The Case for an Interim Executive Director
By Pam Wiseman
Executive Director, NMCADV
September 4th, 2015
Interim executive directors are people who serve for a short time after an ED leaves and before a new ED is secured. Often viewed as placeholders, they keep the lights on and the bills paid until a permanent, long-term substitute can be located. Their tenures are often six months or less, and they typically make few decisions of substance. Their actions are rarely expected to have any but short-term effect; big, consequential decisions are thought best left to the new leader. But interim ED’s can play a much more active, vital and valuable role than mere placeholder. A well-qualified interim does more than keep the organization afloat. Interims can help an organization accurately assess its strengths and weaknesses so that it moves forward confidently and competently into a future that no longer includes the former leader.
Here are the facts. When a long-term director leaves a position, the person who immediately follows frequently stays less than 2 years and both the tenure and the parting may be less than smooth and amicable. Organizations may even cycle through two or three or more ED’s in a relatively short period of time before settling on one that seems to fit the organization’s needs and culture. Cycling of directors doesn’t ordinarily happen because of some deficit in the new leadership (although it can), but because change is always unsettling and hard to manage. Especially when a departing ED has been well liked, staff and stakeholders may have difficulty accepting the changes that are an inevitable part of any transition. A long-term director has exerted substantial influence on the culture and personality of an organization. The arrival of a replacement will always signal a change not just in leadership but also in the overall organizational culture. People may be confused and even angry at the changes, which will feel foreign and unwanted. A new director will understandably have difficulty navigating in such an environment and may react defensively at a time when direction, confidence and strength are most needed. The premature and unplanned departure of the executive is an unfortunate and predictable outcome.
A second or third, unplanned, executive departure can lead to serious, long- term problems including the loss of talent (both staff and Board), loss of funding and community support, loss of direction and loss of hard earned reputation. Clearly, multiple executive transitions, regardless of the reason, are best avoided. Where possible, its good to get it right the first time.
How then can an organization best manage the transition between EDs? In some cases, a successor has been waiting in the wings and is ready and able to take the reigns. Hopefully, the organization has been transparent about that process and while the handover may encounter a few bumps, the prior planning will make such a transition smoother.
However, when no successor is evident, or there is competition and disagreement among the remaining employees and/or Board, an outside interim, given the right parameters and time, can substantially ease the way from one leader to another. When employees, board and stakeholders have the chance to be involved in and think about what is coming next, fear and loss can be replaced by a sense of control and excitement.
For example, when a long-term director leaves, many boards understandably panic. A long tenure of a director has likely led to a board that delegates virtually all decision-making and direction to the ED; the departure leaves such boards without knowledge sufficient to move forward competently. Unfamiliar with the operations of their organization, a board may feel rushed to replace a director as soon as possible. Decisions may be made in haste that an organization will later regret. So how can a qualified interim improve those outcomes? A skillful interim can help alleviate the fears of a board and staff and provide assessment, information and help in setting a new direction. An interim may even conduct an organizational review and report the finding to the relevant persons in the organization; such information may be invaluable in considering future direction. The interim can solidly ground the organization, provide relief from stress and anxiety and give the board and staff an opportunity to breathe and plan.
Interims may also help an organization identify needed leader characteristics-those that most fit the new direction that the organization plans. Where desirable, an interim can review and make suggestions for changes in policy or practice that will strengthen the agency. Interims also empower the organization to manage the loss of its leader (usually a bigger barrier than most realize) and solicit input from staff, board and community about future direction. Some interims may also help to onboard a new leader, a task that may otherwise be left, uncomfortably, to the staff.
Placeholder interims stay only a few months, just long enough for a new leader to be identified and on boarded; as noted they make few if any real changes. However, an interim that is given a longer tenure of 24-30 months can help an organization to assess its strengths, address its weaknesses and get ready for its new, permanent leadership.
The question arises as to whether an interim should come from inside or outside the organization? Often organizations hire or promote someone from within to manage until a new leader can be found. While there are benefits to such an approach –the inside interim knows a lot about the organization and generally does not have a steep learning curve-the assessment and goals part of the process may be compromised. An inside interim may bear some responsibility for the current state of the organization-whether positive or negative and usually a combination of both-and may have strong loyalties to the departing director, or to other staff or board members. Opportunity for honest reflection may therefore be limited or compromised. It can also be difficult for an employee who takes on the interim role to mange the transition back to a previous position when a new leader arrives and that situation may cause problems for the organization overall.
The value of an outside interim is in the objectivity that the person brings to the job. The outside interim is fresh and has no prior loyalties to respect or relationships to protect. The interim knows that the position will end, is satisfied with that outcome and is not preoccupied with protecting turf long term. The interim can therefore devote time and energy exclusively to the betterment of the organization rather than to playing to other relationship or political interests.
In order for an interim to be able to accomplish the tasks of assessing the organizations strengths and weaknesses, maintaining or improving the organizations reputation where needed, managing loss and conflict, empowering staff and helping the organization to identify the characteristics it needs for its future, a longer length of time is needed than the usual few months. A position that lasts for 24-30 months is probably sufficient to anchor the organization and ready it for a change in leadership. But won’t the organization just suffer another loss when that director leaves? It is of course true that another departure will be met with some regret; however the purpose of the interim is to prepare the organization for that eventual departure and to ensure that the organization is strong and able to accept the change. Most important, the departure will have been planned and the usual chaos, crisis and emotional and financial costs that accompany an unplanned departure will be alleviated.
Furthermore, many well- qualified, prospective interims will not be interested in a position that lasts for only a few months. A longer tenure allows talented people to provide a solid, meaningful contribution to an organization befitting of their capabilities.
Over the coming decade, many non-profit ED’s will leave their positions with no obvious replacement. When asked whether they would consider another ED position, the vast majority said that they would not. A more extraordinary loss of talent and experience is difficult to fathom. However many of those reluctant directors might be inclined to assume a short-term, contractual position within which they could utilize their skills and abilities and make an ongoing contribution.
The skills knowledge and abilities to seek in an interim will depend to some extent on the organizations special circumstances. Some organizations might benefit most from a skilled financial manager; others need a more experienced personnel manager, an outreach professional, or communication expert. An analysis of the organizations needs should precede the hiring of an interim in all cases.
Other qualities that are necessary in an interim, regardless of special interest area include the ability to listen and empathize, hear and make use of feedback, understand the nature of transitions and loss and be able to manage conflict. The interim should have previous experience directing an organization that is at least similar to the one being considered.
Interim directors can be much more than placeholders that keep the organization functioning for a few months while a new leader is selected. A competent interim can help an organization work through the loss of the former director in a healthy way, assess the organization from an unbiased vantage point, help the organization identify its strengths and weaknesses and identify a future direction. An interim also allows an organization to think through what skills, knowledge and abilities it will actually need from a director in order to move in the right direction. The organization will have time to breathe and reliable, unbiased information upon which to reflect on both past and future. In other words the departure of a long time ED while always difficult, can signal a new opportunity to rethink the organizations direction and pave the way for the successful entrance of someone new.