Advice for senior executives considering a career change from permanent to interim work
The interim management industry provides an often hidden, but essential role supporting the UK economy. Interims are proven executives who can be deployed on a short-term basis to support an organisation during a period of change, transition or crisis.
Why people make the switch
Changing career can be a daunting prospect, particularly for those who have been in similar roles throughout their working life. For many professionals, jumping in to an interim lifestyle is a great opportunity to take control over their own career, become their own boss, adopt a better work-life balance and capitalise on their years of experience in industry.
There are lots of trigger points that can encourage this choice. Most often, it is when a professional has the time or financial breathing space to leave the stability of full-time work behind. This is the point when people reflect on their career and realise that it is the transformational projects and problem-solving - where they had a real tangible impact on a business - that they most enjoyed and want to spend the rest of their career doing.
There is also a healthy demand for interim talent within the pharmaceutical sector thanks to equally incisive trigger points for businesses to look externally for support.
A common requirement is in filling vacant roles. If a senior figure leaves the business, it can take months to find and on-board a replacement - particularly for large pharmaceutical firms operating internationally or even small firms operating in the regions. Interims are used as a dependable bridging tool between hires to ensure business continuity and offer some ‘breathing space’ to make the right long-term appointment.
Management teams are now using interims far more strategically in the pharma industry. Some of the challenges we see in the market, such as margin pressures, scientific productivity and M&A activity, all require specialist skills and experience to address properly. After a period of downsizing in the industry, sometimes that talent can’t be found within an organisation.
These are opportunities for interim managers to come in for a temporary period, draw on their careers in industry and deliver the project or initiative.
A major shift in your mind-set will be required
As an interim, you are no longer an employee. When you take on an interim role, the client will be turning to you as the expert. You will be expected to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in - sometimes on your own. This can be hard for some senior professionals who have become used to working with large teams who they have been able to delegate to.
The most important thing to realise is that you and your career’s worth of experience are a valued product and business in your own right. That means you need to take time to identify what makes you different from the rest of the market, in essence your USPs, and learn how to sell yourself and experience effectively to prospective clients.
Your track record will be really important
In my experience, the pharmaceutical industry rarely recruits from outside the sector and places great importance on your track record. The industry operates in its own unique commercial and regulatory framework. This requires a bespoke set of skills and experience to navigate, but also an appreciation of the industry culture and what it takes to get a job done.
That robust and evidence-based approach to recruitment should be reflected in your CV and interview style. Signposting your experience and providing a clear record of achievements that are relevant to the role will help demonstrate that you are the right candidate for the job and can get it done.
Don’t forget the chemistry
You can find yourself working closely with or reporting to a group of people on one project for anything from just a few months to a year or more. While the role might be relatively short-term and finite, you can’t forget the importance of building a good relationship with the business to be effective.
You’ll rarely be operating alone, so make sure that you consider the chemistry you have with the interview team, but also that you have the right cultural fit with the business.
‘Hit the ground running’ on every assignment
More often than not, interim managers are appointed at short notice, whether they urgently need a position to be filled after a departure, or a new project has been rushed to the front of the queue and requires an expert to lead it.
As such, you should expect the process to run quite quickly if you are shortlisted for a role and with little time between brief, interview and appointment. Therefore, you need to use whatever time you get to research the role fully so you can ask the right questions at interviews and make sure that the role is right for you before you need to decide whether to accept the position.
Making tough decisions will be expected
Interims need to make tough decisions, so a tough skin is required. Often, these are the decisions that the business might not want to make or can’t. It is your job to leverage your experience and insight to make the best decision for the business. Once your contract is up, you will have put your own mark on the company, but also left the relationship between the management team and its employees intact.
It can be hard not being an ‘employee’ anymore
Interim pay, which is the daily rate charged to clients, can be high compared to your permanent colleagues. However, the premium reflects the sometimes last-minute and sporadic nature of the work, but also the loss of benefits you would have enjoyed as a full-time employee.
The career also brings with it new tax considerations. Interims work through their own limited companies and with this you’ll need to invest more time in managing your own finances and pay close attention to developments from HMRC.
You are only as good as your last assignment
Pharmaceuticals, like a lot of other industries, can be a ‘small world’. Chief execs will often speak to each other and talk about how an interim helped them out of a tight spot, or news of the great work you are doing can work its way through the market. So remember, your reputation as an interim will precede you. Always stay professional, make sure you give each task your all and put your best foot forward every time.
You’ll need to think differently about your career
Interim work can be inconsistent. This is the hardest part for some interims to get used to, particularly those who are new to it. This transition from a permanent role to project-based work can be emotionally challenging and difficult during the downtime between projects.
Time and money needs to be invested in networking and building your own contacts to secure future work. This is needs to be a continual process and start well before the end of an assignment.
Make the most of ‘rest periods’
Interims work hard during their placements, but let’s not forget the lifestyle benefits that attract many to take the leap of faith and change their career.
Interims are naturally determined and outgoing people, so besides hunting for new work, they will look to make the most of their ‘rest periods’.
The most successful interims are often those who get out and enjoy the time off. It helps motivate them for new projects and support their sense of well-being and fulfilment. We’ve seen all sorts - interims who are also mountain rescue volunteers in the summer months to candidates that plan and take on round-the-world sailing expeditions.
Nick Behan is a consultant and pharmaceutical industry specialist at Odgers Interim