Just last month I had the opportunity to travel back to 2002. While I was there, not only did I find myself 15 pounds lighter and my hairline fuller, I also met a board member who had never heard of interim executive directors! “Why would we want to hire an interim ED?” he asked. “We’d just have to train two new people instead of one. Let’s just get the new person in here as soon as possible and not waste any time!”
I hadn’t heard those words in a decade and I wondered: should I bring him up to speed with a good thing or sit back and enjoy my slimmer waistline and full head of hair? I was conflicted. Ultimately my penchant to “talk interim” (and reality) won out. How could I not rattle off all the benefits of engaging a good interim ED and all the successes I’ve seen? In working with dozens of Bay Area nonprofits during their leadership transition I can attest to how a good interim ED can strengthen an organization and prepare it for its next permanent executive.
Engaging an interim ED during an executive transition has many advantages:
- It gives the board time to reflect on its past and assess its opportunities for the future without the pressure to immediately hire a new permanent executive director.
- Both board and staff have time to disengage from the previous leader: to grieve the loss of a beloved long-time leader in some cases or to heal in others, in order to be ready to start a new working relationship with their next leader.
- Working with an interim provides an opportunity to experience a new style of leadership without actually tying the knot (so to speak).
- In addition to maintaining an organization’s day-to-day operations and programs during a time of uncertainty, an interim ED can add value by stabilizing weak areas in operations and programs; repairing the broken, and/or making long desired upgrades that the former ED wasn’t able to address during her tenure.
The positive results of engaging an interim ED are plentiful. And there is a fair amount of literature to back it up. The monograph Interim Executive Directors: The Power in the Middle describes the benefits and basics of engaging an interim executive director during a leadership transition.
Doing it right
Before engaging an interim ED, it’s important to know what you need from her. When I assist clients who are seeking an interim ED I ask both board and staff the following five questions in order to develop an interim ED job announcement and workplan. Some of the answers take a bit of digging, but I’ve found the more thought and effort expended upfront, the better the outcomes in the end.
1. What are the day-to-day activities that the interim will need to oversee?
How many direct reports will the interim ED supervise, what board committees will they be expected to staff, and what role will they be expected to play in fundraising? State the obvious, and note any responsibilities that are outside of normal executive management duties that are unique to your organization.
2. What are the capacity-building needs of the organization?
What isn’t working that we need to fix now? Sometimes it is as basic as an accounting software package that has outlived its usefulness and needs to be replaced pronto (and this is exactly the kind of task that you don’t want to saddle your new permanent executive director with). Other times the capacity need requires a major internal shift: redesigning the organizational chart and redefining staff positions in light of major budget cuts, or reconstituting or reenergizing a board that has not been engaged or utilized to its maximum potential. Your specific capacity-building needs should drive your list of “required skills and experience” for the interim position.
3. What are the “pay attention to” items?
This question is intended to get to the issues that usually aren’t readily apparent to a new person on the job, and if left without attention for too long could have a major negative impact.
For example, how is staff morale? Is it waning? Is anxiety high? Are key managers talking about leaving? Are funders voicing concerns about the transition and taking a “wait and see” attitude (just when you need their support the most)? The board needs to know the mood surrounding the organization; understanding it and being able to articulate and put it on the interim’s radar from day one will help eliminate any unpleasant surprises down the road.
4. What’s on the agency’s calendar for the next 6-9 months?
Is the annual audit looming (and is the accounting staff prepared for it)? Are any sites visits scheduled? Is your big annual fundraiser coming up next month? If this information isn’t documented in one place yet, do so now. And again, the interim’s involvement in any of these areas is also a significant driver of the skill set you should be looking for.
5. What outcomes do you desire?
Simply put, what will be different (and what will be better) as a result of hiring an interim ED? Look for the answers through the eyes of your next permanent ED. What will make this permanent ED position attractive to candidates and increase the likelihood of your new hire's success? Here are a few desirable outcomes:
- A new, fully-functioning accounting system cranking out quality information on a timely basis
- An energized board ready to partner with a new executive and provide the support she will need from them
- A happy staff with clear job descriptions and work plans to which they had input
If you find yourself faced with a leadership transition, don’t panic. Consider the tested option of an interim ED and the five questions above, and you’ll be able to make a good thing work for you too.
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- More information on CompassPoint’s Executive Director Search & Transition services.
- CompassPoint’s Interim ED placement program is available to organizations participating in our Executive Search & Transition services. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information and include "Executive Transitions" in the subject line.
- Interim Executive Directors: The Power in the Middle – A monograph that describes the benefits and basics of engaging an interim executive director during a leadership transition.
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