Hiring an interim leader can be the best choice for business transformation (or continuity). Here’s when and how.


• Feb 13 2023

How interim talent can transform a business

4 min read

When Mary Poppins arrived at the Banks Family residence, her employers were in desperate need of a new perspective. None of Poppins’s predecessors could handle the job, and far from making an impact, they quit when they’d barely begun.

What made Mary Poppins different? Flying aside, she had a certainty of purpose, deep confidence, an exceptional understanding of exactly what needed to change in the Bank family, and a profound ability to make that change happen. When she’d achieved what she’d set out to achieve, she left the family in a far better state than she’d found it.

Sometimes a business needs a Mary Poppins. In the commercial setting, that’s an interim leader who can arrive, make an instant impact, and guide a department or a whole company on the right path until they’re no longer needed. Here’s why, how, and when they can do that.

A fresh perspective

Some businesses like to promote from within where possible, and some will tend to look externally for new talent. There’s no right or wrong, but both can benefit from an interim hire. Someone from within the business taking on a new leadership role will bring with them the same culture, the same assumptions, and the same habits of the wider business. They could well have reported directly to their predecessor, in which case that will inform their approach enormously.

An interim leader won’t bring any of that sentiment, baggage, or bias to the role. That means they will ask questions that many in the business haven’t considered, see weaknesses and opportunities that others can’t, and interrogate processes that others might take for granted. Given that interim leaders come with a wealth of transferrable experience, they might even come from an entirely different sector. That means not only are they unburdened with your organisation’s biases, they don’t even have the typical assumptions of your sector.

Their interim status also means that when their mandate is to make change where it’s needed, they approach that with a certain objectivity. They don’t have to lay the groundwork for ongoing collaboration — they’re in post for a defined period, and being liked personally is very low down on the priority list. A good interim leader may well be popular, but as a result of competence and respect, not because they were too diplomatic to challenge their colleagues.

Heading new departments

New ventures, new departments, and new divisions are more often than not a calculated risk. There’ll be a lot of sunk cost in the hope of an eventual return, and things don’t always work out. As discussed, an interim leader will have gathered many years of experience running myriad departments, possibly in many sectors. They’ll be some of the most bankable leaders you can find. That’s a deeply reassuring starting point, but as with any experiment, the results are never certain.

The new initiative may not survive, at which point you probably won’t have a role for the new department head. Letting a contract expire is obviously a cleaner, less expensive way to let them go if you need to. You also don’t necessarily know in the first place what kind of leader the new venture needs. Interim hires let you discover that. If the proposition looks sound but its department head isn’t quite the right fit, you’re perfectly free to try a different approach.

Navigating major change

Sometimes commercial or market conditions require huge structural changes, and they can coincide with the departure of a senior executive. In that scenario, not only do you need reliable leadership quickly. A permanent hire will take too long to secure, plus you don’t know what position the business will be in six, 12, or 24 months, which makes a permanent hire an unwise commitment.

It’s also possible that there may be an acquisition on the horizon, and that is far more likely to run smoothly if the wage bill of the acquired business is lower, and the senior team has that bit more flexibility. Even if a permanent hire in that context were desirable, there’d unlikely be anyone interested in taking the role.

An interim hire will steer the business through choppy waters until their work is done.

How to source transformative talent

Sourcing the right people at the right time is a sensitive and high-stakes process. That’s when you need the assistance of experts with deep industry heritage and a wide pool of talent and contacts. RPI is exactly that. To find the interim talent that can transform your business, contact people@rpint.com

RPI provides access to the top leadership and technology talent globally