Free At Last

Outraged by office politics? Frustrated by frozen pay? It may be time to be your own boss.

“I had been on the corporate ladder for a while. I wanted more variety in life.” And thus, ten years ago, John Stallabrass left his life as a finance director at listed companies for the more exciting, uncertain existence of an interim manager. He will probably keep at it for ten more. “I’m still doing it and still enjoying it,” he says.

Although current financial conditions could be described as anything but boring, the prospect of being their own boss is enticing more finance executives. Rising pressure, pay freezes, investor ire and a bulging workload are just a few of the reasons they choose to step off the traditional corporate ladder. (Widespread restructuring, of course, is also giving many a push.)

For finance executives, the most obvious route to professional independence is interim management. In recent months, Alium Partners, a London-based placement agency, has been receiving three to four times the volume of applications than in the past, according to Kate Mansfield, a managing consultant at the firm, specialising in finance. “In a recession, people often turn to the world of interim management as a stop-gap,” she says. Yet the agency prefers candidates who commit to interim work for at least two years, otherwise “the mechanics of it don’t tend to work,” cautions Mansfield. Nonetheless, “a lot depends on a person’s background and experience.”

Indeed, left to their own devices, independent contractors, consultants or entrepreneurs have unique tales to tell about life beyond the well-worn corporate path. Some rely entirely on their own network of contacts for work, while others mainly source assignments through agencies and other service providers. Some relish the freedom to work whenever they like, while others dread the prospect of any time off. Some are open to a return to the corporate world, while others are adamant about keeping control of their own destiny.

All By Myself

Stallabrass, for example, quickly found his first interim assignment and subsequently has sourced around two-thirds of his work through agencies, typically with little downtime between projects. Although other finance executives may also experience the ennui that motivated his move, the latest wave of managers stepping off the corporate ladder may have more in common with Geoff Dunn and Patrick Voorman.

As finance director of a UK IT services company struggling through the dotcom collapse around 2000, Dunn described the tension among board members and stress from issuing a series of profit warnings as a “scarring experience.” After resigning in 2003, he was “determined not to go back to a regular career,” he says. “I have managed my own destiny ever since.” He is comfortable with months off work at times, which he sees as necessary to “recoup, recover and refresh” after assignments.

Voorman speaks of a similar reason for leaving his last CFO role, in 2002. After hitting “bad weather” at a Dutch telecoms company, he no longer wanted to “give my all so that others benefit more than me.” He reckons he’s earned about as much money as if he’d remained permanently employed as a CFO, and relishes the independence that comes from “not being bound by rules or politics, and saying whatever you want, whatever you think is right.”

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