Interview: Ashley Lye
New Zealander Ashley has lived and worked in US, Japan, Australia and Canada during his career. An experienced executive, he has held interim roles intermittently since 2000 and exclusively since 2011. His most recent posting was as Interim Executive at the School of Continuing Studies, University of Toronto.
What makes a good interim?
Some interims are functional specialists with an incredibly deep knowledge of their functional area. That’s not me. My background is much broader across industries and functions.
I am university qualified in accounting, marketing, international business and IT, and have experience in manufacturing, wholesale distribution, financial services and education, so I can bring knowledge from those industries to bear on whatever challenges are presented.
However, I don’t think that, as an interim executive, you need to be an industry expert. If I step into a business there are already many industry experts within that organisation. What the organisation needs is someone with the ability to draw on the existing knowledge and lead them. In my opinion, being a people person, being able to understand others and utilise their skills is an important complementary skill to enhance functional expertise.
Can you give an example?
I’ve been involved in some strategic IT projects that were mission critical to the company and being able to bring in knowledge from another industry and apply it to the problem allowed us to tackle challenges effectively. If you understand how banks operate, you can be effective supporting businesses in working with their bank.
I think that the real ‘day to day’ value though is in changing a lot of small things rather than the big transformational projects. I often find that there are a lot of inefficient historical processes embedded in an organisation that have always been done that way and never been questioned, for example, in accounting. By having cross-industry expertise you look at it from a different perspective.
Is there a typical interim appointment?
Appointments are not always clear cut and they can morph once they commence. For example, I have had an email at 4pm on a Friday from a law firm asking about my availability. By 6pm I’d freed up three days the following week and I started a three month assignment on Monday morning, which morphed into 15 months. Originally it was a gap fill but it became a transformation assignment.
How has being an interim affected your lifestyle?
You have to have a lot of flexibility. My wife is very supportive. If I get a six month assignment in South East Asia, for example, we’ll pick up and move.
I have been busy full time for the last four and half years. It has been hard to find the time for a vacation!
But one of the keys to being an interim is to be financially stable. If you are working month to month to pay your mortgage, then it’s probably not for you.
As an interim, how do you make a positive impact in your postings?
It is easy to go into a business and find areas that need improvement. What is a lot more challenging and a lot more valuable to the firm is to focus on the potential of the people and mentor them to realise their strengths to release value for the organisation.
If the firm becomes dependent on you then you have become a parasite. My philosophy is always to train myself out of my job. Clients like the fact you have trained their people to do what they need them to do and they tend to identify another problem area for you to look at. That is how assignments get extended.
How do you conduct yourself differently as an interim?
Interim roles are about influence, not power. Everybody in the firm knows you are not going to be there long, so you have to work with the people, influence them and get them to buy into what you want to achieve. Sit down and talk to them. If you can find out what they want in their career and help them move towards achieving it, that then you have won their support and they will work with you. The way Japanese staff work with foreign executives in Japanese joint venture companies taught me a lot about how to achieve objectives in uncooperative environments.
Is the interim market different in the North America to Europe?
The interim market is more mature in Europe than in North America. There is less experience with interims here and the market needs education in the value of interims. . People primarily think of interims if they need to fill a skills gap because someone has left at short notice, but their understanding changes once they experience the real value of interims, particularly in transformation, which can be traumatic for a company. To have an external person drive the transformation and then the ‘change agent’ disappears means the people inside the company who have to continue working with the staff are perceived more positively.