An interview with Martin Searle, Odgers Interim’s new Sydney-based Partner
Martin is one of Australia’s leading providers of interim executive talent with extensive c-suite engagement experience across the public sector, professional services, FMCG, mining and education markets. He previously led SAI-Global’s (ASX 200), HR and professional services functions and worked as part of the executive team to successfully list the business.
As HR and safety director for Barter Steggles, Martin helped drive a comprehensive transformation program culminating in a successful trade sale of the $950 million-dollar company. His accolades also include two finalist nominations for HR Director of the Year and international judge for the Dubai Business Excellence Awards.
Martin has had a highly successful career in both interim executive roles, and as a partner for a number of top-tier interim search firms, including Watermark Search International. He is renowned in the interim executive market and brings with him a wealth of industry knowledge and experience.
This is what he had to say about the evolution of Australia’s interim executive market:
In which sectors and/or types of organisations are you seeing the most demand for interim executives?
Australia’s growth sectors for interim executives are primarily professional services, education and technology. We have strong demand from these sectors and others such as those government agencies with accountability for planning and delivery of the country’s major infrastructure investment.
Invariably, smaller to mid-sized organisations find interim a particularly attractive option because they often lack the bench strength of the ASX top 50 businesses. Interim executives come equipped with the battle-scars of a range of previous senior leadership roles (often at ASX 200 companies) and as a result offer a unique blend of strategic direction and hands-on implementation.
For SMEs, bringing in such a heavy-hitter is a cost-effective method of injecting senior talent into the organisaton at short notice. It means they can reap immediate gains and benefit from the knowledge transfer of a highly-experienced professional.
How has the concept of interim executive evolved over the last five years?
Organisations across almost every sector are much more aware of what an interim executive can offer and are more willing to use an interim to meet a business-critical need. We almost never have an assignment where the brief is focused on maintaining the status quo. It’s invariably about transformation and meeting business needs in a defined time-frame. We are also seeing a trend around clients becoming more willing to utilise talent from other sectors providing there is an appropriate cultural fit between themselves and the interim. A major focus is to ensure we meet that fit even more so than the technical requirements of the brief.
Outside of the traditional ‘gap management’ type work, what sort of roles can an interim executive take on?
The vast majority of assignments are actually not about ‘filling gaps’ or providing a ‘steady-hand-on-the-tiller’. More often than not, an interim will be called upon for their hard-to-find expertise in leading a transformation program, providing strategic guidance and hands-on implementation of a merger or acquisition, or conducting functional or business ‘carve-out’ work.
Organisations will seek out an interim executive for the most challenging of circumstances because as a professional they’ve ‘been there and done it before’. Industry experience, coupled with critical skills means an interim can turnaround a failing business function, expand an organisation into new geographic or demographic markets, or manage a turbulent organisational change program.
Can interim executives be deployed in teams?
There is a growing trend for interim executives to engage in more strategic and transformation work that has traditionally been the domain of the management consulting firms. There’s certainly an opportunity for Odgers Interim to grow these types of assignments, particularly utilising teams of interims. This can be achieved by engaging the client at an early stage of their planning process to help facilitate project scoping and strategic outlining, and then subsequently resource the implementation team as is required to deliver the project.
For example, an interim program director may oversee the carve-out of multiple areas of a business; this could be the movement of employees, the separation of systems and creating legal service agreements. Other interims could be brought in under the program director to manage the implementation of these individual workstreams.
What are the benefits of appointing an interim executive for consultancy work, instead of engaging a ‘Big Four’ management consulting firm?
A good proportion of our interims have been partners in global management consulting firms and therefore bring a seniority to the implementation of the work that organisations wouldn’t get with a ‘Big Four’. By using an interim, an organisation inverts the traditional consulting pyramid by avoiding the delivery model whereby the partners sell and the juniors deliver (but still pay the partner rates).
Interims tailor their work to the client's needs, and ultimately work ‘with’ the client not ‘to’ the client. Consulting firms—because they have to worry about their utilisation—have to be a lot more rigid in how they manage projects, whereas we can create a team that stays with the client five days a week for a year or more, and other times give clients access to resources on a much more ad hoc basis. Interims are a far more flexible and cost-effective option.
How do you see interim executive search developing in 2020?
Certainly in Australia, interim is in growth phase and has not been fully commoditised. Odgers is very well positioned as a global firm with very active search practices across all sectors and functions to leverage this. It means that going forward, clients can benefit from a truly global network of resources.
We're also in a growing gig economy right now. Over the last 10 years, we've seen a generational shift in attitudes: Fewer and fewer people want to stick with one firm their whole career and reach partner or equivalent. A lot of people become interim executives because they want to deliver work and bring about meaningful change in an organisation; they don't want to make the transition into becoming a business development person that comes with climbing up the ladder to reach partner—we often hear from interims the enjoyment they get from working with a client to deliver something tangible. I expect the number of interims on the market and the appetite for them to grow significantly in 2020.