The departure of an Executive Director can be a time of opportunity and challenge (or both) for an organization to take stock, reflect and seek new goals and future strategies. Conversely, some transitions can leave an organization vulnerable and unstable. Regardless of which circumstance befalls the organization so much rides on the recruitment of a new leader. We believe that there are times when, contrary to conventional thinking, the best possible move is to appoint an interim. Three situations come to mind:
Retirement or departure of a long-term incumbent.
Dismissal of an Executive Director after a turbulent tenure.
The need to extend the executive search timeframe.
An Interim Executive Director can play an important transitionary role and help prepare the organization for the eventual arrival of a permanent leader. Our observations suggest that some organizations see an interim appointment as a failure, but we see it differently. It is an opportunity to open the windows and get some fresh air in, addressing major obstructions to a future Exec’s success (staffing, culture, governance, etc.). It also allows for an organizational deep-breath and time to determine the skills, character and leadership style they will search for without the pressure to hire and fill a void in executive oversight.
Organizations tend to consider themselves unique in terms of culture, relationships, etc. which is fair, as few want to be cookie cutter providers. Behind these real or perceived circumstances are common situations that represent the ‘bread & bagel’ of a talented interim.
Rigidity: Organizational theorists speak of “group-think” where key stakeholders professionals, board members, etc. become locked in historic paradigms and practices. There is the shared belief that “this is the way we have always done things and the only way it works.” An Interim Executive Director brings a new and fresh perspective; “Are we asking the right questions?” “Should we be thinking about this challenge in a new light?”
Culture and Climate: Incumbent Executive Directors not only set goals, priorities and practices but also culture. Especially, in the case of dismissal, a negative or even destructive culture may endure. An Interim can identify cultural challenges and bring them into the open, talk frankly about them with key stakeholders, and initiate new practices and policies. This itself can help in the recruitment of a new executive, as culture can be a major factor in the decision of talent to join or pass.
Founder or‘Lifer’ Syndrome: A new Executive following a long-entrenched predecessor may face institutional resistance. Like people, organizations develop long-standing habits that may not be healthy or productive. Additionally, relationships with key stakeholders such as funders or partner agencies may be inextricably linked to the prior long-time Executive. It is therefore not uncommon for the newly recruited Executive to have a shortened tenure purely because it was difficult for all parties to absorb the change of face and its familiarity. An Interim Executive Director provides a more gradual and measured transition, thus presenting the newly-hired full-time Executive Director with a “clean slate.” Members of the professional team unable to absorb change (or in many cases who are holdovers from the prior administration and should have transitioned themselves) can be “weaned” from the past and given the chance to absorb the idea of change. The benefits of purposefully employing a transition exec can be less staff stress, the kind removal of individuals (lay and pro!) who will not be supportive of change and the savings associated with the hiring of a new permanent replacement who does not stay beyond a couple of years.
The goal of an interim exec is that they not just‘hold the reins steady,’ but actively prepare the organization to welcome a future new leader. They therefore must have superior capacity in key areas, specifically:
Active Listening: Each staff and Board member, organizational partner (and sometimes clients) have a narrative and a perspective to share. Equally important is the validation of the individual’s perceptions and feelings and engaging the person as a partner in change.
Understand and Appreciate History:Records, minutes, correspondence and marketing materials all provide clues to culture, practices, strengths and weakness. Spending time carefully reviewing material is essential. Equally as important is a willingness to sit with staff and volunteers and absorb oral history and their narrative.
Observational Acuity: So much can be learned from observing the organizational dynamics: how do professionals and volunteers treat each other and their clients? What is the tone of board or staff meetings? Are guests welcomed warmly? Is there shared pride and ownership?
Framing and Strategy: In partnership with key stakeholders the Interim develops a strategic approach to his/her tenure. This addresses organizational policies, practices and programs but also seek to address challenges in the organizational culture; how can staff relations be improved? How can the organization develop a more welcoming climate? How can the organization attend to the hurt and anger that may be the vestige of a difficult situation?
Maturity, Menschkeit and Humility: Executive leadership changes can be traumatic, so it is essential that the Interim brings maturity, knowledge and sensitivity to the position and that she/he recognize the temporary nature of the engagement. Staff, board, key stakeholders and clients desire stability and the reassurance that daily functioning will work and that the organization remains a safe place to work, invest and receive service. The balancing of near-term fix versus long-term strategy is essential. Kindness is key and will help settle nerves, reduce a talent exodus and provide a stable platform to recruit a new leader without pressure.
There may be times when an Interim must use her/his experience and judgment to make difficult changes, such as dismissing a staff member or changing a damaging or unproductive practice. In these instances, the Interim must have the emotional maturity to effectively communicate with board leadership in moving forward.
The ideal length of engagement for an interim should be discussed openly. We strongly recommend that the initial engagement be a chunk of time from three to six or twelve months depending on many factors too complex to delve into in this article. The ‘chunk of time’ allows all parties to breathe and outline a realistic timeline for the recruitment of a new leader. It also allows the interim to contemplate his/her own stability and investment. These appointments must work both ways and be attractive enough to ensure the interim sees benefit. We also recommend that staff, Board and investors receive ongoing communications regarding the plans for an interim and why this is a positive move forward and not a fallback position. When the narrative is thoughtful the choice to appoint an interim reinforces organizational maturity and superior leadership!
Interim Executive Directors can play a vital role at a critical time of transition for an organization. Experienced Interims bring extensive skills and professional experiences that are worth their weight in gold when thoughtfully deployed. When successful, the interim period will provide the foundation for a long-term replacement who will be grateful that the organization took the time and trouble to ensure she/he can be successful.