Interims vs Consultants – What’s the Difference?

Prior to the 90’s, when an organisation needed external senior-level help to handle transition or change, the only option was to bring in management consultants. The consultant’s role was to advise, guide, recommend or facilitate and, most importantly, persuade the client to accept their recommendations. They rarely implemented the recommendations – this was the responsibility of the client organisation. Over the last ten years or so, Board-level interim management has emerged. Interims, historically called “company doctors,” were used initially as turnaround managers, often in high-profile rescues. The recession of the early nineties opened up the market, generating both opportunities and candidates. The current recession is bound to see a further growth in the UK interim management market which is now £200 m per year. Today interims are deployed in a range of executive roles and can provide a viable alternative to management consultants, at a fraction of the cost.

Incisive Action During Turnarounds
A key role for the interim executive is that of turnaround specialist. In a turnaround situation, the business is under pressure to deliver in the short term before the cash runs out. An experienced interim can deliver on all fronts – they are objective, experienced at execution and immediately available to focus on the client’s issues. Unlike consultants, the interim’s approach will essentially be pragmatic, focused on short-term cash flow and the day to- day survival of the business. BIE Interim has the highest concentration of Board-level interim managers in the UK on its’ books. Nick Diprose, Managing Director of BIE says “Board level interim managers are confident and independent. They are able to make decisions quickly and act to the benefit of the client. We know that in cases of business turnaround, time is of the essence and clients value these attributes.”

Filling Critical Vacancies
Interims are the preferred choice over consultants in filling critical vacancies pending recruitment. Even in a buoyant market, recruitment of a senior executive can take six months or more, and often the client cannot afford to wait. In turbulent times such as in a recession, filling a job can take even longer. The primary requirement in this instance is continuity of day-to-day line management to ensure business momentum is maintained. Interim executives must be immediately available and suitably over-qualified to be credible and effective from day one.

Implementing Change
In the case of planned, organizational change, management consulting firms have typically been deployed. They offer an injection of intellectual horsepower (consultancies employ the brightest graduates and MBAs and generate much of the thought leadership behind new business methods) and clients have the added security of making decisions backed by recommendations from “blue-chip” consulting firms. However, consultancies have been criticised for leaving their clients with little more than a detailed report filled with recommendations. Their staff may be bright but often lack actual line management experience in change implementation. Reponsibility for implementing the recommendations remains with the client and these skills aren’t often available in-house. A growing number of UK business leaders have realised that professional interim managers with the right experience can be used to help implement organisational change. By undertaking the role of internal change manager, an interim provides an objective interface between the client and the consulting firm. Working from within the organisation, interims help build internal support for the change, crucial if the change is going to be accepted by the organisation. This is different to consulting firms who tend to impose change from the outside.

Change Skills at a Fraction of the Cost
Finally, interims are available at a fraction of the cost of management consultants. The 2001 BIE/MORI Captains of Industry survey found that users of interims felt that “interim executives are more suitable and cost-effective for implementing change or transition than management consultants,” by a ratio of 5.5:1 (up from 3.5:1 in 2000). As Ian McKinnon, chief executive of Luxfer Group, says: We have just put an interim executive into one of our acquired businesses, which means we will have a heavyweight, hands-on manager on site. This is one of the advantages of interims. You get the benefit of an outsider with a lot of experience of handling change, at a cost which is roughly half that of a management consultant.” The comparatively small number of senior interim executives is not going to replace the vast numbers of management consultants, but there is no doubt that interims are displacing consultants in some of their key markets. Interim executives offer clients a “fast-track” method for achieving real and sustainable change based on hands-on experience. Says Sean Egan, CEO of Bluecycle.com: “With an interim, you get what you pay for – with a consultant, you often buy from the expert and get the trainee doing the job.”

BIE© February 2009