An Inside Look at Outsiders

By Gretchen Weber

May. 29, 2004

Outsider status isn’t always a bad thing for an interim executive charged with taking the helm at a new company. Although gaining the trust of employees and mastering the corporate culture can be challenging for short-term leaders at the outset, consultants say that a new and independent perspective is often exactly what a company needs. Francie Dalton, president of the consulting firm Dalton Alliances in Columbia, Maryland, says that a temporary leader starting out with a clean slate can be more efficient than one with a history at the company as long as the person has the right skills. When a company is in crisis, as most are when they seek aid from interim execs, the person who steps in to lead should be someone from outside, rather than an in-house exec temporarily promoted to fill the slot, she says. Otherwise, jealousy and infighting can thwart any real progress toward meeting company goals. “If a company is in turmoil, it needs that outside objectivity,” Dalton says. “A political agenda cannot be imputed to that person and they can be as directive as they have to be because they have a special role to perform.”

    Another practical reason for bringing in a person from the outside is that often the skills required for a rapid, transformational change simply don’t exist within the organization. Poultry producer Foster Farms felt that it did not have the expertise to navigate a major technological overhaul. When the company hired interim executive Paul Lemerise, a veteran CIO, he brought not only fresh eyes but also the hard technical skills required to complete the task. Lemerise says his corporate and IT background helped him achieve success in the assignment, but so did his position as a change agent with temporary status. “As an outsider, I don’t have any skin in the game,” he says. “I have no agenda. I have an unbiased opinion and all these years of experience. I can be more effective in a shorter period.”

    Dalton says that a third component required for interim-executive success is a clear set of goals laid out at the beginning of the assignment. Without concrete deliverables such as increasing a company’s profit margin by a specific percentage in a set period or acquiring a specific company at a set price, interim execs can find themselves spending valuable time struggling to gain support for their ideas rather than just working to implement them. Lemerise says that at Foster Farms, he had six clear objectives, which included assessing the overall IT situation, implementing SAP for the entire supply chain, stabilizing the once unreliable weighing and pricing system, making a recommendation about outsourcing departments and restructuring the IT department, which eventually involved replacing a previous CIO. Dalton says that by establishing goals “as common enemies,” temporary leaders can “rally the troops around these specific objectives.”

    Still, experts say that even with industry expertise, fresh eyes and clear goals, the early days of an assignment can prove trying. Success is contingent on wielding authority immediately, and interim executives must be perceptive enough to sense potential interpersonal trouble spots and deal with them quickly and smoothly. “You always have to win them over,” Lemerise says. “You’re there as a change agent. In the beginning it can be a little awkward. Communication has to be frequent.”

    Kenneth Cleveland, executive managing director of Los Angeles-based interim-executive arm of consulting firm Ballenger, Cleveland & Issa, has served as an executive temp at eight midsize companies. He says getting management focused can be a challenge initially but that sooner or later, everyone reaches some form of consensus. Whenever an interim executive is brought in to make serious changes, Cleveland says, “people tend to be concerned, and that creates two kinds of people–those who welcome you with open arms because they know management isn’t doing their job and they’re afraid they’re going to lose their jobs, and those who understand the problems and want to work with you.”

Workforce Management, August 2004, p. 37Subscribe Now!

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