A client was recently appointed as an Interim ED of her organization, while awaiting her Board’s decision about the permanent appointment (for which she was a candidate). She asked me this question in an email:
Can you provide a brief description of the role of an Interim Director?
This was my response:
An Interim ED is tasked with the continued delivery of services, programs, and to protect the organization’s identity, reputation, and health, while the Board selects new leadership. The responsibilities are to maintain the status quo, support and steady the staff, and to conservatively shepherd any change efforts and initiatives that had been launched prior to the Interim’s installment. The priority is to keep the organization as healthy as possible during the transition period, while not fulfilling the visionary and catalytic roles of the permanent ED/CEO.
As part of that, there are usually a small number of “broken” things that need to be resolved for the organization to continue to move forward and be healthy. The challenge for the interim is to do this without “putting a personal stamp” on the organization, like a permanent ED or CEO would be expected to do. Hence, the role of the interim is to do as little “fixing” as necessary, because every significant change made will limit the opportunity for the permanent ED/CEO to fulfill their responsibilities. The new, permanent ED/CEO may have to undo or re-do some of that work in order to lead the way they wish to.
What usually happens? The better interim executives have the self awareness and discipline to be very conservative when approaching the list of “broken” things, and all other opportunities that are placed in front of them to shake things up. This can be hard – most executives like to make important things happen. It is hard to put the brakes on something when you know the permanent ED/CEO will get to throw fuel on the same thing in a matter of weeks.
What does this mean in practical terms?
Unless essential, Don’t:
- change out key people;
- dramatically shift relationships with external stakeholders;
- remake anything with symbolic significance (the mission, a web site overhaul, a new logo, etc.).
- resolve emergencies
- stop ethical and legal problems from being created or continued
- push the pause button on projects and expenses that seem unreasonable or uncertain, to give the permanent ED/CEO an opportunity to make a decision
- pay attention to the mood, sense of community, and operational machinery of the organization
Usually, a Board has a list of fixes it desires. Some Board members will have more patience than others on the pacing of that list. Agreement between Board and Interim on what is and isn’t to be addressed at the front end of the interim time period is critical. Also critical is for the Board to have alignment about what’s on their list, and the relative importance of each item; this can be easily overlooked by volunteer Boards comprised of busy professionals. Without this alignment, the Interim’s performance is being measured with disparate metrics, leading to misunderstanding and sometimes resentment. This is one reason why Interim ED/CEO jobs are more difficult than they appear on the surface.
If there is a sense of urgency for change, and it is grounded in reality, then that urgency translates to faster Board action on finding a new leader, not on having the Interim make a great deal of change.
So, in short:
- Have a steadying, comforting hand at the helm
- Reduce change to as little as possible
- Fix things that truly need fixing, and be clear why
- Have a shared list with the Board about what is to be fixed, and why, and when
*The one exception to this is if an organization needs to be rebooted, starting with a significant amount of destruction (tearing down of the old in order to make room for the new). In this case, this role and expectations for the Interim are articulated at the beginning by the Board. The Interim is brought in to do the destruction and lay the initial foundation for the new organization. That person is associated with a lot of difficult and uncomfortable stuff, and when it is largely done, leaves. The new, permanent ED/CEO can then start without all that negative association (and in fact, can be received as a hero).