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Healthcare and the increasing use of interim executives

Elizabeth Smythe, Guest Editor, CIPD-qualified content specialist

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the NHS could not function without the use of agency staff. Staffing remains a divisive, public issue – just look at the ongoing debate over junior doctors’ contracts. Without bank and temp resources, the healthcare sector simply couldn’t function.

It’s not just in the wards and surgeries that agency employees are being used, of course. Many trusts are starting to use temporary help in non-clinical and back office functions, from operations to HR. However, some trusts are seeing a shift to something a little more consistent – the use of interim executives. These are typically managers or specialists on longer term assignments who have been brought in to fill a vacancy or oversee a programme/project.

Why go interim?

Hospital mergers, transformations and the retirement of incumbent executives means that there is an increasing demand for interim staff and for the creation of a talent pipeline to satisfy the varied requirements of the sector.

The advantages of hiring interims within the healthcare sector are that they’re usually available at short notice and bring much-needed skills and experience that aren’t available in-house. Being external, there isn’t that involvement with any existing politics, plus a fresh pair of eyes is always beneficial in terms of spotting ways to streamline antiquated processes.

Interims are increasingly being sought for project work; to manage change initiatives, embed best practice, improve efficiency, reduce costs and develop staff. We’re not simply talking about project manager roles, either. General managers, department heads, improvement directors and CEOs are all positions that are commonly recruited for among the interim executive talent pool.

Of course, for many years, interim executives have assumed some pretty high profile positions in healthcare. Recently, both the National Director of Commissioning Operators for NHS England and the Chair of the Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) have been performed on an interim basis.

Fortunately for the healthcare sector, increasing numbers of executives are turning from full time to interim employment, using it as a way to use skills that were being underused in their previous role, to step up the career ladder or simply to enjoy the short term assignment nature of this kind of work. 

Credibility among the NHS

While transferable skills are a must when hiring an interim, many are selected additionally on the basis of their previous employment. A lot of these interims possess relevant industry experience, having worked within healthcare in the past, so are ideal for helping trusts to deliver organisational change or increases in care quality.

This is an important aspect in terms of the interim executive’s credibility, too. As Doctor Rachel Cooke writes, “nothing is guaranteed to wind up health professionals more than the omniscient gurus trying to make them see the error of their ways”. If they have a medical or healthcare background, their views are far more likely to be taken without scepticism or annoyance. It’s important that the interim understands how the NHS works, and where employees’ interests and loyalties lie if they want to “win the hearts and minds of the staff they are working with”.

To have an understanding of working culture within the healthcare sector is vital – and that’s another one of the benefits of going down the interim route: being able to pick and choose a person who ‘gets it’.

With skills, experience, empathy and expertise, it’s little wonder that so many interims are being hired across healthcare. It’s a fast-moving, ever-changing sector with demands which need to be satisfied immediately, accurately and in a cost-effective way.