Q&A Richard Graham: A Senior Interim Executive Within the Rail Industry
Why did you choose to pursue a career as an Interim Executive?
There is probably no single reason why someone makes this choice. In my case, it was a combination of curiosity, a willingness to embrace change and a desire to use my skills to help others. It is an opportunity to move in different client circles, experience issues as they see them ‘through their eyes’ and in so doing, bring my own insights to help them achieve their objectives. In turn, these experiences, broaden my own thinking, challenge ‘accepted norms’ and deepen my understanding.
How did your corporate career prepare you for being an Interim Executive?
I graduated as a Chartered Engineer and subsequently chose periods of further education to deepen specific expertise. I view corporate life as a progression, adding experiences as ‘building blocks’ through practical application of that expertise. Multi-national corporations are demanding and rewarding in equal measure. I am proud of the mega-projects that we achieved together as colleagues and teams, which built my knowledge and confidence. The key preparation has been in learning how to function within large teams, whether leading or supporting colleagues. Change is constant and the work at-scale is both challenging to mind and spirit, as well as building resilience. Corporate experiences have shaped my view of people, team-work and leadership. An intuitive understanding of situation and people grows through corporate life. You bring this intuition as an Interim Executive into client situations that are complex. Intuition helps me to quickly assess and support a client’s situation, but listening, contributing and challenging are necessary to provide effective help within the tight timescale that clients expect. Corporate life taught me discipline, the importance of good preparation and planning. These are essential skills when starting any new assignment.
Describe the most demanding assignment you have undertaken – why was it so challenging and what were the results?
An intermediary asked me to act as one technical reviewer of an international rail operator’s bid. The bid team was located the other side of the world. From the documents that we received, it was clear that they were in a challenging situation with the bid deadline looming. The situation was harder because I never met the bid team in person, and available communication channels hindered dialogue. As I provided formal feedback to them, I added sketches and diagrams to explore their thinking in our exchanges. This drew out cultural and contextual differences that I needed to understand and to frame my advice. The result was recognition within their team that they should adapt their bid approach to present their expertise to their client in a different way. The company altered local bid resources to bring in different thinking and substantially re-wrote their bid strategy and delivery plans.
Why do you think that the Rail/Infrastructure sector is such a big user of Interims?
Infrastructure is a great sector to be in right now, with growing public recognition of its important contribution to national growth and social well-being. As capital investment, rail and infrastructure are highly cyclical. Public bodies and corporates also face growing taxpayer and economic pressures, in response reducing overheads and specialist skills they retain in-house. It is often not possible to release hard-pressed staff for bid work or there are problems within functions that require external expertise to help resolve for a period. An Interim is one way that these bodies can reconcile their competing, and sometimes contradictory, pressures. Infrastructure, due to its scale, is inherently team-based and specialised, which favours the use of Interims. Interims must be highly motivated, well-networked and collaborative. They inject fresh impetus and skill into the sector, enabling it to adapt to ever-changing demand, without adding to the long-term pressure that these bodies face.
From your experience, what are the greatest benefits clients gain from hiring an Interim Executive?
I’ve mentioned flexibility already, but for me the real benefits to a client lie firstly with the teaming instincts that Interims bring and secondly, their insights into why projects fail. A successful Interim’s leadership style cannot be ‘command and control’, rather listening, persuasion, advocacy and challenge to client teams to help give them the freedom to make positive choices that resolve the issues at hand. There is a multiplier effect. If an Interim can ‘lead by example’ or adjust staff thinking, this encourages the rest of the team, who in turn feel able to perform better themselves. I have found agile problem-solving, a calm but proactive demeanour in a crisis and supportive behaviours are well-received. Building trust within teams enables knowledge to be exchanged, fresh-thinking explored and new approaches developed, with old problems tackled in new ways. Innovation and learning follows. And the Interim gains from these experiences too.
What advice would you give any client hiring an Interim Manager?
My advice would be for a client to remember that Interims are human too. We don’t have ‘special powers’. My best assignments have been those where I have joined a welcoming team. This includes a client that has gone out of their way to facilitate early staff interactions and to explain what is culturally important to them and their organisation as the assignment progresses. Organisations can be like families. They have their own norms and stories, which are well-understood if you are part of the family but may not be obvious if you are the arriving Interim. It is possibly why, from speaking with other Interims, some clients choose to go back to the same Interims, time and again. It is simply that there is an acquired understanding of the client’s cultural norms and expectations. In my view, it is important for any Interim to retain thorough objectivity and ability to challenge, even a longstanding client, if their professional judgment requires this. A good client should view that challenge as positive, even if it is unexpected or unwelcome at first glance. A good Interim will always have the client organisation’s best interest in mind.