We will talk to Pärtel Vurma, one of the owners and CEO of the design agency Velvet, about the values of interim managers. Velvet has had experience with VVT interim managers since 2014.
“At a gathering attended by Eela Velström, I talked about the challenges Velvet had or encountered at that moment,” Pärtel Vurma recalls. “And Eela put this idea in my head, ‘Hey, but we’ve got this kind of service coming up – maybe we’d try. Since Eela is a person whom I trust and who has a very long-term professional background in her field, dealt with very large organisations, then this idea was safe for me.” When Pärtel heard that Peeter Tohver, who has literally managed very large companies with his own hands, was also involved, it added attractiveness to the idea.
You need leadership competence.
“Velvet is a creative company – a design agency that was born in cooperation with enthusiasts and professionals in its field. Velvet was not created for commercial purposes, we just wanted to make a very good design. There were no business people among the creators, and there was no great management competence,” Pärtel explains.
The work at the agency was done largely out of enthusiasm. Everything started to go very well. There were recognitions and business success. Soon Velvet had grown to such a large size that there was a need for professional management support. Velvet had very good human capital at that time and is still in constant development today.
“We were aware that we lack both knowledge and experience in business management,” Pärtel says. “At the same time, it seemed that hiring a CEO, especially if it is a person who has no experience in the field, is associated with very big risks – whether he understands our day-to-day activities and the management of creative people.
Our field has its own nuances and logic on how to do it in such a way that everything works well. It is important to us that the company does not become a factory, but that we preserve our culture and uniqueness, which we had already built up by that point.” And that’s why it seemed most risk-free for Velvet’s owners to take someone into the management position temporarily. “We didn’t need a consultant who would come once, take a look and then say something we already know, but someone who would also invest their time and energy so that by acting ourselves during the agreed period, we would be trained to do it all ourselves in the future. It is very good to bring to us as a small creative company managers with experience in interim management, where we are as if we are at different ends of the spectrum – it seemed like a very good balance, they are perhaps most able to fill our missing gaps.”
A fresh view makes you think in a new way
VVT also analyzed Velvet’s processes: how we offer a service, how we present and sell ourselves, and how we manage people.
“At that time, the company was managed by three parterres: me, Mart and Janno, who shared management tasks with each other on an ongoing basis, without the areas of responsibility being agreed upon,” recalls Pärtel. “Whoever at some point felt that one or the other thing had to be done, or felt that it was his strength, then it was done that way.”
That’s how Peeter Tohver went to Velvet as interim manager.
“We met once a week,” notes Pärtel. “And not only the owners and him, but the most operative team, i.e. the project managers.” Peeter Tohver attended the project managers’ meeting every Friday. “In the beginning, it was more like listening and watching what we do there, and then he started asking more and more questions that a leader should ask: why do you do this, why do you think like that, haven’t you thought like that?”
Pärtel explains that leading through questions was extremely valuable. “At that moment, Velvet as a company was nine years old, we had ingrained patterns and it is very difficult to change them from the inside or ask difficult questions. We needed someone who comes from the outside with a fresh look, in some sense even as a layman in the field, and asks why you don’t do it this way or why you do it that way. These questions made me think differently. That was the first biggest value I see.”
Rhythm and routine
An important value of Pärtel Vurma is the ability of the interim manager to create a rhythm and routine in the company to ask himself important questions even when the interim manager has left.
“And know how to measure and write down the results, so that there is consistent, documented proof that if we change something, how it affects our team, the quality of our work, our turnover, our profit and so on,” says Pärtel.
When the management work started to go smoothly in Velvet, Peeter Tohver said that you can move on from here, you don’t need me anymore.
“Tohver made an analysis of what we have good and what maybe not so good, where we could improve some things,” recalls Pärtel.
One of Tohver’s tasks was to propose a new management structure or logic. “What should we do? Maybe we should hire a CEO,” says Pärtel. “His conclusion was that you have such an interesting and somewhat unique organization and its culture that nothing fundamental should be changed. There’s some charm and value in doing what you’ve been doing, but just stick to certain routines that ensure you’re in control all the time.”
About a year later, in Velvet, it was realized that the routines or the energy disappeared from the activities. “We said that Peeter, you have to come back,” laughs Pärtel. “When you were in this room, everything got better and better, but now we again have a situation where we can’t move forward or some new problems arise that we can’t solve.” Peeter Tohver came back and spent another period with Velvet, until finally the actions, the right questions and the understanding of how to answer them honestly without looking for excuses took root.”
“We have a very forgiving culture,” says Pärtel. “If something has been agreed between us and this agreement is not fulfilled 100 percent, none of us can argue for it. It comes back to: aha, I see, you didn’t have time or something else got in the way.”
Pärtel explains that such an attitude is important because it ensures a culture and an environment where it is possible to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes. “But in some situations, we still have to stick to the agreed disciplines in order to get there, so that it brings benefits and takes us forward. It was a matter where Peetri’s presence straightened everyone’s back, including me, to be more demanding of myself and also more demanding of the team when it comes to fulfilling agreements.”
Benefits of an interim manager
They say about leaders that as a new leader in a team, it’s best to make big changes or fundamental decisions during a certain period of time when you haven’t bought into the status quo or all those thought patterns I talked about before. In the beginning, you don’t make excuses why things have to be the way they’ve always been.
In a sense, the interim manager can always keep this fresh look, because he is not constantly so connected to all the people, their already rooted relationships and the excuses that can arise from it. A certain distance is always useful, because it already organically ensures a higher and larger image.
“Using an interim manager is an opportunity to test quite risk-free what it would mean to bring such a manager to the team and how he affects the dynamics of the team,” says Pärtel about the advantages of an interim manager. “You can decide at any moment that it doesn’t work for us, maybe it’s not the right person. In the case of an interim, it is very easy to simply replace a person, to say that he is certainly a very good worker, but simply does not fit our industry, our cultural context, our people or our energy.”
Pärtel explains that the interim manager is very cost-effective.
“If you think that the management structure of a company could have a person who manages finances, a person who is responsible for vision and strategy, in addition to people who deal with personnel, recruitment, sales and marketing.
It was much more flexible, much more cost-effective, much less risky.
Thanks to VVT, we were able to include these functions and competencies as needed, as big or as small as we needed at that moment. If we had to hire the entire senior management ourselves, we simply could not have afforded it financially. It was much more flexible, much more cost-effective, much less risky.”
The work goes on
Velvet continues to use the services of VVT – from time to time consultations on various topics or help in recruiting new people are needed. “When we recently needed to recruit several new people, we set up a recruitment plan and the entire recruitment process with the help of interim HR manager Eela Velström,” says Pärtel. “This is one of the types of interim management services that we have continued to use. The second one, which we also used after the first sessions, was to hire an interim sales manager through VVT. We had a clear vision and ambition to move more to foreign markets, to export, and for this we needed to involve the appropriate competence of the sales force. Through VVT, we found a person who suited us well and with whom we cooperated for several years.”
It may seem strange that you need a recruitment specialist to search for a designer, but the current state of the labor market has made it essential.
The design agency competes with start-ups in the technology sector. “For example, we compete with Bolt or Wise or Pipedrive in the labor market for digital product designers. And the competition is quite tough,” explains Pärtel. “They have access to hundreds of millions of investors’ money, we have to earn this money with our daily work. In this sense, yes, we have to approach the entire recruitment process and our image in the labor market very strategically.
We are fortunately honored and privileged to be a market and opinion leader in the field of design. This gives a certain advantage and attractiveness in the eyes of the employees. If you, as a designer, have written in your CV that you have worked at Velvet, that is already a mark of quality in itself and gives you a good head start for your career in the future.”
There are 300 managers/specialists in the interim network of the VVT interim agency who can support the company’s development. Eela Velström: “We rent you brains, not working hands!”