Go freelance – and make a difference

Parachuted into key positions, the interim manager is a master of getting speedy results
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The Independent Online

Freelancing is not an activity normally associated with top-end business executives. But with today's boardrooms demanding higher levels of efficiency, flexibility and expertise than ever before, more high-flyers are forsaking their permanent positions in the City for careers of variety – and uncertainty. Meet the interim managers: specialist business mercenaries who would rather risk unemployment than spend the rest of their working life in the same office building.

The career is certainly not for the fainthearted, nor the inexperienced. Interim managers – "interims" for short – need to have bags of business experience and an impeccable track record in their chosen field of expertise, or at least enough to persuade the top companies that they can get the job done with maximum efficiency in the shortest time. Most will be in the latter stages of their careers and will be able to command the respect of a roomful of executives shortly after walking through the door.

Charles Russam is the chairman of Russam GMS, who have been providing interim managers to the business sector for more than 23 years. He is convinced that the rise of this peculiar brand of management has been partly due to the downsizing of companies over the past decade.

"Business is getting tighter and more impatient all the time, and now requires greater flexibility," he says. "It used to be that a lot of businesses were overstaffed, but nowadays the majority of organisations in the UK use flexible staff, and interim management is a vital part of this."

Russam's company acts as a recruitment or headhunting service, putting businesses in touch with the right person for a vacancy, and has a database of more than 8,000 executives. It's one of around 30 similar organisations: the demand for quality interims has never been higher.

"Often businesses need to complete a project in a short amount of time, so a lot of them have started bringing in an interim to kick-start it," says Russam. "Why employ an expensive management consultant when you could employ someone for a few months to do just as good a job for half the price?"

Becoming an interim might be riskier than sticking with your company on a permanent contract, but it can be just as lucrative. Half of all interim managers earn the equivalent of £50,000 to £80,000 a year, and many do even better: Russam's most successful interim at the moment is earning £2,000 a day. Most stints last between four and seven months and there's always the chance of being offered a full-time position at the end of it – although with the potential of another exciting assignment just around the corner, many choose to stay freelance.

"A lot of people turn to interim management because it suits them in psychological terms," says Russam. "It's for those who are more suited to laying the tracks than driving the train. And the amazing thing about it is that once you've been one, you never lose that independent mindset."

Although 90 per cent of the interims on Russam's books are male, an increasing number of professional women are being attracted by the flexibility of the career. Rachel Youngman, 44, is currently working three days a week as CEO of the British Youth Council, devoting the rest of her time to consultancy work. She became an interim manager in 2003, in search of a change of direction after a long stint as deputy executive director of the International Bar Association, the world's leading organisation of legal practitioners.

"I wanted a less predictable working life, to learn more and to be really challenged and pushed," she says. "I was approaching 40 and had many years of experience behind me, so the time seemed right. As an interim, it's essential that you hit the ground running as you are paid to deliver from day one: there's no grace period. It's not for everyone but, personally, I love the challenge."

Another interim, Celia Adams, is what is known as a "turnaround" specialist: someone who is drafted in to rescue failing businesses. Although most of her assignments come from the private sector, her latest six-month contract is with a struggling government department (she's not at liberty to say which).

"I'm very good with people, and I'm very good at getting the best out of them," she says, "but I'm also a chartered accountant with good business acumen. As an interim, I'm now part of the solution – when you get employed full-time, you become part of the problem. You're master and servant, you can pick and choose what you do a lot more. And when you are there, people have to listen to you, because there's no point in you being there otherwise."

Useful websites

The Russam GMS website has a helpful section on the challenges facing new interim mangers: www.russam-gms.co.uk.

Women interested in pursuing a career as an interim should look out for the launch of www.interimwomen.com, a new site dedicated to increasing female involvement in the industry.

The Interim Management Association has a list of the most reputable providers for potential interims to register with.

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