So, you’ve reached the point in your career where becoming an interim looks attractive. You’ve taken stock of your knowledge and experience and it feels like a route that’s worth exploring – and it may well be. But, as with any form of career change, there are pros and cons. What might work very well for some, might not be the case for others.

The interim industry in the UK has grown enormously in the past few years. From a relatively fledgling start, it has now become a significant place for people to build their careers. I’ve spoken to a lot of interims, so this article is based on personal insight. I hope it will help you as you decide whether it’s an option for you.

Where are you now?

If you are like the interims I’ve met, you’ll be an experienced professional. You’ve probably had some significant management roles, perhaps at director level, certainly senior manager level in an organisation. You might have been in sales, marketing, HR, or finance. Maybe even something a bit more esoteric, perhaps a CTO, CIO, or a programme manager.

Whatever your background, you’ve accumulated a lot of knowledge and you realise that the opportunities within your own organisation are diminishing. That’s why you’ve started to look outside for opportunities as an interim.

Do you have the skillsets an interim needs?

As the interim industry has matured, the expectations and demands on interims have also increased. The very best interims need to bring not only their technical and professional skills but also the skills of collaboration, upward management, leadership …. a whole plethora of things. As an experienced senior manager, you may have an opportunity to offer those skills.

I have talked to people who have had interim roles and they tell me how demanding and potentially rewarding they can be, but there are one or two drawbacks about being an interim too. If you choose to step into that world you need to plan and mitigate against those problems.

The misconception about reward

Many interims are attracted to the idea of earning more money than they are currently on, then finishing a contract, taking an extended break and then starting another one. If it always worked out like that it would sound attractive.  But, here is the likely reality…

The interim market is mature – so you will only get paid a small premium on what you might have earned in terms of your full benefit package as an experienced senior leader or manager. That premium when you first start out will be further diminished because experienced agents recognise that they can take a bigger margin on a new interim because they are less sophisticated and less demanding, and often a little bit desperate to have their first gig.

So, here you are, out there with no security of tenure, a fixed term contract and stepping into a new organisation for the first time at a small premium to your current salary. That small premium will not include holiday or sick pay, or perhaps some of the health insurance benefits that you have had from your previous employer.

You may be able to parley some tax benefits by going through a limited company, although with current legislative moves by the government that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain, and you will be faced with ‘what do I do when my first contract comes to an end?’.

It’s a tough gig emotionally

Usually an interim role is much more demanding emotionally, physically and technically than a permanent salaried position. This is because the organisation needs an interim because somebody is missing, they are facing a challenge or the role is broken, and they want somebody who can come in and fix it. If you’re doing maternity cover it may not be quite so demanding, but they basically want someone who can come in and cover a gap in their organisation.

So, when you first arrive you have to catch up, and then you have to continually prove your value, and sadly success is often defined by your contract coming to an end. Your reward for clearing up enough of their mess, is to see someone hired on a permanent salaried basis. They can find their right candidate after all.

But it works well for some

So I’ve covered the risks and pitfalls – but for many of the interims I talk to this is still a high adrenaline, high demand way of working. Some people love that, they find that contract for twelve months, they plan their holiday, take four to six weeks off and then they expect that their next contract will be there waiting for them, and if they have done a good job it may well be. Then, they go and work full on for another season, before breaking again.

You can get a lot of interesting experience and can work in a lot of different organisations and you can have a good time. But even when you feel it’s working for you, there are still some personal risks. Let’s take a closer look…

Personal risk 1: Are you moving from one demanding role to a more demanding one?

You could be working anywhere in the country or even in the world, and if part of what you wanted by going to an interim position was to have more flexibility in your whole life rather than just your career, you may find that the demands and strains it places on your family are not what you looked forward to.

You may find that the opportunity to have four to six weeks off between assignments does not actually fit in with the rhythm of the rest of your family. You may find that it is difficult to take holiday during the school holidays, or you may find that your partner is not able to free themselves up to enjoy those four to six weeks off with you. It could be that actually for the first two or three weeks you are just recovering from the very exhausting role.  Perhaps you were expected to work very long hours and do lots of travel. At your current life stage that may not suit you.

So that is the first drawback – are you stepping from one demanding role to an even more demanding one?

Personal risk 2: The small premium

The second risk is the small premium. It does not actually pay for the costs that you face, for the gap between projects, the loss of holiday pay and for the investment you need to make in yourself to network and build relationships. Although superficially it looks attractive, it is not giving you an equivalent benefit.

Personal risk 3: Career progression as you get older

The third drawback is that it does not insulate you from the challenges of progressing your career as you get older. As an interim you are competing not only with other interims, but you are competing with other existing salaried employees. The alternative is always for a company to hire a permanent salaried individual.

This means that you’ll face the same ageism that you would have faced in employment. The challenge is that as you come into the second half of your forties, or your early fifties, you are competing with people with less knowledge and experience but who will be seen as more energetic, thrusting, more ‘of the moment’ and culturally aligned with the younger leadership that has come into the business that you left.

What’s more, as you get into the second half of your fifties, or your early sixties, they will start to question whether you have the stamina for these interim engagements, or whether you have the resilience to engage with the level of change that an interim role can often demand. And, you will find that agents are more and more reluctant to put you forward for opportunities, or when you do get put forward, that employers are more and more reluctant to take you on.

All of this means that you are likely to be faced with increasing gaps between assignments as you get older, and as the gaps grow between assignments the temptation is to downplay your skills and experience, to self yourself short and to go and do the work that you desperately need to have, at a lower rate.

I have seen people who have built great short-term interim careers, then re-branded themselves and actually hid some of their experience, diminishing some of their capability, just to get work at a lower level because they desperately need that work. That’s hardly why they started as an interim and certainly not where they want to be in the latter stage of their careers.

In conclusion

The interim route can be a great short-term experience, but ask yourself how you are going to protect yourself from those longer-term drawbacks.  Plan how you are going to ensure that whatever you do as an interim is going to build the future workstyle that you want. When you are in the midst of an interim assignment it can feel like you’ve made the right decision but, however satisfying it might seem, the longer term risks and challenges are still there – and will only become greater in time.

Maybe there is an alternative. Maybe you should consider a portfolio executive workstyle.

As a Portfolio Executive, you’ll be able to work part-time for several mid-sized businesses in an executive role, helping them grow and deliver results. By having several clients simultaneously, you can afford for one to stop whilst searching for the next. It offers the variety and independence you wanted as an interim, but you are building a real and sustainable business based around your proven capabilities, helping other businesses grow. 

To find out more, check out our Portfolio Executive programme.    

Charles Mclachlan is the founder of FuturePerfect and on a mission to transform the future of work and business. The Portfolio Executive programme is a new initiative to help executives build a sustainable and impactful second-half-career. Creating an alternative future takes imagination, design, organisation and many other thinking skills. Charles is happy to lend them to you.