Updated: Aug 7, 2021
by Rhonda S Magee
It is sometimes a good idea—and often necessary—to bring in an external Interim Executive Director after the sudden departure of a CEO/ED, regardless of the length of tenure of the departing person, and despite the capabilities of existing staff-on-board. There are good reasons, including:
Having an interim director gives the organization some breathing room: a chance for the dust to settle after the departure of the previous executive; a chance for the board to deliberate on the next steps and direction for the organization; and a chance for the staff, community and constituents to adjust to the severed or newly defined ties with the former executive. Having an interim director in place avoids any tendency to rush into the next phase and new executive relationship.
It is necessary to have management expertise in place so that operational, program and functional aspects of the organization are not interrupted or adversely impacted. A qualified Interim Executive provides confidence that the organization is being adequately managed and attended to during the transition.
How can we be assured that the transition period with the Interim Executive is successful and effective?
First, it is important that the Interim Executive not be eligible for consideration in the permanent position. This should be clear (and publicized) from the outset and written into the contract. Why?
The role of the Interim is very different from that of the permanent Executive, and so a specific skill set should be identified and sought. A successful Interim Director will be ideally well suited for the interim situation. While they may be a likely best candidate for other or previous the long-term roles, their suitability for this next long term ED should not be considered or factored in.
The Interim will be much more effective in achieving a specific set of transition-focused objectives if the situation is not complicated by their candidacy for the permanent position. For example, some transition related tasks demand risk-taking that a serious candidate for the long-term role would not be prone to take, because they wouldn’t want to put their candidacy at risk.
The transition period can be difficult for the staff, and establishing a relationship with the Interim director that is clear and avoids confusion can help achieve everyone’s performance objectives. This ensures consistency in program delivery and organizational performance. Walking on eggshells does not usually contribute to effectiveness.
Secondly, it is wise to select a professional, skilled Interim Executive.
An understanding of the requirements, challenges and areas of focus in the context of a leadership transition will go a long way to ensuring that the organization is ultimately prepared to welcome a permanent leader and ready for the next phase of its life-cycle. A professional with this expertise will handle the related issues with sensitivity and with skill.
An individual with the needed knowledge and experience can also be a valuable partner to the search committee, helping to guide the process and offer essential, objective advice. The unique position of the Interim can bring valuable insights to the board, contributing to a fair and ultimately successful search process. This also emphasizes the first point: obviously, only by not being a candidate for the position can he/she participate in the search process.
There are other factors that contribute to a successful Leadership Transition, and perhaps we'll explore more about that another day.
I’m tempted to share some observations of transitions I’ve been involved in where things were not handled as I’ve described here…there were some successes and some disasters. Those stories too, might be another chapter.
Wishing you wise and easy change management, because as they say, “Change happens.”