JR Yeager specializes in executive transition management, succession planning, and executive search. This blog addresses what anyone considering becoming an interim executive director (ED) should know about this fast-growing profession. It is the third in a series of blogs about the role and advantages of interim leadership. Read JR’s previous blogs in the series: “Interim EDs: Making a Good Thing Work for You” and “Top 9 Tips for Working with an Interim ED.”
Serving as an interim executive director is an attractive option for many seasoned nonprofit leaders. The role allows you to utilize your leadership skills and experience and provides some real “crunch” for those of you who enjoy big problem-solving challenges, without having to commit to a full-time permanent executive position. Those who succeed in the interim executive role bring a hands-on, roll-up-the-sleeves attitude while maintaining a 35,000-foot consulting perspective in advising the board about its opportunities and options during a transition.
As the interim executive profession has grown, so have the reasons and needs for interim leadership. My advice below, for those considering serving as an interim executive director, is based on my experience over the past 13 years working with boards facing a leadership transition and interim executives who have helped them bridge the gap between the exiting executive and the new executive.
Being an interim ED is not a training program
I’ve been asked in the past if being an interim ED is a good way to learn the trade and acquire the skills to be a permanent ED. The answer is an emphatic “no.” Having previous executive director experience is almost always a prerequisite for interim work. An organization in transition can be in a vulnerable position and guiding it to stability requires a broad set of skills and deep experience. As an interim you could be faced with addressing a negative cash flow, a pending lawsuit, a lease about to expire, poor program delivery, an unengaged or split board, and/or questionable use of funds by the former leadership. These kinds of issues can only be addressed by someone who has seen it and done it before. There is no room here for on-the-job training.
Not every interim assignment is a turnaround
Since I just painted a picture of complete chaos above, it’s important to understand that not all organizations are in need of a complete and total rescue. I say this since a lot of literature and anecdotal stories (including my own) imply the opposite. So, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And that takes us to the next point.
Know what you are getting into
Ideally, you want to know if any of the negative conditions I listed above (a negative cash flow, a pending lawsuit, etc.) exist in an organization before you take the job, so you will need to ask a lot of questions. The biggest lesson I’ve learned in gathering data about the state of an organization in transition is that you are unlikely to get all the answers you need from just one person. The board chair may think he has all the necessary information you need, but his knowledge may be limited to only what he’s been told or to his sole interpretation of the organization. Therefore, at the right time, you may need to talk directly to the treasurer, the chief financial officer (CFO), and members of the management team to understand the full picture of an organization.
Starting this process with a 30-day “discovery/assessment” contract is an information-gathering approach I’ve seen a number of interim EDs and organizations successfully use when the “unknowns” seem overwhelming. The findings from this 30-day discovery phase will inform the board about what is really going on inside the organization (perhaps for the first time). It can also help determine the interim’s objectives, and help her decide if she is the right person for the job.
Know your strengths and be honest about your limitations
Every interim executive position is different, and some may suit your particular strengths more than others. If an organization presents itself with challenges at the board level and you love board development, team building, conflict resolution, and relationship management (and you have past experience to draw upon), then this assignment might be the perfect fit for you. However, if the organization is looking for someone to lead them out of a financial morass and fundraising leaves you cold or you are not comfortable going into an organization with a mandate to cut the budget and lay off staff, then don’t do that to yourself – or the organization. Know your strengths and apply them where they are most needed.
Expect the unexpected
OK, so you’ve done all your data collection, you’ve accepted an interim position and you’re pretty sure you know what you’ve taken on. But stuff still happens – a missed reporting deadline, the untimely resignation of the CFO, or a call like this one (my most memorable of 2003): “I just found $20K worth of unrecorded invoices in the bottom drawer of the bookkeeper’s desk. What should I do?”
Big or small, the surprises can add up and hinder your momentum and frazzle your nerves. But encountering the unexpected is the nature of the interim business, and that’s why you are there. Accept that the unexpected will happen. It will help you keep your head above the waterline and your mood buoyant. Pace yourself, and breathe. And if you don’t like surprises…SURPRISE!
Stay “in it to win it”
When you accept an interim position, the expectation is that you will stay with the client agency throughout the entire length of their interim period and not leave the assignment prematurely.
Interim ED assignments usually run from six to nine months, and sometimes last longer. It’s hard to estimate the expected length of the position up front, so you need to be flexible. Leave one interim ED position too soon and it may be your last in this competitive market. This need for flexibility is one of the reasons that interim ED work is not suited for those who are actively seeking permanent employment.
Stay away from the blame game
If history indeed repeats itself, then you could possibly find yourself screaming to someone at some point, “How did they let it get so bad?” Whether “they” are the board, the former ED, the staff, or a combination of all three, remember to manage your emotions and, if you need to, find support from other professionals outside of the organization. You are there to help, not criticize.
Deliver on your expected outcomes
Identify performance expectations and deliverables that you and the board agree on at the start of your assignment. Revisit them often and use them as your touchstone and guide when you find yourself wondering, what next?
And, remember, your ultimate goal as an interim executive during a leadership transition is to create the most stable platform possible for the next executive. This means a strong board, a functioning staff, good internal systems, and healthy funder and community relationships. The challenge may be big, but so is the reward.
JR Yeager is a project director with CompassPoint Nonprofit Services with twelve years of direct client experience in executive transition management and executive search. JR also consults and trains in the areas of succession planning, board development, interim leadership, and also manages the placement of interim EDs with CompassPoint’s transition clients.