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IM is helping women smash through the glass ceiling

An increasing number of women are following a career in interim management and turning their backs on the traditional route of working their way up the corporate ladder. But what is attracting them to this type of career? What are the advantages and what are the challenges? With Comments from Anne Beitel, director at Executives Online, and an executive committee member of The Interim Management Association (IMA) – part of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC).

In the last Ipsos MORI survey [1] conducted by the Interim Management Association (IMA) – female interims accounted for 35 per cent of all assignments. This is the second highest figure recorded since the poll started in 2006, and represents an increase of 7 per cent from the previous quarter. This is an area that the IMA's members are also keen to continue promoting. The IMA represents the leading UK companies that recruit interim managers. The organisation's definition of an interim manager is: A top level independent executive or project manager. An expert in their field. A high level performer with a track record of quantifiable achievement. A possessor of drive and energy. A perceptive individual capable of adapting to new environments and delivering results. Available immediately.

Interims are there to get a job done, and their time with an organisation is finite. They are there to embed processes and leave a legacy. They need to hit the ground running – from day one of their assignment. They provide an agile resourcing facility, and companies are starting to review these trends and to make decisions based on this flexibility. At the end of the day, the only thing the client truly cares about is whether the interim will deliver against their brief. Interims have, generally, reached the top of their game. And, when it comes to women, it has been likely their children will have also left home. The majority of those pursuing a serious interim career have tended to be 40+, but the landscape is changing…

Many of the IMA's members cite a strong pipeline of talent, with a – seemingly – larger proportion of younger female interims registering on their books than has previously been the case. Putting this into context, the majority of these women will be in their late 30s and early 40s; a younger demographic to the considered 'norm' for the sector. Equally, there are a lot of younger male interims entering the profession – perhaps an overall trend that is set to continue. Today, there is a greater awareness around alternative career structures – helping people pursue other ways of working, as opposed to the regular corporate job. Interim management can fall neatly into this category; the executive never loses a grip on their experience, instead they can put their expertise into practice across different environments.

What is attracting women to follow a career in interim management? Many of the reasons women opt to work as an interim manager are the same reasons cited by men. And, today, so many shortlists are full of women. Interim management offers a different, more independent route for professional life. It is not necessarily a knee-jerk reaction to redundancy – many opt to follow this career path. Those with a strong track record in business are simply not excited by the logical next step on the career ladder and are ready for a change. Through interim management they can take control of when and how they work. Working in interim management can form part of an individual's 'portfolio career'. They can manage non-executive directorships, coupled with interim work. Overall, the work is more varied, and many would argue – more interesting and challenging. Executives Online, a member firm of the IMA, has recently conducted research[2] which shows that the portion of interim managers engaged in portfolio careers – working for multiple clients simultaneously – has almost doubled since 2009.

Equally, a busy interim who works the majority of the year can make more money than in a corporate role and does not have to worry about company politics or whether they are going to be promoted. The daily rate for an interim can average around £700 per day, depending upon the sector they are working in. Another reason women choose interim management is because it gives them more flexibility. Interim managers decide when they work, and assignments are of finite duration. So interim managers can, in theory, opt to deliberately create breaks for themselves at particular times of the year, perhaps to align with family or other commitments. (In practice, the availability and demands of an assignment may outweigh such preferences.)

There is no reason that a woman (or man) who doesn't have good contacts and who isn't afraid to network cannot make a real success of an interim career. The UK's interim management sector is not prone to prejudice – the right person will take up the relevant position, based upon their skills and relevant experience. What types of roles are female interim managers taking on? Some disciplines have a higher proportion of female interims – including human resources and marketing. This is mainly because these professions attract a high percentage of women, in general. Additionally, women are taking on finance director roles and big business transformation assignments. There is a low percentage of women in engineering roles, which typically attract men.

The issues driving women out of the pipeline for board roles, are undoubtedly the same issues pushing them into interim management. An interim career helps women to move around the glass ceiling in a more flexible manner. There is no doubt that the 'women in the boardroom' debate has created greater awareness of the broader issue of women in business. More emphasis has now been placed on filling senior positions (in whatever guise) with female executives. It wouldn't be uncommon to hear of cases where briefing requests have been issued solely for women to fill non-executive director roles. Equally, companies brief in search firms to 'look for women'. Interim management, by contrast, has always been freer from some of the influences which are commonly cited to explain the dearth of women in board roles. A client considering an interim manager cares only about whether that person will deliver in the role, and looks almost exclusively at their prior track record as evidence for that. Issues such as 'cultural fit' and match with a team, which can sometimes work to perpetuate a biased image of what success looks like in a particular organisation, are far less important. Women will be considered more purely on merit amid a slate of candidates for an interim role.

The proportion of female directors of FTSE 100 companies has risen to 19 per cent, a study has revealed, up from 12.5 per cent two years ago. Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, welcomed the figures and said that he was confident the Government’s target of 25 per cent representation on FTSE 100 boards by 2015 was achievable. Boards are clamouring for women, following the Lord Davies Review – perhaps they now need to look more laterally. A high powered interim manager could form part of an unexplored talent pool for board level roles, which goes back to the previous point around women creating 'portfolio careers'.  Despite the fact that the statistics of women working in board level roles has increased, The numbers of women operating as interims is clearly far higher at 35 per cent. Interestingly, NED appointments fit well with interims – where they can operate for a few days per month, in a non-employed position – as more of a portfolio approach. And the UK’s interim sector provides a superb talent bank for non executives.

Tips for following a career in interim management

Develop your networking skills and make sure your sales acumen is such that you are able to close the deal – this will give you a better chance of winning the more senior roles.

Ensure you have financial security – interim managers can go for six months without an assignment, so you need to be prepared for this.

Brush up on your CV and interviewing skills – be ready to face a tough selection process.

Be able to act quickly – both in terms of responding to a possible assignment, but also when on assignment.

Be resilient – starting a new project every six months can be physically and mentally challenging. 

Make sure you stand out from the crowd.  There will be other strong candidates on the shortlist.

Be prepared to live out of a suitcase

Research the IMA workshops – these provide an introduction to interim management and more information

Research social media, and how this can be used as a marketing tool

[1] IMA membership audit  Q2, 2013 (April-June). Ipsos MORI interviewed 21 IMA members during 1st of July to 31st August using an online methodology.

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