As a specialist interim recruiter, many people come to my colleagues and me to ask what it’s really like to be an interim. They hear about the lucrative day rates, the exciting projects and the flexible work life balance. But what’s it really like?
The best way to find out is to ask a current interim; someone who has recently taken the plunge from a career in permanent roles to their first contract. For this reason, I sat down with Simon Monger to learn all about his experience over the past six months as a new interim contractor.
Simon’s extensive communications career has seen him work his way from comms executive to senior business partner level, with experience across numerous sectors along the way, from professional services to transport and energy. With a strong CV and good availability, I believed Simon was the perfect candidate when I was briefed on an initial four month contract focusing on rolling out a new ten year business strategy across the UK and Ireland for Murphy Group, a large construction company.
After a one stage interview process, Simon proved to the Director of Marketing and Communications, Chris Mostyn, that he was the right person for the job. A smooth compliance process followed, and Simon was ready to start his first contract role.
If you’ve ever had any questions about moving from the world of perm to interim, hopefully our interview with Simon provides you with some answers.
I’d been thinking about making the move to interim for some time, but had always been a bit hesitant. I know a few people who have gone freelance and they had all been waxing lyrical about it. So when I was fortunate enough to take a couple of months out last summer, I decided to take the plunge!
Obviously there’s the concern about how easy it will be to find work. When you’ve spent your working life in permanent roles, it can be a little unnerving. But if you’re well networked and you have a good reputation, it’s not long before you start finding opportunities. I think my other hesitation was around how difficult it would be to set up my own company. As it turns out, that was easy enough and there are loads of resources available to guide you through the process.
I decided to go freelance at the beginning of June, so you’d be forgiven for thinking that it wasn’t the best time to set up on my own. However, any initial fears were quickly allayed: there were plenty of opportunities in London.
In fact, I think the impact of the referendum vote has created – and will continue to create – lots more opportunities. With so many unknowns, it’s clear that Brexit will continue to present many challenges for businesses across the globe. That means more work for us. Whichever side of the political debate you fall on, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with some of the biggest and best companies on issues that affect their customers, their shareholders and their employees. That’s an exciting prospect.
Absolutely, there’s definitely a difference. Whereas in a permanent role you can find yourself having to prove your worth – the most obvious example of this being the probationary period you have to serve – as a consultant you hit the ground running. It’s accepted that you’re the expert and they’ve hired you because of what you bring to the table. You still have to deliver, but it’s a good head start and that trust is already there.
I’ve had some great conversations with people in my current contract at Murphy, where I’ve explained what I’m here to do and they’ve said to me, “OK, how can I help?”. You’re often pushing on open doors. Coming from outside the organisation encourages people to open up in ways they might not do with a colleague. It’s a very privileged position to be in and one I don’t take lightly.
I’d argue that the characteristics you need to be a successful interim are the same as those you need for permanent roles; it’s just the mix that might be different.
You need to be able to get up to speed really quickly with the business: its strategy; vision, mission and values; objectives; culture and so on. It’s no longer enough to be able to talk about communications strategy; you need to be able to hold your own on business strategy, too. You need to be a fixer: you’ve been hired to be a pain reliever, to solve problems and break down barriers.
More broadly, you need an understanding of what’s going on in the wider world and business, as you never know where your next placement might come from. You often won’t have a lot of time to get up to speed, so keeping abreast of developments more generally will stand you in good stead.
You need to be well networked, which is something that I’ve always enjoyed doing anyway. But it’s even more important when you’re self-employed as you want to be front of people’s minds in order to hear about the best roles. You need to be clear on what you’re selling – and who’s buying. What’s your unique selling proposition? What mix of skills do you bring that no one else does? If you understand that, you can make sure you’re really adding value in the right companies. You’ll need to be tenacious, too, and be on the lookout for opportunities. It could be a passing conversation with someone that you meet at a drinks event or dinner that leads to the next exciting opportunity. And I’d obviously recommend working with VMAGROUP, as I was ultimately placed in my current role by them. I’ve been on their books for quite a while and having them as my recruiter has opened even more doors, which can only be a good thing.
I find it helps that I’ve worked across such a wide range of sectors and industries, as it means I’m pretty clued up on what’s happening and that I can quickly adapt to fit in with different cultures. It also means that I have more potential opportunities available to me. Being a chameleon comes in handy!
Not so much a challenge, but you have to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. My contract has been extended twice at relatively short notice, so you go from exploring new opportunities one minute to stepping back the next. It’s really helpful to keep those connections and conversations going, as extensions might only be short and you’ll soon be available for something new.
Being able to walk into a room and have all eyes turn to you. That’s a great feeling. You’re the expert and people look to you for solutions. Of course you have to deliver on the promise, but there’s an implicit trust there and it’s a privilege to be taken into the confidence of CEOs, directors and heads of departments – although I know many permanent comms pros who feel the same
The real difference is that you feel more in control of your career. You have the freedom to take on projects that particularly interest you, or that are with companies you’ve always wanted to work with. Job specifications for interim positions tend to be a bit more detailed, too, so you know very quickly whether you can really make an impact. Because some contracts can be six months or less, you can also get a lot of variety – there’s no chance to get bored.
Go for it! I’ve found it a liberating experience and now that I’ve started, I can’t imagine going back to permanent roles for the foreseeable future.
You’ll probably find it difficult to get an interim role if you’re still in permanent employment, as interims often need to be available for an immediate start. So it’s sensible to make sure you have some savings set aside to tide you over while you look for that first contract.
Use your network. Get in touch with people you know, let them know you’re making the change. Use LinkedIn to its full advantage and get along to networking events – there are plenty of free ones out there. The comms community is a pretty friendly one and people are always happy to lend a hand, put you in touch with someone they know or otherwise support you.
And don’t forget about a good recruitment agency: VMAGROUP has an interim team, so make sure you’re on their books!
This interview was the first in a two-part Interim Spotlight series. NEXT WEEK, we’ll be publishing ‘Part 2: The Client’ – I spoke to Chris Mostyn, Director of Marketing and Communications at Murphy Group, to get his take on what bringing Simon in as an interim meant for him and his team. Watch this space!
Matt Gibbs, Consultant, VMAGROUP
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