My Biggest Mistake: Richard McKeown

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A chartered company secetary who was made redundant at 40, he began acting as an interim manager five years ago and has since handled a series of key assignments for blue-chip companies and organisations

HAVING MADE it by the age of 36 as a group company secretary, I became redundant in mid-1988 at the age of 40 and found myself facing a career crisis.

I applied for many suitable positions but the result was a deeply frustrating year, looking not only in London and the Home Counties but travelling round the country from Exeter and Bristol, to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. I became convinced that regional companies were not looking to employ an outsider who would have to relocate.

It was a professional employment agency that first drew my attention to opportunities for temporary and part-time assignments - which, in my search for a full-time job, I had tended to ignore. My big mistake.

The trigger-point which led to my decision to become an interim manager - moving from project to project - came by pure chance when the company I was about to join on a permanent basis ran into financial problems and offered an initial full-time temporary assignment, reducing to a part-time role after a few months.

Far from being dismayed, here was the solution: find one or two more part-time positions to fill the gap, become self-employed, and offer a personalised company secretarial and corporate legal advisory service.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that suitable assignments quickly came to light - reorganising pension schemes, computerisations, property disposals, equity funding, mergers.

Provided one felt confident enough and had the breadth of experience to respond to different working practices, and settled into each assignment quickly, it seemed a highly satisfying way of working. Or so it seemed until 1991 when the recession hit this market, like so many others. Finding consecutive assignments, keeping 'downtime' to a minimum, became a new challenge.

Whatever self-marketing had been done before, this became the critical factor. Experience of numerous types of professional assignments and a fairly clear idea of market opportunities led me to pursue a four-point strategy - continue close contact with agencies that had proved effective at finding relevant jobs; design a professional-looking brochure instead of sending out elaborate CVs; construct lists of professional colleagues, employment agencies, headhunters for periodic mailings; and spend as much time as possible at appropriate conferences and seminars for face-to-face contact with prospective clients.

Pursuing a clear proactive strategy helped to open doors to blue-chip companies and perhaps persuade headhunters, search companies and leading recruitment agencies that the demand for interim managers, covering a wide range of disciplines, seemed likely to grow.

I sometimes feel I have been in the vanguard of this movement. It seems a long time since I had to persuade recruitment agencies that my enthusiasm for short-term contracts was not a subtle tactic for seeking a permanent post. Today, recruitment agencies and other suppliers of interim managers have their own trade organisation. And many more corporations and organisations, ranging from The Design Council to regulatory bodies in the financial services sector and an increasing number of companies in the private sector, look on interim managers as an effective resource to fill short-term gaps, manage specific projects or simply grapple with change.

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