latest trends – but it’s vital if you need to keep up with more than the Kardashians.  I usually read the business section of a quality newspaper at least once a week, with a focus on the articles that relate to transformation and business change.  Another option is to attend conferences or industry events. And if you really are short on time, why not use your commute to listen to a TED talk or podcast which speaks to your area of expertise.

Be portable. Just because robots are taking over the world doesn’t mean the future workplace won’t need people with super-powers.  I’m not talking X-Ray vision here! However, if your skill set is limited to an industry with a shortening shelf-life, you might need to re-evaluate. Where best could you use your ability?  What do you do that could be applied elsewhere?  What value could different experience bring to a prospective new client? Wherever you are at, its important to package your know-how in a way that fits more than one square peg.

Invest. The best thing about being an interim is that you really are in charge of your own destiny.  The worst thing about being an interim is that you really are in charge of your own destiny!  If you are not investing in yourself, how are you adding value to your clients? Outdated ways of thinking and doing are not going to build your credibility as a proficient professional. So, spend the time to read. Spend the money to learn more. Spend the effort to sharpen your skills – it could be the difference between being left behind and leading the way in the interim olympics.

And finally…

Stay Curious. When I was young, I was interested in everything.  My biggest worry was that all the mysteries of the world would have been solved by the time I became a grown up. Obviously we still haven’t found the location of Atlantis, but we have found life on Mars,so maybe wanting to know isn’t such a bad strategy after all. The point is, ask questions, be interested in what’s going on around you. You might just learn more than you think you already know.

I’m curious!  What do you think the top skills are in today’s interim market?  Do you think it’s necessary to reinvent yourself every so often?  Answers on the blog, please!

A-Z of Interim: R is for…Reputation

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‘You earn reputation by trying to do hard things well’. – Jeff Bezos

The founder of the world’s largest online retailer is on to something here. Being an interim requires all sorts of superhero skills. Doing difficult things goes with the day-job.  Nevertheless, one of the hardest things when starting out is building – and maintaining – a good professional reputation.

When you take the step from corporate life to independent contractor, you become less able to trade on where you worked before. On planet interim, it’s results that matter, not job titles! And, once you are up and running with that first assignment, it’s what you do, and what others say about what you do that builds your reputation and secures the subsequent engagement.

How can you create a professional reputation you would be happy to invite round to meet your nana, if it was a person?  Here’s my take on some practical steps:

Network. Never underestimate the power of a good conversation. It’s an old adage but still true: Business is based on relationships. So make sure you spend sufficient time cultivating contacts and building a real connection with prospective clients and peers.  Clearly, this is not about love-bombing every Linked-In contact you think you might know. It’s real life, not Tinder!  Network selectively. Consider where you can genuinely connect with like minded people, and remember it’s a two way process.  There is a give and a get, so be genuinely interested in the person you are talking to, even if they aren’t a headhunter.

Speakers’ corner? Do you have a ‘lessons learned’ case-study? Are you an expert in a particular field? Do you have a point of view that will spark debate? One of the best ways to showcase your talents (and your winning personality) is to be a speaker at Industry events. A word of warning, though. The ability to tell your story, and do so in an engaging way is likely to make you stick in the mind of your audience. A self-aggrandising sales pitch for ‘you, you, you’ isn’t the same thing.

Write it down.  If standing up in front of a bunch of strangers makes you want to emigrate to Antartica, how about writing, instead?  Social media has made it really simple to get your message out there. Creating a blog is fairly straightforward using packages such as WordPress and Blogger.  So why not use social media to show the world what you are capable of, professionally speaking.  And if your writing skills are not worthy of a Pulitzer, you can of course comment on other blogs, or join on-line discussion forums.

Keep your promises. Do what you say you will do. This is particularly challenging on assignments where the written job description/brief is pure fantasy. It happens more than you think, so if you get to Kansas and the red shoes aren’t working, then be professional, be pragmatic and make sure you – and your client – are clear on the expectation for delivery.  That way everyone goes home happy.

Start where you are. Every interim has a unique skill set. Whether you are a financial turnaround wizard or a change maven, you have something to offer your clients.  When you start out, it can be daunting. Especially when faced with other interims who are more experienced. Firstly, don’t compare yourself- it’s a waste of energy. Second, everyone had to start somewhere.  Find a way to describe what you do – this will become your sales pitch. Do it well – this will become the cornerstone of your reputation. Do it consistently – this is what builds interim tenure and helps to maintain your personal brand.

What do you think? Does reputation matter?  What advice would you give an interim starting out? Answers and comments on the blog, please. 

A-Z of Interim: Q is for…Questions?

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I’ve been a career interim for just over 10 years now (Time, where have you gone!), so I’m often approached for advice on starting out.  You will find lots of helpful, practical information at The Interim Hub and Institute of Interim Managers, but here’s my take on the things you need to know as a newbie. Ask yourself:

Q. Can I afford to do this?  I launched my interim career at the time of the global Banking Crisis. Hell, Yeah! I like the North Face, but I wouldn’t recommend this as a start-up strategy…

It can take a bit of time to find that first assignment (See my earlier post J is for Jobhunt) so I’d recommend you build up 3-6 months savings to tide you over when you first step into this field. Worrying about the mortgage is not conducive to ace-ing that interview. Building reserves to insulate you from the vagaries of the job market isn’t just sensible, it’s essential.

Q. Am I prepared to be flexible?  By my own reckoning I’ve notched up at least 600,000 miles (965,606 kilometres) commuting to and from client assignments in the last decade. Never mind the air miles, that’s enough to take you around the globe approximately 25 times! 

Are you prepared to spend weeknights in a crappy hotel away from your friends and family?  Are you prepared to get up at 5 a.m. on a Monday and spend 3 hours on the motorway getting to your client?  What about those global conference calls that start at 21h00 on a Sunday night? Very often the most interesting assignments are not local – you will have to travel, and far. Make sure this way of life jives with your personal commitments.

Q. Will I be able to start again?  I hate to break it to you sweeties, but when you become an interim, you are your own brand. This is not necessarily a bad thing! Yes, it’s super that you have worked at blue-chip branded companies, but when you step into the world of interim, you are not your big-cheese job title + swanky organisation. That stuff becomes irrelevant after two or three assignments.

You are you as an individual, which carries less kudos than you might think. You will – continuously – need to work on building and maintaining your interim brand. And yes, at minimum that means professional looking business cards, a current Linked-In profile, not to mention a polished, coherent CV.

Q. Tell me what you want, what you really, really want? So sang the Spice Girls, but this refrain is relevant because you will get this question in interview. There are many upsides to being an interim, but one thing is for sure – you don’t dabble!  Building a credible reputation takes time and more than one successful assignment, so you need to be truly convinced this is the life for you.

Be clear about what you are offering prospective clients – whether that is a skill-set or a particular industry expertise.  Providers can spot a generic CV at forty paces, so keep your offer focused. Also, be clear on what you will say yes to – in respect of day rate, type of assignment or location.

Never a dull moment!  And finally…If you do take the step to becoming an interim, I can promise you a life of excitement and derring-do. Well, actually no!  That last bit wasn’t true.  Making it exciting is up to you. Good luck.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever had as an interim?  I’d love to hear your thoughts. Comments on the blog, please.