From education to employment

What a good interim manager should bring to your college

The skills necessary for effective leadership and management are increasingly complex. Real inspiration and innovation are needed to help face the challenges of the economic downturn and the unprecedented cuts in funding, without sacrificing quality of education or choice.

Colleges need to ensure that nearly every pound from government is spent contributing to national priorities, job creation and skills measures or they will soon join those identified as ‘struggling’, ‘financially vulnerable’, or worse.

Whilst some staffing situations can be anticipated, others arise as new ways of working and employee relationships are explored. Even in the most successful colleges, departures can be unexpected.

Further education and training in the 21st century needs to be genuinely responsive to learner and employer needs whilst ensuring the best possible return on public resources. Sourcing an experienced interim is a good way to get essential skills and experience in place in a matter of days, and to help move a college forward. An interim can provide an immediate high quality solution to filling a vacancy, thereby giving flexibility to senior managers who need to make key staffing decisions and minimising the risk of selecting the wrong person for a permanent role. Furthermore, a good interim can also invigorate the gene pool and help embed new ways of working.

Effective interims are typically very well qualified people who have worked in a range of organisations and relish change and challenges. A good interim manager is able to communicate at a high level, is highly motivated, flexible, loyal and objective. Appointments range from Head of Department to Principal, so a good interim must have good operational and strategic skills, an understanding of the complexities of leadership and management, finance and funding, quality improvement or curriculum design, and also an ability to recognise key issues quickly and take steps to address them.

In February 2009, Mike Sheehan was placed as interim Principal at Riverside College by FE Associates; a role which Mike has now accepted on a permanent basis, showing how interim management can also be used as an alternative route to recruitment. The college was facing re-inspection and Mike identified the need for strong leadership and appointed two other interim managers to help the college manage the turnaround.

The college successfully navigated re-inspection in February 2010 with Ofsted’s report saying ‘the new principal and senior leadership team have had outstanding success in bringing about positive change’. Now the college’s overall quality is ‘good’ with an ‘outstanding’ chance of further improvement.

One Corporation Chair speaks of his positive experience of using interims. ‘There were no ‘on-costs’ or personnel burdens and having an experienced interim Principal made an immediate impact and boosted morale. We also got significant added value – a thorough review of a wide range of options for our future, a recovery plan and an accommodation strategy, all of which provided the college with a sound basis on which to move forward’.

A key focus for colleges now is on interventions that integrate employment and skills training. One college in the south east was successful in winning a large contract. It needed immediate help to set up systems and manage the project. Recruiting staff on a time-bound contract would have taken too long and was not guaranteed to be successful. The college sourced a highly motivated and experienced interim curriculum project manager who hit the ground running. Ten months later she is still there and the college has exceeded its targets for supporting people back into work quickly.

Replacing a finance director also presents special challenges and clever use of an interim can invigorate processes and produce significant impact. For example, budgeting challenges many colleges and some staff may regard it as a diversion or fail to understand its importance. Insufficient time may be allocated, timescales slip or phasing is an afterthought. As a consequence, this important management tool is compromised. Interim managers can have an immediate impact by working closely with people on the ground. This coaching and guiding of key staff, to help them grow into their roles, is often a key feature and another added value of using interim managers.

A few words of warning however: beware imposters. Hiring interims, who see such assignments as a recessionary stopgap or a part time retirement job, rather than a profession, can leave colleges exposed. It takes a special mix of qualities to be a successful interim manager. Effective interims not only have a proven track record of successful performance improvement, project delivery or leadership, but also have the qualities that inspire confidence immediately and are willing to be accountable for complex challenges and a commitment to delivery.

For more advice on hiring an interim manager, contact LSN – FE Associates, who provide a range of professional and managerial services to colleges and other organisations in the further education sector.

John Stone is chief executive of LSN, the not-for-profit organisation focused on making learning work for further and higher education, local authorities and schools, public services, work-based learning and international organisations

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