Consumer Focus – An Interim Manager's Perspective
Sarah has been an interim manager and consultant since 2006 and first worked with Odgers Interim in January 2007.
She came to interim management with a varied public sector background, having been a manager in local government before joining the Audit Commission to set up and lead local inspection. After a stint as an inspector and head of national studies, she took a secondment to the cabinet office to work on a central government review of inspection. She says that was invaluable in helping her understand how Whitehall thinks. She also worked as an adviser on the Lyons Inquiry into local government, working across government departments and local government.
The Odgers assignment she took on in 2009 was to set up the secretariat for Consumer Focus, essentially to spend six months designing a workable and robust infrastructure and ensuring it worked in the meantime. Sarah describes Consumer Focus as an organisation “finishing off being formed” following the merger of three different consumer bodies. It’s an NDPB of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and when Sarah arrived there were staff from each of the previous bodies, as well as other interims and some newly recruited staff. Part of her brief was to recruit permanent staff for the secretariat.
She began by drafting her priorities, but at the same time got straight into the rhythm of the work, and then refined her work plan with the CEO. In an organisation still in transition, she believes her job was “to work with the grain, but sometimes to make the grain”.
Her day to day tasks were wide ranging, from deciding on technical matters of board governance, to writing and editing reports, to choosing new chairs for the boardroom. “That’s true of lots and lots of interim work”, says Sarah, and for her it highlights one of the challenges inherent in the role, “You can get pulled into too many things. Especially working at the centre of a busy organisation you quickly find yourself with lots of senior contacts, all with their own priorities and expectations. I had to stay focused and concentrate on what nobody else but me could do. And some of that was about preparing and enabling other people to do their jobs and be sure that would continue once I’d gone”.
She fixed basic information and systems, sharing it through the organisation, such as the format, deadlines and outline content for board reports. She created a clearer structure for the working groups of board members, clarifying their different remits and timetables for when they would report and finish. Sarah says that by tightening up her project plan and making it clear when she would hand over, it was easier for others to get involved. “This wasn’t about working outside the box, but helping them put the box together. At the same time you’re giving them options and sometimes saying; now it’s your call.”
Through all this she worked closely with the chair of the board, the CEO and the senior team, so was privy to sensitive information. She describes this as a privileged position, but one that needed to be handled sensitively, and a key challenge of the job. Having helped to appoint a permanent head of secretariat, they had a month handover before Sarah left, which gave time to run two board meetings together and to effect a transition that was seamless as far as the board and the rest of the organisation was concerned. Sarah reports that by the time she left at the end of six months everyone felt things had “moved on tremendously”.
What were the skills and experience which made this assignment a good mutual fit? She believes her knowledge of both central and local government and of governance across sectors was invaluable, but says, “Odgers helped me realise this was also about working with people and that I had skills in setting up and embedding projects and coaching staff”.