In her discussion with Lisa Farmer, Liz Collins a versatile senior finance interim manager, shares her experience working as a career interim manager and offers advice for clients onboarding interims.

By Lisa Farmer

Liz Collins is a versatile senior finance interim manager who has been working on complex interim management roles for over 20 years. In this discussion with Lisa Farmer, Managing Partner Boyden Interim UK & Ireland, she shares her experience of working as a career interim manager and offers advice for clients onboarding interims and for those looking at starting an interim management career.

Liz has been instrumental in delivering value to organisations by transforming teams and providing clients such as Wilko, Fullers Brewery and Virgin Atlantic with financial and transformative leadership.

Liz Collins

Liz Collins, Interim CFO

Lisa Farmer

Lisa Farmer, Managing Partner Boyden UK & Ireland

Farmer: Why did you decide to embark on an interim management career?

Collins: I had been living in the US in a senior executive role and I had a young child in 2000 and I wanted to have more flexibility with work and family life and that was the plan. I initially chose a career in interim to give me more flexibility but during various sessions with an outplacement firm, I realised that interim suited my personality.  During that process, I realised I had two strong career anchors which were 'challenge' and 'entrepreneurship' and therefore interim is perfect for me as it is a new challenge each time you work on an assignment, and you are also running your own business. (You have to enjoy change and make significant improvements in an organisation within a short timescale). It requires you to be independent and to be aware of the politics within an organisation (but to not be embroiled in them - instead I am focused on value-add for the client.)

Farmer: What do you think the key benefits to a client are of hiring an interim?

Collins: Incredible CV of experience as I haven't built a corporate career, I have built an experienced-based career, so I bring a huge amount of experience to roles where career professionals may not have had such wide-ranging exposure. I have worked all over the world, transforming businesses, setting up shared service centres, managed distressed businesses, improved IT systems, turned teams around – and a myriad of other deliverables. I've managed to achieve this breadth due to the interim nature of the roles I have worked on.

I am a very calm person and therefore in a crisis, I will steady the ship and then rapidly restore stability before resolving the issues (which is of great benefit to clients in times of extreme stress and in critical situations). When clients hire me I will analyse their situation very quickly, I won't be invested in politics and I am happy to be one step away from the business so that you will get totally independent advice from a position of many experiences.  You will have someone that wants the best result for the business rather than the best result for themselves and therefore focuses on what is best for the organisation. My focus is on delivering the solution to whatever the problem is that has brought me in. I love team building and people management and people love working for me. I am collaborative and inclusive, but I am not afraid to make tough decisions for the benefit of the business. When you come into a business as an interim, you don’t have a deep understanding of how that business works, and is therefore imperative to work with the team to find solutions for the business.  There is nothing worse than someone being a ‘know-it-all’ particularly when the situation may be stressful.  I ask what the team believes needs to be done to benefit the organisation and by galvanising them, supporting them, and getting them to work collaboratively the team will work with you to deliver a positive outcome. Asking the right questions generally gets the engagement one needs and being supportive of the team gets the motivation that the business needs to perform at its best.

Farmer: What are the downsides of working as an interim?

Collins: You have to constantly remarket yourself, but I tend to keep in contact with my network regularly and not just when I need another role.

It can be quite difficult when you exit an organisation as you go from 'hero to zero' in a matter of weeks. You may have been delivering well but when you are handing over to someone else often the client hasn't always thought about that transition which can be difficult.  However, as an interim one is used to that transitioning and therefore can guide clients to make sure the process is as smooth as possible.   

It is important that as a client you have clarity about why you have engaged an interim and give them the sponsorship for driving that change. I want to be a company doctor working out the diagnosis with the client rather than just being asked to treat symptoms.

Farmer: What are the key qualities you need to be a successful interim?

Collins: Clearly the technical skills are important, but someone who can engage with the client without 'going native' retaining their independence.

Working well with people is also paramount, as it is essential to deliver through the team given the short-term nature of what is required.  One must be impactful from the first day rather than taking one’s time as a permanent hire may do. 

To get the best results the business needs to trust you immediately and it is the role of the interim to build that trust rapidly to deliver a solution in a very short space of time.  As most assignments are less than a year this is imperative. 

Farmer: What advice would you give someone coming into interim management?

Collins: Be clear about why you want to be an interim. It is a professional career choice and not something that should be used as a 'filler' in-between permanent roles.  As an interim manager your key strength is your breadth of experience and ability to problem solve and analyse which is difficult to do if you are also focused on your next permanent role.

One thing I always do on a daily working basis, at the end of each day, is to think about the value I had added that day. I evaluate whether I have added more value to the client than I have been paid which is key to delivering the best that I can.  While there may be one or two days where I don’t deliver more value than cost, those are always compensated for the following day, so that by the end of the week I am always value positive. 

As I am running my own business, in parallel with my interim career, value creation is one of the most important parts of the job. 

Farmer: How do you go about sourcing your interim assignments?

Collins: Many of my roles come through interim management providers and I spend a lot of time investing in that network. I try very hard to help the providers as well and I will always recommend and share my network to help them if I am not available or not appropriate for a role they are trying to fill.  I don’t just call them when I need help to source a role and don’t just see them as providing a CV service. I talk to the consultants regularly and regard them as professionals.  I have often called them in when I am working on a change management project to help me to identify best practice and to work with me to identify the best talent solution for my client.  When they are included in the thought behind the planning, they are well placed to help source the strongest talent.

I have worked a lot with distressed businesses so I also have a lot of contacts with restructuring companies and other professional organisations in that sector.

Farmer: What do you look for in a great interim role?

Collins: I look at three things:  Location, Rate, and Challenge

Location for me is important due to family demands although I know many interims are geographically more flexible.  Rate is key as it indicates how seriously the company views the role, and therefore how likely they are to engage with the interim to deal with the challenge.  The most important element is the role itself. A role must have challenge and something that has a compelling reason for a business to make a change.  I always ask why the role has come about and what would happen if the interim was not brought in to deliver the brief.  To be successful there must be a compelling reason for the company to hire an interim.   In conjunction with this, there needs to be alignment around the purpose from the senior team to be effective.  If this is not present, the assignment will be sub optimal and the return on the investment will not be there.   

Farmer: How is your skillset today different from when you embarked on an interim career?

Collins: I have honed my focus on cash and cash management together with the alignment of finance with strategy.  Coupled with this is ensuring that finance leads within the business and is at the heart of good decision-making.

I am also more confident in my own abilities. Having had a lot of positive feedback I go into a role confident that I can impact, although I still want to justify my value. As an interim I need to have enough to do, add value and if that’s not the case it is time for me to move on from the role.

Farmer: If you could turn back time, what advice would you give yourself starting out as an interim?

Collins: Believe in yourself. I wish I had had at least one business mentor to give me advice about the business world when I left school and to give me guidance and ideas about managing my career.  I also wish that I had taken more risks and exposed myself to other avenues of business, particularly non-finance areas in the business.  I needed my current experience at the start of my career!

Given how little opportunity I had to access mentoring when I started out, I would be very happy to help those who are at the beginning of their careers.  Please do contact me through Linkedin if you would like to have a conversation.

Farmer: Where do you see the demand for interim management this year?

Collins: Leadership is key. Getting the team back together and focused on the purpose of your business. Redefining why you are in business is critical. We are all 'Zoomed' out and there is a need to bring people together again and to re-bond. Being crystal clear about what your business is about and getting people engaged and brought into that. Problem resolution around cashflow management, supply chain and time to get back to business as usual. I suspect as a result there will be a lot of restructuring and transformation work coming along. We will also see more M&A activity, divestment and more clients wanting to have substantial people step changes which will impact the permanent and interim management market.

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