Head to Head with Hilary Pearl, the Interim Vice President for HR at Pearson

Head to Head with Hilary Pearl, the Interim Vice President for HR at Pearson


Tell us a little more about yourself and your current role – and why you decided to become an interim HR professional?

Having worked as an HR Director for a number of years in telecoms and technology – with some retail thrown in along the way – I decided I needed some form of change in my career and that I didn’t want to simply climb the HR ladder ever higher in bigger, faceless corporates.

So, given that I’m a bit of a change junkie, love new places and faces, being thrown into situations where you have to learn fast in order to make a difference and am not afraid, but relish, being the new ‘kid’ on the block, then an interim career definitely seemed to fit the bill. I spent some time on a career coaching day to validate my thoughts before I took the plunge, moved back to London and never looked back.

Describe some of your interim career highlights

Finding the first interim role is always hard as clients more often want experienced interims. No matter what your permanent career has looked like, you need to show you don’t need a ‘honeymoon’ period in a new role; that you can dive in and deliver. My first assignment was with Sony Ericsson and adding such a prestigious brand as my first interim client definitely added value to my interim career.

Every assignment is different and it’s hard to choose between my clients but memorable projects include delivering a global e-performance management system and a global career framework, helping an organisation redefine their values and kick start a culture change programme – including holding an extremely successful senior management engagement conference – and helping HR teams develop their structure are some of the things that I’ve really enjoyed doing.

To who, why and when would you recommend – or not – an interim-based HR career?

Colleagues often tell me how lucky I am when I stop working for the summer (for five years I worked from Sept–June/July) but, when I remind them that when I’m not working I’m not being paid, don’t have company benefits and that I can’t guarantee when the next assignment will come in, they soon change their tune. Being an interim only works if you don’t have that need to belong or that long term sense of security.

Know the difference between an interim and a temp; not everyone does. Sometimes you may cover a permanent role or provide maternity cover but an interim is someone who is usually overly qualified; they can go in and deliver, they cost more than a permanent employee because they’ve been there, seen it and done it and that’s what the client is paying for – and it could be management or specialist expertise. Often clients, and I’m afraid some agencies, don’t recognise the difference.

Firstly you must have a financial buffer; if you are desperate you’ll take the first or subsequent assignment at whatever rate is offered. So don’t sell yourself cheap, you’ll never regain your rate or your dignity if you do!

Secondly, you must love change and be pragmatic – you may not have time to get into the minutiae of how things work before making decisions but you have to be balanced.

Thirdly, you must believe in yourself; without being arrogant. If you don’t, how will your client? You have to sell yourself every six or 12 months and interviewing is not always easy. Even as an HRD I hate being on the other side of the table. Don’t stay in any role too long or you’ll lose your interim edge.

And, finally, you have to network. You never know where that next assignment will come from and every new person you meet is a potential new client or someone who can refer you to a new client. Talk to other interims, look at roles and rates that are advertised and whether they look right for you, talk to agencies and contacts before you make your decision and make sure it’s right for you.

How has the interim market developed over the course of the last few years and what are the key issues or trends facing those in – or considering a career in – the interim HR sector?

I started my interim career in 2008 – yup, the year the economy nosedived. I thought I’d made the worst mistake of my life and everyone told me I was mad and would be back in the permanent workplace within months. It took time to get that first assignment but, because of my network, the first five years sorted themselves out without much problem.

The interim market seems to have had its ups and downs and research says it was quieter in 2010-2012 but personally I didn’t see it. Work is there, but you have to look for it, you have to know who to talk to and they have to have you at the forefront of their mind. Clients often tried through agencies to get my skills cheaper (no, not cost effectively, cheaper!) and sometimes there are people on the market that offer to do the job at that price. I’ve often said “no, come back when they can’t deliver” and sometimes they have and sometimes they haven’t.

Having good interim recruiters who know you and your skills and can make sure they sell your skills and capabilities at the right level – and that work for you as much as they work for the client – is really important. Those that ring you constantly offering you roles at £200-£300 below your daily rate are not working for you. They don’t know you and aren’t selling your expertise; they are simply raiding their database.

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