27 February 2013

Perspective talks to Karim Hyatt on his career working an Interim...

Karim, firstly can you tell us a bit about your career to date and what projects you have undertaken in an interim capacity?

I’ve been an interim for about 14 years now and I have been busy pretty much since I started with only a couple of three month breaks between assignments.  I started by running software product technology operations and making them better - technology turnarounds, I guess - though I didn’t think of it in that way initially. I then moved up from running departments to running divisions and then whole regional operations; either as COO or interim MD.

What do you consider to be your core specialisms?

That’s easy: operational turnarounds. I’m at my most useful when a company, division, department or a specific business within a group needs correcting or rescuing. It doesn’t have to be losing money- although that is usually when I’m brought in - it can just be under-performing. By looking at sales, product, service and/or R&D, I come up with strategic options so a board can make reasonable decisions about how to proceed. I then help to implement the plans over 12-18 months. I’m good in sales, tech & finance which is a pre-requisite in dealing with your own P&L!

Over the past 10 years or so how have you seen your career evolve?

My background is in software products and that’s where I started my career. When I moved into my interim mode, I combined that product knowledge with my interest in sales, marketing and general entrepreneurship to run R&D departments, consultancies, sales organisations and other companies which generally marketed complex products but not necessarily software. I enjoy the challenge of being in charge of complex operational organisations and I can apply my cross-vertical experience to good effect. I quickly found that many companies are stuck in a single operational “mode”. Using operational models from other industries is sometimes a good way of breaking a downward cycle.

As a business we have seen a lot more interim roles coming up internationally; has that trend been reflected in your own experiences or those of your colleagues?

Well, my current role is primarily based in Paris, so I suppose so. I have never really worried about “where” a role is based, as most companies today have some international exposure as modern business is so globalised. Also, an ability with languages helps in this regard. I have worked in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Germany, Sweden, Japan and India, amongst others, but I’m still based in the UK because this is where the interim market is most developed – probably because it suits the British. As we have relatively few employment laws in the UK compared to our European neighbours, we are less wedded to the “permanent” contract as a security blanket. As an example, my current assignment is through my client’s British entity and not the French one.

The Tech sector is evolving all the time so how challenging is it to keep adapting your skills-set to ensure you constantly meet the demands of the clients you work with?

Every product in every assignment is different, so it’s a matter of being able to understand the product, market and company culture within the first few days (possibly the first few hours) in order develop an initial strategy to get you going. Of course, if the product is high tech it is very important to understand the basics, but increasingly as a general manager, I need to understand the market and the market requirements rather than the product detail.

As with many interims, I have come across potential clients who ask for 25 years’ experience in their specific field or type or organisation. Well, I don’t do that and I think they are missing a trick. Taking someone who has demonstrable ability to “repair” a business is much more important than knowledge of the product itself. In the end, if the product is fundamentally viable - and it should be if the company has been around for a while - then it is more about employee behaviour and culture than anything else. Change the behaviour, and you change the business.

What do you think will be the main growth areas within the Tech market over the next 10 years?

Difficult that one: biotech – leveraging the human genome, security (staying one step ahead of small well-funded radical groups), connected data – the step beyond “big data” where the semantic web allows anyone to link together disparate data elements to make sense of a complex question. The growth for interims will come in the ability to leverage the technology to grow the business and that skill is independent of the technology.

How much of an important role do think interims will – or could – play in those areas?

Because of their wide experience, interims are usually hired to quickly fill a gap in the company management team or a critical gap in capability. At senior levels, interim demand depends primarily on the confidence companies have in themselves to solve their own problems. Prior to 2008, the demand rose during each mini-recession only to fall back when the economy grew steadily again. 2008 changed all that and it could be that senior interims will be in more demand for a more sustained period. However, I know many interims who, given the chance, have “gone permanent” for a few years to complete a more complex assignment, or to take an executive position on the board.

At middle-management level, the interim can leverage their detailed operational experience to counter a specific weakness in an organisation until a more permanent solution is found and this is the area which, I feel, will continue to experience sustained growth over the next few years.

On the flip side, can you see any particular challenges for interims moving forward?

One particular current challenge is that there is a lot of “noise” in the market as professionals who have recently lost their job try to become interims. Competition can be fierce - especially in the middle management/expert layers. If you are targeting this particular area, and you are trying to get a job through an interim agency, then your CV needs to be peppered with relevant experience. Make sure your CV is completely targeted towards what you’re applying for and make it a compelling sales document, otherwise you will get lost in the crowd. Your first objective should be to get the interview! After that, it’s just a matter of quickly establishing a good relationship with your prospective customer. Sales is more about personal relationships than the actual product and that applies to interims too.

What do you think are the main benefits for a Tech company that employs interims?

Tech companies thrive on innovation and a good interim should be an endless source of innovative ideas; both organisationally and technically. Buying in a resource whose raison d’être is to provide value and then leave the client in a better position than when they joined is a good way to achieve that.

Finally, any words of advice for readers of Perspective who may be thinking of becoming an Interim?

There are a few questions you must answer before you make the jump:

1) Are you an optimistic/ positive person? You will need boundless optimism, positivity, stamina and a skin as thick as a rhino to make it in this profession. You will win assignments, which you never thought you would win, and lose the ones you thought you were made for. It’s frustrating and exhilarating at the same time.

2) What can you offer? It’s fundamental that you know what it is you’re selling. A clear and simple sales message to prospective customers will ensure that you are not often on the prowl for a new assignment.

3) Are you a leader or a follower: You need to lead. Your clients will look to you to lead change and employees who have been in the business - sometimes for decades will resent you...rhino skin, remember?!

4) You need to deliver and demonstrate value within the first few days. The pressure will be constant and you need to evaluate at what point you are no longer good value for money; have a conversation with your client and leave if there’s a better option.

The combination of understanding your value and your ability to sell will give you an edge over the not inconsiderable competition. It’s a great life with huge job satisfaction, but it can be difficult to break into unless you can initially find your own assignments.


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