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Michael Semark

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A typical HRD: Part 5 – The interim HR director


When asked to talk about what the typical HR director would look like in the interim market, my first thought is: ‘just how long is a piece of string’.

Today’s professional interim HR director is far from that over simplistic profile of simply being an independent consultant, a professional on their way to retirement or, simply, a permanent manager ‘between jobs’.  
The reality is that the variety of roles and projects for interim professionals – especially in today’s tough economic climate – is huge and the strategic and tactical experience and value they can bring to the HR function in organisations across the whole spectrum is similarly significant. 
In general, HR interims are bought in for one of three main reasons. There is a project where extra help is needed, there is a skills gap in the current team or there is a need to cover a specific role for a certain period of time. Something that is often a common denominator, whatever the immediate requirement, is that the role will, more often than not, involve change management of some kind.
The sheer diversity of the demand means we can safely say that there isn’t a typical CV for an interim HR director; much will depend on the specific requirements of the project, the culture of the business and the sector. However, most clients, especially in today’s very competitive market, are looking for as close a fit as possible in all these areas so any CV will have to show a successful track record in doing a similar role, in a similar sector, in a similar sized organisation. 
Building a good cross selection of experience in interim projects is key as it will broaden your appeal to a wider audience. Putting together a tailored CV for each specific assignment is highly recommended and avoids a ‘one size fits all’ profile. 
Typically, any interim HR director will have already worked as a HR director in other organisations; either on historic projects or in a previous life during their permanent career. Interims brought in to do a HR director role will, however, need to display a number of skills above and beyond what is the usual CV fodder and be instantly impactful in person during the selection process. For example, something that is not an obvious ‘CV quality’ but much in evidence in many successful interim HR directors are the sometimes intangible qualities of energy and enthusiasm; both of which are desired characteristics in any interim assignment in order to make the optimum positive impact in the shortest time possible.
This ability to hit the ground running – the clock is ticking from day one – is vital. In a similar vein to having a consulting firm onsite, the client is expecting value for money and will want to see a rapid pickup to full productivity. Thus interims need to quickly build credibility, assess the landscape, influence stakeholders, and tackle the role at hand.
Very often interim professionals are over qualified for the role they have been brought in to fulfil and will sometimes only be called upon to utilise just certain elements of their technical skill set rather than the full breadth of their expertise. 
So, the typically successful interim HR director will have a wide and extensive portfolio of experience and skills to draw from whatever the scenario and requirement; though, of course, the increasing demand for specific skills and industry expertise means that certain specialists will always be in demand. It’s this expertise that many companies don’t need or can’t afford on a permanent basis that is often key to the success of the interim professional.
So, in addition to being technically strong with a good HR track record – which will usually include demonstrations of having the ability to do the role before appointed to an assignment – what other personality traits are required?  
Other common traits found in your typical and successful interim HR director are those of resilience and tenacity. Interim life is often fraught with some uncertainty and is not for the faint-hearted so won’t suit everyone.  Contracts are often of uncertain length, the hours can be long and difficult, the environment sometimes professionally isolated and the ‘where’s the next job coming from’ question is always present. That, and a requirement to deliver results quickly and effectively, will always be top of the agenda. 
Successful interim HR directors thrive on the constant challenge and variety and want more flexibility in their working lives. This has meant that the profile of your typical interim HR director has changed significantly over the last few years. It is no longer the preserve of older, experienced men but the role is now much more likely to attract younger and more diverse candidates looking for this work/life balance and control.
Good interim HR directors will be able to demonstrate adaptability and high emotional intelligence. Solid technical HR expertise is important, but you have to have people skills, manage stakeholders and be sensitive to the organisational culture; you are there for a reason and it’s not to manage the status quo.
The ability to be independent, have a sense of urgency, be comfortable working in an environment of change and ambiguity, whilst quickly assimilating into a new culture are all key traits successful interim HR directors will have to demonstrate. 
Without a doubt, many organisations are viewing the use of interim HR professionals in a new light and are using them to add real strategic value. Some companies are even using them on a rotational, ongoing basis in order to revitalise things – especially as some organisations’ executive teams have been together for some time and a fresh perspective can bring some real insight and value to the organisation. Whilst there will always be the demand for a quick fix ‘solution’, it’s no longer always just a case of tackling immediate issues or change but sometimes also about thinking more strategically; for the longer term. 

Michael Semark is Head of Interim Practice, Digby Morgan

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