Getting The Most From An Interim Leader

Chief Executive Officer

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During the current pandemic, many organizations have hit the pause button on executive hiring, figuring they would rather bring on new leaders when the business climate is more stable and their balance sheets healthier. When vacancies arise, they are inserting interim leaders into key roles as a means of making sure they have a full team in place to manage the current crisis.

Interims might be appointed from within the organization — a COO to temporarily fill a CEO role, for example — or they might be contracted from outside the organization. As someone who places external executives into interim roles, I may be biased but I believe bringing in an experienced outside leader who can devote full time and energy to a role usually makes the most sense. Internal interims are often doing double duty — their “real” job and their interim one — and frequently are not given the authority to do an interim job well. If they do have authority, they may not want to make hard decisions that could have political repercussions within the organization in the future.

In this article, I’ll share insight about how to make the most of an externally hired interim executive. Most importantly, the interim executive sets the stage for a permanent hire. Organizations can take advantage of the interim’s expertise to ensure that, when the time is right, the permanent hire hits the ground running.

1. Don’t view the interim as a “placeholder.” If you put someone in an interim role with only modest expectations as to what they can accomplish (“Just keep the seat warm!”), you do that person a disservice. Any experienced executive will want to “earn their keep” and be tested. For executives who make their livings doing interim work, their professional ethic will drive them to want to excel in the role. In short, set the bar high in terms of what the interim can achieve.

2. Give them responsibility. There are some organizations that are timid in giving autonomy to someone from the outside. This defeats the purpose of paying an interim executive to join your organization and make a difference during their brief tenure.

3. Don’t just hand them the keys. Before an interim arrives onsite, establish goals for what you want them to achieve during their stint. Try to limit your list to four or fewer key projects or initiatives that need to be prioritized so as not to dilute their focus and effectiveness.

4. Check back in to reprioritize. Once the interim is acclimated to your organization and has a sense of the task at hand, they may have input on the previously established goals and priorities. After two or three weeks, have a formal check-in with the interim to review and, if needed, recalibrate the stated goals of the position.

5. Bring them into crisis management. Executives who do interim work as a career tend to be late-career professionals who have seen many crises and challenges before—they relish these opportunities. They often represent the impartial, wise voice in the room when excruciating decisions are made.

6. Ask the interim to review and redefine the job description. Executive roles are changing. The Covid-19 crisis in particular has forced leaders to take on new and different responsibilities and shed old ones. One basic task an interim can perform is to evaluate and rethink the basic job description of the permanent position. Is it outdated? Do the reporting relationships still make sense? Are there new responsibilities that didn’t exist when the job was last defined?

In addition, the success of an interim may provide a template for the type of person to be hired for the permanent role—what experience, skills and personality traits the next hire should have.

7. Get their help in evaluating the team. Typically part of the standard operating procedures of an interim leader is to provide an objective view of the current team around that executive—the roles themselves and the people who fill those roles.

Executives who do interim work for a living tend to be self-motivated high-achievers. That said, they still need the support of their hiring organization to ensure the conditions are right for them to do their job well.

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