Temp Execs Gaining Favor in a Troubled Economy

By Jessica Marquez

Jun. 2, 2009

Many employers today are finding the need to shift course given the changing economy, but they don’t have the leadership they need to do so. In hard times, firms want executives who can make difficult decisions and not worry about relationships, experts say. And that’s why more employers are turning to temporary executives.

Los Angeles-based Business Talent Group, which has more than 1,500 temporary executives and 100 clients, has seen its business grow 47 percent year over year since its inception 2½ years ago. “We hear a lot from companies that want to bring in an interim executive to deal with a turnaround or crisis and who can make tough calls and be the bad guy,” COO Amelia Warren Tyagi says. “And then the next person can come in and rebuild loyalty and culture.”

Workforce Management New York bureau chief Jessica Marquez recently spoke to three temporary executives who work with BTG—William Kuehn, who often temps as an interim CEO; Philip Deming, who temps as a head of HR; and Sydney Drell Reiner, who temps as a chief marketing officer—about their experiences.

William P. Kuehn
Consultant, interim CEO

Workforce Management: How did you get involved in temporary executive work?

William Kuehn: I had my own business, Bolstad Industries, for several years through the mid 1980s. I decided to close that down during what was really in the middle of an industrial depression. Then I decided to go into turnaround consulting. And I found that doing that kind of work as an interim executive was preferable to being a consultant because you have the authority to make the tough decisions. Since then, I have worked as an interim CFO and CEO and interim COO at a number of companies in health care and technology.

WM: Do you prefer this to a permanent position?

Kuehn: There is always a permanent job that I would enjoy, but the danger in a permanent job is that it could become stale and you could become a caretaker. One of the things that I find very attractive about interim executive work is that you are constantly learning and growing as a person.

WM: What are the advantages for employers in hiring temporary executives?

Kuehn: Often when a company wants to bring in a new CEO, they don’t want to wait four to six months to conduct a search and find the ideal person, so this is a way of addressing that. The other thing is if you have nasty things that need to get done, you want someone who is willing to take the rap from employees or shareholders for making the difficult decisions. Then the new person doesn’t get tagged with having made those decisions.

WM: What are the challenges for employers in bringing on interim executives?

Kuehn: The biggest challenge is finding someone who is qualified. Companies also need to make sure that the other executives are on board with the hire, and that the hire has the authority to make decisions. Finally, interim executives don’t have the benefits of knowing all of the personalities and the culture of the company, so it’s important that someone makes him or her aware of those issues.

WM: What are the challenges for the interim executive?

Kuehn: Again, there is the challenge of coming into a company that you don’t know. Also, the executive needs to make sure that they are well-received by other executives so that they can work together as a team.

Philip Deming
Consultant, interim HR chief

WM: How did you get involved in doing interim HR work?

Philip Deming: I was at a company where the chief administration officer got caught embezzling money, and so we terminated that person and I took on the role along with my existing responsibilities as head of HR. That was 15 years ago.

WM: Being the head of HR requires having a good understanding of the organization and the employees. When is it appropriate to have an interim head of HR?

Deming: I usually get involved where a company is getting out of a crisis. For example, one client I just worked with had come out of bankruptcy and terminated their chair of the board and the CEO. People were devastated and they needed someone. So I came in and handled the human capital issues and helped establish some stability.

WM: Isn’t it challenging though to come in as an interim HR executive when you don’t know the employees?

Deming: Most HR people don’t like to lay off people and do restructurings. After you do something like that, it permanently affects your relationship with the existing employees. So in that kind of situation it’s helpful to have an interim HR executive.

WM: What are the challenges that a company may face in bringing on an interim HR executive?

Deming: HR always needs the full support of senior management. Companies need to make sure that is the case.

WM: What are the advantages for the company in hiring an interim HR executive?

Deming: I remember being called in by a CEO at one client who told me that they wanted the best and brightest. I told them, ‘No one is going to work for this organization.’ So having the advantage of an interim executive is that we can say things that are politically threatening. I have no political agenda.

Sydney Drell Reiner
Interim chief marketing officer

WM: After years of working in top marketing positions at large companies, you decided to go temp. Why?

Drell Reiner: For me it was a lifestyle decision. I have a little girl, Hayley, and I loved my career, but I was working 80 hours a week. Being an interim executive allows me to do what I love doing but I don’t have to commit to a long period of time.

WM: What are the advantages to employers in bringing on an interim chief marketing officer?

Drell Reiner: I think there is a certain advantage in having someone with complete objectivity. You don’t have a vested interest. It’s not your stock options on the line.

WM: But couldn’t that be a double-edged sword for hiring companies?

Drell Reiner: Well, you still have a reputation to protect. And you are being brought in for a specific purpose, so to that extent the accountability is very high.

WM: What are the challenges for employers in hiring an interim marketing executive?

Drell Reiner: One thing companies need to really think about when hiring an interim marketing executive is how well they will work with the product development people and the research people. That’s still important even if it’s a short-term position.

WM: Other interim executives have said that they are often brought in to deal with a crisis. Is that true for you?

Drell Reiner: Well it’s a little bit of a case of the chicken and egg. If a company is looking to hire an interim chief marketing officer, it often means that they aren’t ready to pull the trigger on hiring a permanent person. They know they are going through some big change and they don’t know if they will keep that role.

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