Interim Executive, Acting Exec, Temporary Exec…whatever you call us, we have this in common. We’re not expected to be here very long, and we have a lot to do in that time. If all you need is a placeholder, you wouldn’t spend the dollars for a professional. So it’s on the Interim Executive’s shoulders to make a difference quickly.
Your mileage may vary, but I find there are a few initial steps that have to happen to launch a successful interim situation.
- The Board of Directors should carefully vet the prospective interim. Don’t just get references, but really check his/her strengths. Make sure that the areas in which you need the most help are areas in which your interim has experience and expertise. You may as well make the best use of the short time s/he will be with you. Plan to have the interim focus on these areas.
- Set priorities and recognize that not everything will get done. Most Interim Executives are part-time, and even full-time, permanent executives cannot get everything done. Permanent executives can plan for the long term and prioritize long and short term goals, but your Interim doesn’t have that luxury, so there should be written agreement on what areas will be kept at status quo while the Interim focuses on top priorities.
- Anticipate a lot of time spent communicating. A good Interim Executive is a quick study, but even a quick study needs people to learn from. The Board should set a primary point of contact for the Interim, usually the President, who will be available to answer the “who, what, when, where, why, how and history” questions. If the President doesn’t know the answer, s/he will know who does.
- The Interim should immediately meet one-on-one with every direct report. This is absolutely critical. In my experience, even though I am hired by the Board, I find my success directly correlates with the support I get from staff. Getting to know the staff and letting them get to know me goes a long way toward allaying fears about change. They have a greater comfort level with me, and are more willing to make suggestions and bring new ideas to the table.
- Be flexible. Both the Board of Directors and the Interim Executive should be alert to times when priorities might shift. An Interim often comes in, takes a good look around, and sees areas that need attention but were never mentioned in the initial priorities. A good Interim will go back to the Board and, in the words of one of my clients, “speak truth to kings.” This is one of the most valuable jobs of the Interim Executive. A fresh pair of eyes can see situations that may have lain dormant for several years, but are potentially harmful to the organization. The Board may or may not decide to rearrange the Executive’s priorities, but at the very least, they are now aware of the potential hazard.
- Maintain communication. After the first month or so, the Interim and the contact may not need to speak daily. But weekly communication is important. At least monthly, the Interim Executive should communicate not just work done, but areas that s/he believes still need focus. This is important information that should inform the search for a permanent Executive Director.
As months go by, the work of the Interim Executive will evolve to include some routine. However, depending on the situation, the Interim will also be making changes – some large and some small. The initial month, where time is spent setting priorities and creating rapport and relationships with staff and Board, are crucial to the successful implementation of these changes.
Every organization is different, and that’s what makes it so exhilarating being an Interim Executive. Sometimes I get to focus on human resource issues, other times on finance, still other times on board development. I get to meet many, many wonderful, committed people, who are passionate about issues that affect the world. It’s a great job, and I’m privileged to do it.