Interim becoming the new permanent

Covid-19, combined with the digital transformation taking place within the retail sector, will lead to greater numbers of interim appointments involving specialists in digital who can inject some agility and bring about much-needed change.

Guy Lister, interim marketing director at River Island and former interim digital director at Ann Summers, says coronavirus has accelerated the trend for change in the sector and this will impact the industry massively in terms of how it brings in the required skills and personnel.

“For the next two or three years there will be fundamental change involving much more digital and companies are resisting permanent hires in order to do this [transformation]. They can instead bring in interims almost like a no-win, no-fee type basis. It’s almost mercenary. Retailers need to make things happen and so there will be more interim hires,” he suggests.

"They can instead bring in interims almost like a no-win, no-fee type basis. It’s almost mercenary"Guy Lister, interim marketing director, River Island

Dave Elston, former interim head of digital at Penhaligon’s and previous digital director at Clark’s, agrees Covid-19 is a serious jolt to the sector and that bringing in interims for specific projects can be the sensible solution in these times of great upheaval.

“I imagine a lot of businesses now recognise that eCommerce is more important than they thought and that what they have got in place is not quite as good as what they thought they had in place. This will drive interim roles in order to get things up to speed,” he says.

As well as being able to bring in technical skills there is also the situation where many retailers have brought in “bright young thrusters” who might be lacking leadership and people skills and so an interim can introduce some much needed experience to help push things along.

One of the major benefits from drafting in outsiders is that they are not hindered by day-to-day company politics. “You can put your head above it all. You can bring in fresh ideas and cut through stuff and bring a lot of clarity. This is very useful in terms of what you are trying to achieve, which [often] involves extricating the business from legacy systems,” explains Elston.

This has been recognised by another serial interim executive currently focused on digital marketing at an out-of-town discount retail establishment, who has worked at many retailers in digital-related interim positions. She says that when you remove the permanent element from a role then the individual has the opportunity to “think the unthinkable”.

“As an interim/consultant you come in to solve specific problems and you can cut through the politics. When people know you are not going to be there forever then you get better collaboration across the business. You are less threatening to them,” she says, adding that interims are much more entrepreneurial in their thinking and this is something that large companies have been missing out on.

This is a serious problem for an industry that has to be constantly re-inventing itself, according to Lancaster, and is largely unable to think outside the proverbial box. “Sometimes when they hire big-hitters [into permanent roles] it is very old-school and they spend too much money. You do not need these people building two or three year projects. But instead you want a very agile, build-on-the-fly, entrepreneurial spirit that you’d find in a start-up. This is what interims can bring to businesses. They are not about building empires but are about solving problems,” argues Lancaster.

Ian McBeth, former interim at Josh Wood ColourVivobarefoot and Ted Baker, agrees the retail industry is headed towards using more freelancers – where specialist technical skills can be called upon when required in order to support a small permanent in-house team.

“This will be a growing model. IT has become so commoditised that you don’t need big teams anymore. You can bring people in for a few months. They might be doing various jobs for different companies at the same time. If I was in my twenties then I’d be looking at doing this,” he says.

Lancaster believes the future will see a blend of the “captains of the ship” – typically including the CEO, CFO and a product specialist – along with “agile injections” from people who’ve got the necessary skills and are sourced from outside the business. “This is blending the old and the new. There are exciting times ahead,” she suggests.