Keith Watkinson, Executive Director Human Resources at Salford University
When did you first bring on board an interim and what was the specific brief?
The first occasion I brought on board an interim was when I was working as the Director of Workforce for the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. This was a highly time-dependent organisation where we needed people to come in and not just hit the ground running but do handstands and flick flacks for fun. The roles we most sought to fill were in finance, HR, IT as well as several professional administrative positions.
How many interims have you instructed over the years?
I've lost count. I regard interims as a very important element of the workforce and view interims as people we would want to engage for short-term specialist assignments always with a predetermined end date and frequently with a predetermined outcome in mind. Typically, the roles I most think about are in ‘high end’ professional services; finance, IT, HR as well as programme and project managers.
What do you think are the biggest challenges the HE sector now faces and how can interim management play a part in dealing with those challenges?
I've worked in the HE sector now for a number of years and I've seen it go from being quite complacent about its role in the world to an environment where discussions about sales, marketing, USP, ROI and future proofing the business are commonplace. HEIs are having to adapt to this new environment very quickly but their organisational structures and working methodologies do not lend themselves well to rapid change; quite often they find they don't have the right people with the right skills sets in place to do quite specialist roles. I have seen, and continue to see, HEIs appoint interims and consultants to kickstart the changes that are necessary to enable organisations to make the transition to being far more commercially driven and competitive. We are also seeing people within the sector who have been very successful at implementing changes that were necessary within their own organisations choosing to go into the interim market in order that they can capitalise on their new-found skills and enjoy a lot broader and exciting role with other organisations.
Do you think an interim who comes from outside the HE sector can add an extra level of commercial awareness and value?
Given the changing nature of higher education it's inevitable, and very welcome, that interims from outside the sector will be in high demand. Interims with commercial awareness are sought after but this must not be confused with people just from the private sector. Interims with experience of working within Local Government, Central Government and the Health Service in particular have been found to have the right mixture of cost consciousness, commercial awareness together with an understanding of what it means to be an organisation delivering a broad societal benefit. In my experience most - if not all - universities would regard themselves still as being a part of their environment and their location rather than being commercial.
Could you see the use of interims increasing over the next few years as new funding models come into play?
I can see that the current use of interims in kick-starting the transition to a new kind of organisation will decrease as these changes start to be embedded. However, there is still uncertainty about the long-term future of funding within the higher education sector and the continuing need to focus on cost, value and market share. As a result, I can see the continuing demand for interim workers in all the professional areas I've mentioned. I also think that the focus will change from being quite broad to being quite niche and specific as organisations start a hone their business models and develop ever more creative solutions to new and diverse problems.
As an employer, do you have any tips for interims who are in an interview situation?
Get inside your interviewers mind and understand why they want an interim; what specifically they are looking for them to do and if you can play that back and illustrate what skills you have then you're more than halfway there. When I interview an interim, I want to know that they are results focused and prepared to cut a way through the organisational bureaucracy to achieve it, not at any cost but in such a way that a substantive member of staff would perhaps be unable to if they wished to have a long-term relationship with the organisation.
Having the right skills and experience is of course vital but what other qualities do you look for when recruiting an interim?
I think most interviewers would want to have a demonstration of candidate’s speed of thought - how quickly can they can pick up on something? Energy and enthusiasm are also important. A good interview with an interim will leave the interviewer wondering how they are going to keep up with them and of the positive impact and long-term benefits this will have upon the team of people they will work with.
To finish... any tips you can give or what can an interim do to really capture an employer’s attention?
I would believe a good agency, like Odgers Interim, with somebody from it who you know will represent you well is imperative. I receive dozens and dozens of emails every day from speculative organisations and individuals. It's quite sad, but this email information overload probably means that for many recruiters they cut down their interaction on interim and consultancy type positions to a small handful of agencies.