Interim management skills needed

A quick guide to the interim management skills needed to be a professional interim.

Interim Manager Key competencies

Interim management provides an exciting career choice in terms of work satisfaction and reward but what are interim manager key competencies?

A successful career depends on more than a history in executive and senior management positions. Yes, interim managers are qualified, knowledgeable individuals, often with prior experience in delivering similar projects. But rather, you will need to combine this with a number of strong characteristics in addition to your excellent track record.

These traits are by no means unique but in combination they form the basis of a solid career in the interim world.

…And they may not be what you think either!

Read on to discover what our understanding of the interim market tells us are the key competencies necessary for success.

Table of Contents

What do we

Interim management services

We provide interim management services to organisations

Looking for interim management jobs?

If you are looking for interim management assignments see our page on interim jobs 

What does it take to be an interim manager?

It takes a lot to be an interim manager. They are qualified, knowledgeable individuals, usually with prior experience in delivering similar projects. But these are just the basic needs for an assignment.  

Much more fundamental is the skill to thrive in imperfect environments – turning the ambiguous into clarity and the complex into a plan of action that will succeed. In short, career interim managers are people who enjoy being out of their comfort zone on a constant basis and delight in mastering new situations and environments. 

After all, you may have a specialist background in a particular discipline, and you may be deployed into the relevant function, but you will almost inevitably find yourself working across teams, across management levels and with little authority or respect beyond what you can muster in the moment. 

Consequently, a level of familiarity with other functions and different working cultures is useful. But more than that, you will need to be agile: quick to earn respect, quick to separate what is important from the background noise and quick to win hearts and heads to bring people with you on the project. These are the quintessential interim management skills needed.

That’s what it takes to be an interim manager and it’s the reason they have a critical role to play.

interim management skills needed

Skills interim managers need

Effective communication and influence skills

Being able to win over stakeholders clearly and succinctly is absolutely necessary. Without this skill, you will find it very difficult to challenge attitudes and behaviours and your utility as an interim will be limited. You will also need to be able to handle difficult individuals with resilience, whilst maintaining respect both for them and your own position in the eyes of those around you.

Strategic savvy

There are two elements of strategic savvy needed. One is being confident and comfortable with the competing dictionaries of strategy speak you will encounter across different organisations – you will need to know your Blue Ocean Thinking from your Emotional Value Proposition. But much more than this, the expectation is that you will know how to join what you are doing to the business strategy. The expectation is that you not only know strategy but that you know how to plan and implement it effectively. This applies equally as well to the public sector as the private sector. In fact, in some government organisations this will have greater emphasis than in commercial entities.

Agility and adaptability

Interim managers face ambiguity at every turn. Part of this is natural because you are in a new organisation and everything may appear different – or at least not make immediate sense. The other part, the important part for your client, is that they don’t know exactly what they are doing or should be doing in the area they have engaged you to tackle. That’s why you were brought in. It means that your assignment and its scope can be subject to ambiguity (You can read more about this in our article: what is an interim manager role?). You are there to work out what should be done, establish what is going on and how to change and harness it in pursuit of the assignment’s goals. The revelations will not come all at once so an ability to be agile to an emerging situation is necessary. You may need to visit sites and locations that you hadn’t originally expected to or seize the opportunity for a meeting with a stakeholder that hadn’t initially seemed important.  More than this, no environment remains static. Things will change beyond your control while you are there and you will need to adapt your plans as you go to ensure the correct outcome. Though the benefits can be great – in terms of stimulating work, job satisfaction and remuneration – interim managers need to be comfortable with a level of uncertainty, ambiguity and change.

Outcome focused

At the end of the day, interim mangers are judged on their results. Delivering a lasting legacy of benefits from an assignment is the basis for your engagement on a new one. It’s the reason that interim executive(s) and managers can expect higher due diligence than they would have undergone as a regular hire of an organisation. Clients need to be sure that you will deliver for them. This comes with its own risks. Because of your proven track record, you will often be asked for your input into other initiatives and there is a risk of “assignment creep”. To stay on target, you will need to be able to manage expectations and focus on the outcomes that you’ve committed to as part of your assignment, while adding value where you can.

Expertise, experience and competence

Interim managers are hired on the basis that they are overqualified for the role. Clients are looking for a “safe pair of hands” where there is no question in their mind of whether you have skills and understanding to deal with the task at hand. They are not hiring “high potential”, they are bringing onboard the finished article to do the work and then leave before getting bored. They need quick impact and for the outcome never to be in doubt.  As stated earlier, this is a baseline requirement for the interim management skills needed. However, understanding of various working cultures, management styles and different sectors and industries will aid you in completing the task.

Assertiveness and confidence

You will need both the confidence to secure the role at interview stage by demonstrating your skills to the client and the confidence once deployed to lead those around you. You will be called upon to challenge ideas and may well have your own thoughts challenged back. This much is normal in any senior job but a calm assertiveness is expected of the interim manager. And this needs to be combined with empathy and emotional intelligence so that it is not interpreted as arrogance. Equally, you will need to know how to back off, how to pick your fights and decide which you can afford to win or lose in the interests of the assignment’s objectives.

First-class leadership and management

As you might expect, interim management is in many ways about being a good manager and leader. You will need to be able to assess and make decisions quickly, explain them well, be open to feedback and able to motivate teams towards the goal. Most of all, you will need to be able to lead by example, be the change you are looking to make in the organisation. If colleagues are not confident in the leadership and skill of the interim, whether they be high or lowly, it will significantly dampen the chances of success.

Ability to project a fresh perspective

Part of the reason you will have been engaged is to provide a fresh outside perspective. Your job is not to fit in or become embroiled in internal politics but to act as a critical friend to the business. It is a tough tight rope to walk between biting your tongue too often or pushing too far and becoming a heretic. Nonetheless, this is what the interim assignment will need. The guiding principle is always to put the client’s needs first and to continually reassess whether your approach to interaction is helping or hindering.

Change management & process re-engineering

It is not enough to be an expert in area and to have seen how things could be better, you also have to have skills in how to do it. Most interim managers are good change managers, either by instruction or experience. Ideally both. Many also have the detailed orientated eye for re-engineering processes – the opportunities, the pitfalls and the critical “get rights”.

When are interims typically used?

In terms of when interims are typically used, it may be that the right combination of skills and experience do not exist within an organisation – or perhaps cannot be spared – for an important assignment. Equally, resource may be available internally but considered too junior because of the importance of the assignment and a more seasoned individual is justified.

It is not uncommon, for example, for an organisation attempting financial turnaround to have an interim finance director who is expert in this area at the same time as a permanent finance director for day-to-day running of the Finance function.

Interims are typically used across both the public and private sector and across all job functions. A combination of emerging challenges, transformation and ongoing uncertainty has seen demand rise in recent years. And this is likely to continue.

Typically, you are engaged by an organisation to solve a particular challenge or achieve a particular objective over a timespan that is usually between 3-18 months.

Often companies will appoint interim managers at short notice so you will need to be comfortable reacting and then delivering at speed.  

In straightforward terms, you are used to manage a problem or lead resources towards a goal where the challenge is time-limited and the necessary experience and skills either cannot be found internally or cannot be spared.

Find out more in our article what is an interim manager?

Reasons to become an interim manager

There are many reasons to become an interim manager.

Yes, it can pay well but that comes at the cost of job security. Interim managers are quickly engaged but also quickly released and there may be unplanned time between assignments. Sometimes many months. 

Most who become interim managers do so because they prefer the lifestyle. They like switching between organisations frequently. They like to achieve an objective on an assignment and then move on to something different entirely. They do not feel the same pull to stay and work towards the next objective in quite the same way as others would.

They also like the challenge, of walking into somewhere new and establishing themselves quickly, getting things done and getting out. For that reason, it’s unlikely to be an environment where you will form deep relationships with your colleagues. Which isn’t to say that interims are solitary individuals. Far from it, deep empathy and high emotional intelligence are amongst the interim management skills needed. But you have to be okay with that. 

For this reason, many people choose this route in life when they have had well-established careers, have built strong networks of close colleagues past and present, and no longer feel the need to prove themselves long-term in their chosen field.

For professionals who have reached a certain maturity and financial security, interim management really to starts to shine as a way of challenging themselves, increasing variety in their working lives, providing a degree of independence from corporate politics and the freedom to embrace life more fully between assignments.

Which isn’t to say that they are all nearing retirement or have reached it. In fact, the average age of interim managers has becoming down for decades.

Ultimately, the reasons to become an interim manager depend on both the opportunity (of having the interim management skills needed) and the motive, and that will all be down to person circumstances.

Why does an organisation need an Interim Manager?

An organisations needs an interim manager when it does not possess the experience and skills internally and it cannot wait for a recruitment process to take place for a permanent post-holder. In fact, often the skills aren’t needed long-term so a permanent post-holder was never an option. 

What makes an interim different to a permanent or acting manager is that they are engaged to solve problems or achieve particular objectives in a short-time frame that are more than just business-as-usual for the role.

Usually these challenges and objectives are strategically important to the organisation’s overall business plan. Certainly, they will be important enough that the organisation cannot wait for a permanent manager to be hired or, if they have been, for them to develop into the role. That is why an interim managers will often overlap with a permanent post-holder, sometimes for the entire length of the interim assignment.

For similar reasons, an acting manager would be considered insufficient. An interim manager is more than simply fulfilling the duties of the role until a replacement can be found. They need to be proven against the exact challenges the role currently faces so that they can overcome obstacles and achieve the objectives quickly. And that’s the very definition of why an organisation needs them over other hiring options.  

Read more in our article what benefits interim manager

Interim manager value proposition

The interim manager value proposition is centered around work on important challenges and projects that cannot wait. The assignment by definition needs skills and experience that the organisation simply does not have available internally. These are why the interim management skills are needed. 

Now, you could say that the hiring costs are expensive versus a permanent equivalent. We do not believe they are in truth once you factor in the hidden costs (see why interim management is much less costly than you think). But regardless, the hiring costs are still absolutely dwarfed by the risks of selecting a less than perfect candidate.

Often you can quadruple the hiring costs still be markedly up on the deal by factors of ten when comparing it to the alternative of denying a multimillion-pound strategic challenge the skills it needs. In these cases, success means securing the organisation’s future plans and ambitions. Getting it wrong can mean millions in budget wasted before you even get to the knock-on financial impact of failure to the business.

In a nutshell, this is the interim manager value proposition.

Read more in our article ROI of an interim manager

How to become a Successful Interim Manager

The interim management skills needed form just one part of the equation of success. Equally, you need to know how to market yourself and the ways in which you can help diverse organisations. A good strong professional network is important for finding clients and getting recommended in. And you will almost certainly need good relationships with several of the better interim management providers who also provide a path into organisations you can help. 

We talk more about this in our article what is an interim manager role? but we’d also recommend signing up as a candidate with practicus. You can find out more on our candidates page. 

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Sam Hawkins



  1. Core Competencies, Alexandra Twin,  Sep 09, 2022, Investopedia