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Donkin on Work - Interim Management

March 2008 – Portfolio careers and interim management

The grandstand view of Saturday’s Six Nations rugby match between England and Ireland from seats high up in the east stand at Twickenham offered an opportunity, not only to watch a contest among opposing teams, but to see also how they organised themselves.

The on-field spaces and the way they are filled are much more apparent from a high vantage point than they are at ground-level. In the same way it is possible to get a clear understanding of how teams are working together.

As always on these occasions, my rugby-watching friend provided a constant commentary that is far more expansive than anything you hear on the televised reports.

His main point – more of a worry – is that Rugby Union players are becoming more versatile. Traditionally there was a clear demarcation of jobs within the game, particularly of the two groups of players within the team: the running backs who move the ball at speed and the bigger, scrapping forwards whose job is to win the ball and hold it while setting up a new phase of play.

But there were times on Saturday when forwards were strung out to receive passes in the back line rather than fighting to get the ball in the rucks. The nature of the game seems to be changing and there are some in the southern hemisphere who would welcome more of the running game and less of those physical contests in the scrums and rucks.

I don’t agree. The great thing about rugby traditionally is that it has been a game for all shapes and sizes and never the case that one size fits all. As with rugby, so it is in working life. Today employers are facing much greater demands for flexibility in business and, as a result, are demanding more flexibility from employees.

The result has been a confusing hybridisation of employment options and managerial approaches. The downside to this is that managerial models and attitudes are struggling to keep pace with change.

Much of this hybridisation has been described in the works of management writer, Charles Handy who, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s introduced us to concepts such as the portfolio career.

He invited us conceptually to think of an organisation as an “inside-out doughnut” with a core – the dough in the middle –surrounded by peripheral but important activities on the outside. At the same time he asked us to superimpose a shamrock image over the doughnut that would describe different ways of working.

The first leaf of the shamrock represents core workers, usually permanent staff; the second consists of contract workers doing work that is not vital but that is nevertheless important to the organisation. The third shamrock leaf comprises temporary and part-time workers, recruited to meet peaks in demand for labour.

He described those serving a series of contracting needs as portfolio workers – people who collected chunks of work undertaken separately but within the same time frame. The advantage of this kind of work, though less secure, was the freedom it allowed people to arrange a portfolio that suited their working style.

The portfolio career seemed so seductive that I opted to create one for myself some years ago. Today it is going well and does indeed fulfil most of my needs. But would I describe it as a model for the future of work? Not in a month of Sundays.

Portfolio working is rigorous, demanding and uncertain. Unless you have the hide of a rhinoceros you should hang on to your day job. In reality the shamrock organisation is a myth in that it envisages three equal leaves. Work is not divided that way. The vast majority continues to be described by the permanent job and that may be for the best.

Two weeks ago I found myself counselling a young journalist who had worked on a national newspaper – not this one – as a part-time sub-editor, often described in the newspaper business as a “casual.” This casual status had existed for five years, however, allowing him no opportunity to plan for the future.

Unwisely he complained about the arrangement in an email that was seen by every colleague within the company, including management. He was told to clear his desk that same day. The suddenness of the move left him distraught and confused. I wanted to help him because I have seen his work and know he is a talented writer, but potential employers are suspicious about what for them is an unknown quantity.

Career dips can occur in permanent jobs too but the protection of a contract leaves some potential for salvation. I know the value of a contract. Without one your working arrangement might be fine until the individual with whom you secured the role moves on, leaving you vulnerable to the new broom syndrome.

But this is the nature of uncertainty. Those with a robust-enough portfolio will find that as one door closes another opens. All the same, it would be disingenuous to claim that there is no pain in rejection.

Actors must deal with uncertainty in every audition in the knowledge that sometimes the pain of rejection is tempered with the elation of landing a plum part. Dealing with such highs and lows requires strong degrees of resilience and self-belief.

For this reason I am coming around once more to the view that interim management is not such a bad model for those who want to pursue more fragmented careers. While interim managers must face some uncertainty between assignments, they have some contractual protection on the job.

New research undertaken among the 29 agencies in the Interim Management Association suggests that the nature of this work is becoming focused mainly in project and change management. The IMA’s latest market audit among its membership comprised analysis of 1,613 completed assignments in 2007, together worth £158m in turnover, about two-thirds of which is in the private sector and a third in the public sector. Banking and finance is the biggest private sector market.

The average length of assignment was 130 working days or six months if we are looking at five-day weeks. Most assignments are in the £500 to £700 daily rate range, followed by a higher range of £700 to £1,000. A smaller elite group can charge between £1,000 and £1,500. Beyond this there is a super elite of perhaps two to three cent of interims who can command higher rates.

One of the most encouraging findings from the research is that women undertook more than a quarter of assignments in 2007. Interim management, it appears, is coming of age and finding a distinctive role in the market place. “It seems to be used much less these days for stop gap assignments and crisis management and far more for specific projects,” says Nick Robeson, chairman of the IMA.

Like those forward players in rugby, the market place continues to need a cadre of individuals who have the power to hold an operation together. Most often they’re not engaged to do the fancy stuff but they do bring some sought-after experience in to the workplace. It’s tough work, not for faint hearts and not for the majority. But it’s never dull.

See also: Profile of an interim manager

   
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