A-Z of Interim: U is for…Unexpected

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: O is for…Opportunity


Image: Ronstik | Dreamstime.com


It was all supposed to be going so swimmingly…

2016 brought a new assignment, a wedding (my own) and a cross-channel commute home. It also brought additional stress and a severe case of shingles as my immune system finally called time on the frenetic interim lifestyle.

I said ‘sayonara’ to the assignment.  November was spent lying in a darkened room channelling a look that was somewhere between The Terminator and a deranged raccoon on account of the red eyes and anti-itch powder. Not exactly client-facing!  

Fellow workaholics will realise that enforced bed rest is not my thing. Neither is being ill. But this was an entirely different matter. There was no option but to endure, and no way to see an upside. Upside-down more likely!  And yet…there is always an opportunity to learn from the circumstances you find yourself in.

Henry Ford said it best. ‘Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently’. As the meds kicked in and my convalescence wore on, I had ample opportunity to think.  Which is why I am spending the first quarter of 2017 acclimatising to a new culture (Belgium), learning a new language (Dutch) and looking to base my business (and my assignments) closer to home.

As interims, one of our superpowers has to be that we can craft opportunity out of a piece of string and some sticky tape. That’s called change management.  Being flexible and open to changing circumstances means we can course correct when we need to. That’s called being entrepreneurial. And finally…knowing when to pause and when to act. Well, that’s commonly known as having Plan B. 

How do you define opportunity?  How do you deal with failure?  Answers and comments via the blog, please…

I is for…Interim

© Vlue | Dreamstime.com - Rubiks Cube On Open Book PhotoIf you’ve been checking out my twitter feed, you will know that I recently had the extraordinary pleasure of being awarded ‘UK Interim of the Year 2014’.  Apart from abject surprise (I was in a shortlist of 20 accomplished nominees), followed by very real excitement (I won, I won!) it’s now back to reality. Still, I’ve spent the last few days thinking hard about what makes an interim.

I’ve been doing this now for almost 7 years, and while I’m always honoured if clients ask me to go permanent, interim is a deliberate choice. It gives me flexibility, the opportunity to work with multiple organisations and – assignments allowing – a fairly decent income bar the odd tax bill!  However, it’s not for everyone, so if you are considering this as a career path, here’s my advice:

1. Look before you leap!

It can be tempting to think of interim as a ‘stop gap’ when facing redundancy, or a change of scene if you are bored with your current employment. Resist the urge! Interim Management is a well developed discipline and it’s not for dilettantes. It can be very rewarding, but it can also be demanding, demoralising and difficult. Career interims are used to having gaps between assignment, and while such breaks may be necessary – see my post ‘H is for Holiday’  –  you need to be prepared to work hard to secure that elusive first assignment. And the second… and the one after that. You get the picture!  You also need a sufficient financial cushion to allow for bench time, especially if you are trying to establish yourself.

2. Be in the know!

It’s worth talking to interim providers, and those in the know. Here in the UK,  providers such as Alium Partners  and industry bodies like the Institute of Interim Management (IMA) offer courses on how to market yourself and what to consider when becoming an interim. Remember, when you become self employed, you will need an accountant to help you navigate the IR35 legislation, you will most certainly need professional indemnity insurance, and you definitely need marketing or web expertise.  Unless you are a super human with high capability in all these areas, you will have to invest in outside help. Getting your teenager to help you with twitter doesn’t count!

3. Expect the unexpected!

As an interim, the only constant is change.  Be prepared for client briefs to be vague.  For golden opportunities to be less than shiny close-up. For the assignment of your dreams to vanish because the sponsor leaves the organisation or they get bought by someone else who doesn’t see the need for interim. You will be expected to be problem solver, multi-tasker, and therapist on the Monday you start.  Tuesday you will be expected to make and take the decisions that no one else wants to… Hours can be long and clients can be fractious. You will have to meet organisational resistance with persistence, stakeholder cynicism with compassion. And you will always need to know when to exit the building.  I know, it’s sounding like the North Face already!

However, like many interims out there, for me the positive aspects almost always outweigh the negative. Being an interim means you can be an objective guide, helping management navigate knotty organisational problems. You bring experience of multiple organisations and specialist skills to companies who genuinely need your help.  And you get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made a real difference.



The rise of the chameleon…why adaptation matters in organisations

Image: Dreamstime

What do Chameleons, Stick Insects and Squid have in common?  They are all creatures that change colour depending on their surroundings, enemies, temperature or mood. In the natural world this ability is known as signalling, and has evolved as an evolutionary means to communicate or camouflage.

You are probably wondering what bearing this has on the modern business habitat?

Well, it may not be a jungle out there, but to survive – and thrive – corporate leaders and managers need to be comfortable with change.  Adaptability is key.  The financial pages are littered with stories of organisations who were looking the other way when the winds of change blew in.  In 2009, UK retailer Woolworths went bust after 100 years of trading history. 30,000 people lost their jobs. While there are many reasons for the decline, the contributing fail factor was a lack of focus on their core retail strengths (you could buy anything and everything) and an inability to respond fast enough to inclement market conditions. In these credit-crunching times it any wonder that these premises are now occupied by discount retailers such as Poundland – squarely aimed at budget-constrained consumers?

Savvy organisations recognise that change is a constant – and are able to respond to their environment.  Super-savvy organisations actually build this type of reflex into their strategy.  I’m reminded of the latest TV campaign for Amazon, who claim they ‘make the revolutionary, routine’– the premise being that innovating for change is the new normal.  For such businesses, change is not merely something that happens, but something  that the leaders of these organisations actively shape.

Sharks may be the ultimate predator, but their corporate repertoire is somewhat limited. Far better to be a chameleon. Not only can they change their spots in 20 seconds flat, they can focus on two objects at the same time. They also catch prey at about 30 thousandths of a second. Now that’s what I call a reflex! Managerial mimicry, anyone?

What do you think?  Can being a corporate chameleon help you adapt? Comments on the blog, please.

The ‘C’ word…

Organisations are a lot like families.  They have history, they have memory, and they have personality.  And yes, in some organisations- like families – you find the odd, mad relative sequestered in the boardroom!

All of these attributes are what make up the behaviours, attitudes and culture of a company. In short, ‘the way things are done’ – or not done – depending on the organisational culture.  You ignore this at your peril.  Culture isn’t just the preserve of multinational organisations, it impacts the start-up as well as the SME. Like brand, culture is one of those intangible organisational assets – tricky to quantify, but something that will hit your bottom line if you get it wrong.

In the corporate world, many mergers fail, not because the deal is bad, but because insufficient cultural due diligence has been undertaken.  I’m sure you are familiar with post-merger cultural change programmes where the acquiring leadership bring on the bling – extolling the virtue of the shiny, new strategy and how it will magically meld the cultures, distilling the best of both, and so doing transform the business.  And I’m equally sure you have seen those people at the back of the room mentally giving the new leadership a two-fingered salute as they carry on doing what they’ve always done!

Culture can be an enabler to transformative change, or it can be an impermeable barrier.  Does this make cultural change a pipe-dream? Not necessarily. Jack Welch famously transformed GE, by fundamentally shifting the way employees thought and acted.  Although there are critics of this approach – he wasn’t called ‘Neutron Jack’ for nothing – GE’s business transformation succeeded because it was rooted in cultural change.  Stuart Rose, erstwhile CEO of Marks & Spencer is credited with re-energising the business – not simply making it more profitable, but capturing a young, more fashionable customer base.  He refocused the business by recalibrating the culture.

Really great organisational cultures can enhance employee productivity, strengthen talent retention and grow customer revenues.  Toxic cultures by contrast, corrode organisational confidence, haemorrhage talent, and alienate clients.  How so? Well, culture determines organisational priority – in other words, the way things are done will tell you a lot about what is considered important by the people who work for and with you.  Is it any surprise that performance-driven cultures place great emphasis on margin, acquisition and growth, while innovation-loving start-ups prize creativity and quirk?

To my mind, the determining factor in successful cultural change pivots on two fundamental axes. Leadership.  Leadership behaviour.  Do the words of the CEO match his or her deeds?  There are many hackneyed phrases to describe this, but if your leadership isn’t 110% behind the change in ‘everything they do’ it simply won’t happen.  If leadership lack the necessary pair to make tough decisions (and let’s face it, in a merger situation, some people will adapt to the new world order, and some will need to exit the building) then at best, you will have a hybrid culture – not one thing or the other.  Finally, if there are no consequences for non-compliance – in other words, counter-cultural behaviour is tolerated by leadership – don’t expect to make lasting change.

Ghandi once said that ‘a nation’s culture resides in the hearts and soul of its people.’ This holds just as true for organisations.  Real organisational change is based on cultural shifts that create corporate soul. Change the culture, transform the company.

So, what do you think?  Does culture matter? Comments on the blog please.

Banjos, Passion & Persistence.What my dad taught me about business…

My father was a pilot.  He flew maritime patrol aircraft and spent his entire career (bar a few lost years when he was doing something else) in the Air Force.  Not content with flying as his day job, he earned his commercial pilot’s licence, and at weekends he taught other people to fly. You are probably wondering what, if any, wisdom he had to pass on about business.  Here’s what he taught me:

1. Do what you love

There is no point being miserable in a job you hate. As human beings, we bring the whole person to work, not just our working wardrobe or telephone voice. Since we also spend a considerable proportion of our time working – A recent OECD study clocks average working hours per annum at between 1,379 (Netherlands) and a whopping 2,193 hours (Korea) – it makes economic sense to enjoy what you spend most of your day doing. How so?  Well, work satisfaction has a direct effect on employee engagement and productivity. Workers who engage emotionally with their job/leaders/organisation are more productive and more likely to exceed expectations. They are also more likely to innovate and use their discretionary time to further organisational aims.  Productivity + performance = profits according to research published by the Association for Psychological Science. You can read more here.

2. Always do your best

My dad always used to say it didn’t matter what you did for a living, as long as you did your best.  Of course, your best may vary according to the resources at your disposal. My dad ran away to join the RAF when he was 21, and spent several months in Earl’s Court pumping gas to make ends meet while he waiting to be accepted for the officer’s training course. He made a point of being the best petrol jockey he could – because satisfied customers meant bigger tips. Bigger tips meant not having to eat baked beans for five days in a row. Working meant taking productive action while moving towards a bigger goal. In fact, setting goals can have real impact on performance by directing individuals towards productive (vs. non-productive) behaviour, and by incentivising persistence.

3. Never use the skin of your a***, to cover a banjo!

I know! That never used to make a lot of sense to me either. Actually, it was my dad’s rather earthy way of saying ‘have a Plan B’.  The best leaders I know always prepare for every eventuality.  Scenario planning – as it’s known in consultant-speak – is a strategic tool which allows organisations to make long term plans. It has it’s origins in military intelligence, but it’s business value is that is combines things you can quantify (and therefore predict) with things you can’t in order to formulate specific business strategies. Made famous by Shell, it allowed the company to ride out the OPEC Oil crisis in the 1970’s to become one of the largest in the world.  If you want to know more, the best book I’ve ever read on this discipline is by Kees van der Heijden.  Like I said, make sure you have more than a banjo to see you through inclement market conditions.

My dad may not have been a captain of industry, but I think he knew a thing or two about leadership.

What do you think?  What are your three insights about business?  Answers on the blog, please!

Change is a team sport…

Sportsmen and women from 204 nations will compete in the London 2012 games. For many of these athletes, the 2012 games represent the ultimate testing ground. Pitting themselves against the best of the best – and (in many cases) themselves –  they will run, jump, wrestle, swim and swat their way to glory in over 302 medal events.

Watching Friday night’s Olympic opening ceremony, I found myself really moved by the collective esprit d’corps as the first of the 10,490 athletes entered the main stadium, cheered on by 80,000 local well-wishers, and a global audience of billions.  It felt good to be part of the celebration.

Of course, the 30th Olympiad is the culmination of years of preparation and the hard work of many, many people. Which got me thinking…the whole event has parallels with business change and transformation.  Specifically, moving from a current state (planning to host a global event in a deprived borough in London) to a desired state of play (delivering the games successfully). And like business change – whether it’s to do with culture, process or strategy – planning, sacrifice and sweat are part of the deal!

While you need strong leaders to champion and drive transformational change, the reality is that it doesn’t happen without the team. Even solo athletes have a cadre of coaches, nutritionists, psychologists and friends who spur them on to realise great things – achieving gold at the London Olympics or exceeding their personal best!  To my mind, this is where many organisations falter.  Leaders get so focused on the future state, that they forget about the present one. Change doesn’t happen just because the CEO says so.  Business transformation is a journey, and clearly you need to prepare well. However,truly successful transformation comes for those who recognise that their people are pivotal in making it happen. Involving your home team in the process can make the difference between being a corporate catastrophe or a true contender.

What do you think?  Do leaders, or employees make change happen?  Comments on the blog, pls.