Hired guns of the global economy
By Anne Fisher

(FORTUNE Magazine) – IN THIS EVER MORE interconnected world, where businesses in Boston, Barcelona, and Beijing increasingly feel (and act) as if they were next-door neighbors, what kind of management talent is most in demand? I recently put that question to executive-development giant DBM, and the answer is striking: A full 91% of DBM's coaches and consultants say that the hottest specialty going is international contract management. Sometimes called interim or independent executives, contract managers are the hired guns of the global economy. They swoop in to achieve a short-term, clearly defined goal--manage a project or work with local managers until an overseas business unit is up and running--and, when their contract is up, say sayonara. Notes Marie Guthrie, a DBM vice president who conducted the poll: "More and more companies are looking for people who can come in, solve a problem quickly, and move on."

That's a boon to temp-recruiting firms, including some big ones like Manpower and Spherion, that specialize in matching handpicked executives with short-term jobs. "Employers don't want to spend three to six months finding the right person to step in and fix a situation. By then it's too late," says Nick Robeson, head of a London-based firm called Boyden Interim Management that has deployed short-term talent to GE, American Express, and Coca-Cola. "So they call us and get someone who can start this week." What's the difference between contract management and consulting? Says Kevan Robinson, a former IT executive at J.P. Morgan who's been working as an interim manager since 1998: "Consultants give advice and walk away. With this, you stay until the change is done." To be good at it, he says, "you have to be an extrovert, and you have to enjoy variety, since no two companies are alike."

It also helps to be quick off the mark. A new Boyden study on what makes or breaks an interim executive reveals that he typically has only five days to do the things most newly appointed executives take 100 days to tackle: Identify quick fixes, establish credibility, and build relationships across the organization--or, as Andrea Parry-Clarke puts it, "go from zero to hero." Parry-Clarke has been globe-hopping for seven years and is now nearing the end of a ten-month stint at a British telecom company. She hits the ground running: "Before my start date, I make a list of the key people in the company I need to meet and contact them, so that I begin on day one with a full calendar. Then, in the first week, I insist that all meetings be face-to-face."

Only the politically savvy survive. "When you have to assess a situation and set priorities fast, the first task is to separate the politics of an organization from the reality," says John Thompson, who's worked as a project manager in ten countries since 2001. "Identify the power brokers. Some people are going to resent you, especially if you're brought in as a 'change agent.' But being accepted politically is essential if you're going to be effective." Ah. Maybe interim management isn't so different after all.