Workplace guru Daniel Pink wrote a seminal piece in Dec. 31, 1997 for Fast Company called, “Free Agent Nation,” that still is being referenced as a look at the future of work. The “self-employed, the independent contractors, the temps” that make up the working definition of the Free Agent Nation are making their way to the top ranks. Interim, or temporary, executives are highly-specialized professionals employed to quickly right business strategy and direction at small and medium-sized businesses to Fortune 500s.

Why the trend towards temporary executives? Business agility. A Harvard Business Review blog post talks about the shift to agile business strategies: Rational managers for the past thirty years have tightly focused on efficiency, cost cutting, and day-to-day execution — perhaps to a fault. With increasing industry disruption, efficiency is fast becoming of secondary importance to innovation and agility. Many large organizations have too little capacity for external sensing, strategic reflection, and business transformation.

Executives with proven success who don’t have a desire to stay in one place for too long are increasingly trusted by organizations to do mission critical work that previously would have been done by permanent employees or established outside firms. The leadership characteristics of agility—a continuous learner, decisive leader and strategic thinker—are critical to innovative business strategy. How can companies most benefit from agile leadership in the form of interim executives?

Companies across industries are realizing the value in short-term solutions and kick-starts through interim executives. Particularly, SMBs and organizations in crises are leveraging them more frequently as needs arise and unexpected openings occur. Being able to quickly get talent when needed helps the company to efficiently strategize, whether they decide in the end to “turn off” the talent or keep the interim as a permanent hire.

Yahoo’s Interim CEO Experience
Before Marissa Mayer and after Yahoo’s former CEO Scott Thompson’s “inadvertent error” stating he had a computer science degree from Stonehill College when he actually did not have one, Ross Levinsohn took over as interim chief executive in 2012. Levinsohn’s experience was radically different than his predecessor’s, ranging from investing in startups, running online businesses and helping seal deals and acquisitions.  

He had a reputation for interacting well with others in the professional realm and his deal-making experience would prove useful to Yahoo as it embarked on a strategic business shift. As interim CEO, Levinsohn finalized details of a plan for Alibaba Group, a Chinese e-commerce provider, to buy back a stake in itself. The deal handed Yahoo at least $6.3 billion, as well as $800 million in Alibaba preferred stock. Although vying for the permanent CEO name, when his term had run its course and Mayer was named CEO, Levinsohn left the company. 

Life Cycle of Executive Temping
Often, the individuals working in this environment are either entrepreneurs who sold their companies to a larger organization, or “refugees” from big corporations who value the flexibility of temporary and project-based work. Typical assignments can last four to nine months, but can fall anywhere above or below this range. Depending on the scope and requirements, the executive’s role from point of entry to exit varies greatly.

  • Entering the assignment: Entry typically involves the prospective interim and company jointly exploring the requirements in order for the company to be able to decide whether or not the executive is a good fit. Once brought on the team, it is the interim executive’s duty to research the current situation of the company in order to initiate a detailed plan on how to address it. This step leads to the next, which is carrying out the assignment, objectives and plan. 
  • Performing the actual implementation: Taking ownership of the position, the interim executive manages the intervention, project, solution and reporting progress with the company. During this phase, the professional delves as deep into the company as necessary to achieve results and utilize his or her expertise, while still remaining an independent practitioner. Depending on the situation and company, tasks will range from overseeing teams to dealing with crisis and everything in between.
  • Exiting the position: As the end of the project approaches, the interim executive measures results to ensure the objectives have been met and that his or her work has been satisfactory. Again, depending on the situation this phase could include a handful of different tasks, such as training or helping select their successor, or implementing a business strategy with the newfound knowledge. 

At the macro-level, to do a search for talent, the process easily takes three to six months. So it is very pragmatic for companies to have an interim plan. Temporary staffing, particularly the newer trend of interim executives, has arisen out of this need.

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