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How to become an interim manager in pharma

How to become an interim manager in pharma

Many pharmaceutical companies are facing skills gaps across their organisations.

Many pharmaceutical companies are facing skills gaps across their organisations. Some do not have the right people in place, which, combined with freezes on permanent recruitment, means that more junior employees have to take on more complex work that they may not be ready to undertake. So how do companies find the skills they need and solve their business problems quickly and easily?

The answer is often through employing interim managers. They provide immediate access to experience and expertise that has built up over time across a range of relevant organisations and geographies. As they are not permanent staff, they can be brought in to solve particular issues; small-to-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) may buy in skills that they cannot afford to retain in-house, while larger organisations may parachute in an experienced consultant to fill a gap or help turn a situation around.

Interim manager Iain Cockburn sums up the situation neatly: “Companies are feeling the pinch. Interims are ideal in that they offer immediate support and expertise but are dispensable. When all the costs are considered, they offer good value for money.”

Good interim managers are highly sought-after because they can make a real difference when they enter an organisation. However, fitting in with the culture and quickly delivering exceptional results is not easy and not everyone is suited to this way of working. 

These are some of the challenges that either appeal or appall:

•  Working across a range of time zones
•  Travelling between countries
•  Juggling different and difficult clients
•  Recognising that you have been brought in to solve a specific problem, not to become a permanent employee
•  Guiding without interfering
•  Managing client expectations 
•  Coping with time between contracts.

Interim management can be a satisfying career for those with an independent spirit who might get bored by a routine work environment or frustrated by less capable managers controlling their destiny. For others, it may be the flexible and independent working style that suits them.

Case study: Lizzie Thomson

For Lizzie Thomson, interim management is all about mindset: “Interim management is much more than being a consultant – you go into a company when there is an issue or a gap in their infrastructure. You need a kind of ‘terrier mentality’, which I’ve been accused of having! You keep going until you find out what the problem is and then come up with a plan to solve it.”

As a mother, Lizzie appreciates the work/life balance: “Because I do global work from home, I eliminate a two-hour commute. I generally take parts out of my day to do whatever is required with the children. This means that while I’m starting my day at six in the morning and am still working at 9pm, it isn’t a continuous activity.”

How did you become an interim manager ?
I was living in Tokyo and the company that I was consulting to went into liquidation. I had two children and thought I would focus on looking after them. But then I started getting phone calls about jobs and I realised that working a three-day week through an interim contract gave me that work/life balance that I was seeking.  

After working in Tokyo, did you come back to the UK?
No, I was in Japan for eight-and-a-half years and then I moved to Australia for four-and-a-half years. Prior to being in Japan, I lived in Frankfurt for two-and-a-half years. So I’ve travelled quite a lot, which I think lends itself to what I do today. 

How many days a week do you spend working for one client?
I usually start by only working for a few hours and then I realise that there are gaps in the company’s requirements. When I’ve raised these issues, I’m asked if I can sort them out too. So I start off with two or three days a week and then the company aims to make you work full-time!

What attracted you to the job?  
You’re using and maintaining a varied skill-set on a day-to-day basis. I think that some people like doing that and some people don’t. I certainly don’t want to be doing one specific thing continually.

What does a typical day look like?
My days tend to follow the sun when it comes to time zones. From 6am, it is working with Asia/Australia, then Europe from around 8.30am and from lunchtime the US comes on stream. I have a mix of calls, teleconferences and planning/report writing, depending on the client.

What daily challenges do you face?
The biggest challenge is sitting in one country yet keeping abreast of everything going on in the other geographies.

What are the common challenges for the interim community?
If you go in at a relatively senior position, you need to move quickly and create real impetus. Some new interims find that quite difficult to do, but it’s something that they have to get used to. Ownership is another challenge. I work on the principle that the client is always right. So, while you are being paid to go in, find out where they’re going wrong and advise them accordingly, at the end of the day, that’s all it is – advice, which it is up to them to accept or reject.

What are the main traits of a successful interim manger?
I think personality plays a large part. You have to be able to walk in to a new environment, make friends and then leave again, while retaining good relations. Experience is essential, because you have to have a wide network to call upon.

Case study: Iain Cockburn

Why did you decide to become an interim manager?
While I joke about it, it is partially true that I got on badly with my managers and sometimes I think they were equally frustrated by me. When working permanently, I was getting to the point where, in the annual appraisal, I had 15 years more experience than the managers who were dealing with me.

How does the job differ from a permanent role? 
For me, the key thing is that you are cognisant of, but not concerned by, office politics, which I think is a huge plus. I’m independent of, but compliant to, company strategy and I have the freedom to professionally critique or advise. Finally, I have the friendly home environment to work in.  

What is a typical day for you?  
For European clients, I tend to basically start at 8am and finish at 4.30pm – and that includes lunch. I am logged in and ready for work at 8am sharp. First, I review all my emails and prioritise my activities and then I normally phone one or two contacts to clarify priorities. When I have got the working day sorted out, I start to review and prepare reports. 

The other areas of a typical day normally include one or two phone conferences and planning for face-to-face meetings. These happen when there is a need or just on a regular basis to keep facial contact and the relationship working.

What are some of the challenges?
As a consultant you simply advise, and you may advise with some assertion but you must remember your position; it is not your product and it is not your company. That was a very tough lesson for me to learn. I’m pretty good at that now, but it was hard at the outset. 

Handling out-of-hours requests and the expectation that you’re 100 per cent available on the Blackberry or via email is very tricky when you’re only contracted for a certain number of working days per week. I do stress to clients that I will work full time on the days we have agreed and I set up my email to respond accordingly, to ensure it is very clear.

Finally, you need to keep the client aware of your activities and the contribution you are making. You’ve got to make them feel confident that you are actually working hard and delivering for them.

What are the main traits of a successful interim manager?
After observing other consultants who were failing and not creating a good impression with their clients, I would say:

•  Have a friendly nature and get on with people
•  Be professional and ethical – be firm when it is required, but play ‘nice’ firm rather than ‘nasty’ firm
•  Learn to be pragmatic
•  Be consistent 
•  Compromise within a reasonable set of boundaries
•  Be energetic and enthusiastic
•  Finally, be a good team worker.

The Author

Perry Evans is director of interims at RSA Executive Search