The risks of hiring mercenaries

Apr 01 2003 by Print This Article

Auditors topped the unpopularity league 10 years ago. Today the targets of venom are management consultants and interim managers. So why do public-sector chiefs bring these tainted people into their organisations?

Cynics say their very unpopularity is their selling point. They are mercenaries brought in to draw the fire normally directed at permanent managers.

But heads of public services are accustomed to public dissent. When it is proposed to close a hospital or open a centre for asylum seekers, the baying crowd want the chief executive's head rather than that of the hired decoy.

The roles of interim managers and management consultants are often merged, as organisations look both for specific expertise that is in short supply and for the managerial ability to make projects work.

The biggest risk for the home-grown manager is not the envy of the interim manager's salary package. Public-sector organisations still pay even high flyers from the private sector less than they would earn if they stayed put. Rather, it is the scope for misunderstanding and conflict between private-sector consultants and public-service culture.

Mistrust can be converted into respect if the interim manager is sensitive to prevailing values and shows genuine commitment to improving outcomes for clients. Team members warm to the opportunity to influence remedial strategies, rather than having them imposed. And as managers on short-term contracts become more common, staff are less likely to see these people as evidence of failure on their part.

So how do you negotiate the potential pitfalls of hiring interim managers and consultants?

Explain clearly to staff why you are bringing in outside expertise. Avoid being defensive and be open about other options.

Put interim managers through the normal recruitment process. There probably are no other takers, otherwise you would not have gone down this route. It will add to their authority with people they manage.

Give them a thorough induction and keep them briefed. They might have rare specialist expertise, but they still need to know how your organisation works.

Treat them the same as other staff once they have started - let them attend the same team meetings as other colleagues at their level and do their fair share of the grunt work.

Monitor the progress of their projects against agreed deadlines. You are the one who will get the blame if they fail.

Make sure the trapdoor works. If any interim managers prove to be flops, you need a contract that allows you to tell them to clear their desks. You have enough battles to fight without getting involved in a duel with your mercenaries.

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