Career Stories – A conversation between Glen Johnson and Senior Executive Interim Ed Jelen
Glen Johnson, Partner at Odgers Interim US, talks to Senior Executive Ed Jelen about his extensive career in finance and his enjoyment of the diversity of challenges that interim roles provide
As a Senior Finance Executive, Ed Jelen has an impressive and diverse career background. Working for U.S. based and International publicly traded and privately held organizations, as well as start-ups, Ed’s track record spans Commercial Operations, Manufacturing, Corporate Finance, Compliance and SEC reporting. After a long and successful career, Ed made the transition into interim working four years ago. In a conversation with Glen Johnson, Partner at Odgers Interim US, Ed talked about his career change, the business benefits of hiring interim talent and the transformation of the workplace in a post-pandemic economy.
“Transitioning into interim work was not a planned approach for me”, Ed shared with Glen. While some executives might plan actively to transition into interim work at a certain point in their career, for Ed this change happened over time. In fact, it was Ed’s professional network that asked him to provide some interim analysis when he was looking for his next fulltime role after successfully taking a company public.
Ed soon realized that interim work provides huge advantages, both for businesses who require immediate executive talent, as well as for Senior Executives, who are looking for a new challenge. “Advantages are that you can get talented executives onboard your company that come with no preconceived notions or bias,” Ed explained further. “It is a fresh set of eyes and they bring with them a renewed energy. The role may be broad, but often there are specific objectives and the decision to bring on an expert to address the specific objectives would allow them to apply their own broad skill and accomplish the mission very quickly.”
While interims are hired first and foremost for their extensive industry expertise, there are certain characteristics that interims should possess: adaptability and flexibility. Ed notes that the recent pandemic not only wreaked havoc with the economy as a whole but provided particular challenges for the work of interims. “Adapting to a remote environment has been challenging when combined with the corporate environment adapting too. It just adds complexity,” Ed points out. “Connecting and ramping is harder when you can’t do an office drive by and make the personal connection or establish your own credibility.” And this is not a challenge solely for interim managers. As an experienced leadership executive, Ed highlights that remote working as an interim proves a challenge when it comes to building rapport with the team one is supposed to lead. He explains that something as simple as being unable to read someone’s body language can make the job of managing and leading a team that much harder.
However, Ed’s long experience as a Senior Executive equipped him with the necessary experience to recognize immediately what an interim manager should do to establish a good working relationship with their new team. “I suggest that early on you try to have the “get to know you” conversations where you spend more time communicating personally to build a rapport. Once that is done, it is easier to have an informed business dialog. That is especially important when you are not able get together in office.”
While being able to build rapport quickly and providing a proven track record of industry success is key to becoming a world-class interim, Ed considers a humble approach to every new interim role to be the key to continuous success. “You are bringing in “expertise”, but you may not be an “expert” in the business you are leading. You need to be nimble and learn the nuances about the industry you are now working in,” Ed explains. A successful interim also knows when to ask for advice from their peers. As Ed points out “You have to pull on others expert knowledge in the industry. You still need to lean on others to help you through to address the nuances. Industry, organization, and ways of working.” Being a successful interim is as much about one’s ability to build rapport with the people one manages, as well as being able to build a strong network of professionals to reach out to for an exchange of knowledge. And learning quickly is an inevitable skill for anyone who wants to be a successful interim, as Ed knows. “You have to get your hands around it really quickly if you want to be successful. Being an interim leader, you have to really condense your knowledge ramp time from months to days. That means learning the jargon and acronyms rapidly to speak the language of the company.”
A year since the world first went into lockdown, businesses and economic advisers are cautiously starting to look ahead towards a post-pandemic economic recovery. This period, while still rife with uncertainty, will no doubt require a huge amount of transformation, adaptability, and entrepreneurship, both from businesses as well as professionals at all levels. For interim executives like Ed Jelen, the return to work seems to be one of the biggest challenges.
“Depending on how the business was impacted during the pandemic will determine the return-to-work strategy and address the business continuity. Is the business in recovery or is it doing well? The situation the company is in will make the difference in approach,” Ed highlights. And like everyone else, leadership will have to learn to navigate a “new normal”. But this period of change will also be a huge chance for interims to step into businesses and help in their recovery. As Ed notes further “There will be a transition period where everyone will go through it. Such as return to work requirements. How it will play out when employees have been working from home for a year. Managing and building the workforce is not a minor challenge. The plan needs to be considered comprehensively. Depending on the role of interim, they would drive it or react to it. Those working in a CFO role would be supportive and consultative to help understand all the aspects of their decisions and their potential impact.”
Being a senior executive interim manager is not only diverse and challenging, but also hugely stimulating and rewarding. During his four years working across a range of interim roles, Ed can fondly recall numerous accomplishments that not only saved businesses from potential downfall, but also showcased the huge advantages of hiring interim talent. When asked about some of his favorite career moments as an interim, Ed remembers his first role with a “really interesting technology start-up”: “They needed to raise money and go public, and we did it in 12 months which was record time. Not only that, we did it with virtually no staff or a facility. We built the facility, hired the staff, and made it happen. It was a great accomplishment!”
While many start-ups realize the benefits of investing in interim talent to help them set up their business for future success, a lot of interim positions arise out of the need for a new perspective and unbiased industry expertise. “I joined a company as an interim CFO that was foundering and needed restructuring. It was so bad that the rats had jumped ship,” Ed remembers about one of his interim placements. However, even in dire situations like these, an experienced interim can often be the deciding factor between certain ruin and economic recovery. “They were dealing with the aftermath results of significant fraud we discovered. I came in and was able to restructure their debt, secure their financing and right the ship,” Ed shares. “We then implemented internal controls to make sure they didn’t suffer a repeat of the issues again.”
With four years of experience of working in various interim positions for a variety of businesses, Ed Jelen’s track record speaks for itself. However, even as a Senior Finance Executive Manager with decades of knowledge under his belt, Ed recognizes that everyone who transitions into interim roles experiences a learning curve to some extent. When asked what piece of advice he would share with new interims, Ed stressed that it is normal to grow into the working life of an interim with time. “My first interim engagement was more of a journey and I evolved. You have to remember where the boundaries are. Sometimes as an interim you may not have the range of authority or mandate to move people, so you may need to work around them or through them.” And while exceptional leadership skills are a great advantage for incoming executive interims, Ed points out further, that a degree of openness and flexibility is key to understanding the new working environment. “It is important to lean on corporate culture. I work to get to know the exec team and hear their soundbites. After my own first pass analysis, it is important to perform a “sanity check” on my discovery before we run off and do our thing. I found that sometimes the path you are inclined to pursue is not where the leadership team you are supporting need your time,” Ed learned throughout his interim career.
Overall, one of the most important traits of a successful executive interim, is their talent and strong motivation for the work they do. “You have to come in with energy and a clear understanding of what you are there for – Know what “successful” means. I found it is really important to get to know people and get them pulling in the same direction.”
If you would like to discuss this article or you have any further questions, please contact Glen Johnson