Interim CEOs (or presidents or executive directors according to an organization’s naming convention), by their definition, serve during a period of transition for an organization. If the outgoing leadership change is unplanned, it may also be a time of upheaval Volunteer board members are suddenly thrust into more details around the organization’s financial and programmatic management, community and donor relations, and staff retention
Even with a well thought-out succession plan in place, the organization will likely need managerial leadership to bridge the old and new CEOs’ administrations. As a given, it’s important to select a seasoned manager who knows something about serving as an interim, ideally someone who knows the industry, can manage finances as well as programs, and has had C-level experience. The board’s relationship with and expectations for an interim CEO should differ from those with the outgoing or incoming CEO, however Below are thoughts on what a board should expect—and not expect—from an Interim CEO.
What to Expect
- The board should expect a high degree of communication from the interim. This process will take more of board members’ time and most likely require them to delve more deeply into organizational details than they are used to It’s necessary, however, because the interim will want to make sure to he or she is executing the board’s will, which requires frequent check-ins.
- The board should expect the interim to manage the organization’s financial matters confidently. Competent handling of financial details such as cash flow, receivables, payables, and investments is crucial for smooth continuity The change in leadership is also an opportunity for a fresh set of eyes to review bank resolutions, approved signers, and internal controls for the organization
- The interim CEO must manage the organization’s staff. Leadership changes create uncertainty and are potentially disruptive for employees, who wonder if organizational structure, staffing, or priorities will be changing—and if they will have jobs The interim needs to be a steadying hand here but not promise anything that cannot be delivered He or she should avoid making blanket statements about how staff structure and responsibilities will not change The interim doesn’t know what the next CEO may do. The quickest way for an organization to lose the staff’s trust is to make promises that cannot be kept
- The interim must ensure that the organization’s operations continue without interruption. He or she will need to rely on staff to provide content expertise The interim’s primary role in this area is to ensure that staff don’t have any impediments to completing their jobs. In other words, the interim should run interference for them The interim must build trust quickly so staff will share potential roadblocks with him or her
- The board should expect the interim to help with the transition to the new CEO. Access to the former CEO is helpful, but it’s not always appropriate or available Careful notes (as well as critical emails, correspondence, board and committee meeting notes, etc.) should be kept during the interim’s tenure to ease the changeover to the new CEO Often this recent history is most important to the incoming CEO, because it relates to immediate issues to be dealt with
- Perhaps most important, the board should expect the interim to be a steady hand on the organization’s tiller. There will be uncertainty, and staff, donors, partners, and the community will all have questions The interim needs to be available to answer these questions, even if his or her answer is “we don’t know yet,” or “that will have to be determined.”
What Not to Expect
- The interim CEO is not responsible for long-range or strategic planning. In fact, it often makes sense to put planning processes on pause until the new CEO is in place The next leader is going to have a large stake in executing future plans, and he or she should have the opportunity to help develop them.
- The board should not expect a quick fixes to all of the organization’s shortcomings. Some issues that come to light may be easily addressed. Changes that will have long-term impact on policy or operations, however, are best left to the incoming CEO Issues of this nature that surface should be documented as part of the handoff to the new CEO (perhaps with recommendations on corrective actions).
An interim CEO will bring different perspectives and experiences to the position In fact, there may be an organizational bump from the new ideas the interim infuses. New ideas help develop new approaches A seasoned interim CEO, however, recognizes that it takes time to understand the reasoning behind certain practices He or she should tread lightly and go slowly in terms changing long-term policy It is important to address immediate situations and solve problems with the understanding that the incoming CEO may want to readdress an issue and/or set a policy around it
Few people like change and the ambiguity that comes with it The Board should be expecting these uncertainties as a result of the leadership changes With reasonable expectations and board support, however, an Interim CEO can help an organization navigate these rough waters and transition to the new CEO
Coming soon: What an Interim CEO Should Expect from the Board
The preceding is a guest post by Bill Hoffman of Bill Hoffman & Associates, LLC. Bill has senior-level nonprofit management experience in education, having been the president of one of the nation’s top K-12 education foundations, functioning as interim CEO for prominent national and state education and philanthropic associations, and serving on leading national, regional, and state boards of directors. He is also an adjunct professor at National University, teaching Non-profit Leadership and Board Development .