In a previous post I discussed a board’s expectations for an interim CEO. But the interim should also have expectations and set them with the board before engaging in an assignment. Not all successful CEOs (or presidents or executive directors, whichever term an organization uses) will be effective in an interim role. Taking over during a leadership transition is a much more fluid and, at times, more demanding situation than heading an organization as its permanent CEO. With the proper level of cooperation between the interim, staff, and board, however, an interim leader’s tenure can be a positive experience that moves an organization forward while a search is underway for the next CEO.
Here are some expectations an interim CEO should have to set the groundwork for a positive and productive experience:
What to Expect
- The interim CEO needs clear directions from the board on priorities and a clear delineation of responsibilities. We’re not talking about replicating the departing CEO’s goals and job description. The board should reprioritize goals based on the organization’s immediate needs of the organization. It’s usually more important to address immediate issues related to goals as opposed to long-range efforts. And there needs to be clarity on the interim’s authority in financial, programmatic, and human resource areas. At what point in each of these areas is the interim expected to get the board’s or board leadership’s approval before making or implementing decisions? This will take a high level of thought and communication to get right—and may be fluid during the duration of the interim assignment.
- The interim should expect regular access to the board chair, or whomever the board has identified as the liaison with the interim. Decisions will often have to be made quickly, and the organization does not want someone waiting an extended period of time to get answers before moving a project (or even donation) forward. This is often a heightened level of communication and puts additional pressure on volunteers, but it’s crucial to the interim’s (and organization’s) success.
- The interim needs to expect the unexpected. Even if there was a handoff from the outgoing CEO or the board and staff provided briefings, unanticipated situations requiring quick actionwill arise. There will inevitably be situations where the interim asks why something is done a certain way, and the answer is “Because we’ve always done it that way.” (Not always the best reason to do something.) The interim needs to be comfortable with making quick decisions with less background knowledge than a long-term CEO would have—and then working to implement them successfully.
What Not to Expect
- The interim CEO should not expect to have an inside track to the new CEO job. If the interim wants to compete for the job, he or she should communicate that fact to the board before engaging in the interim role. Some boards see an interim’s tenure as a dress rehearsal for the job. Others want separation so they can evaluate all candidates on equal footing.
- It’s a sad reality, but the interim should also not expect to believe everything he or she is told. This is not to say that board or staff will be intentionally misleading, but that each individual will be sharing only his or her own perspective. Getting input from many people helps ameliorate this issue; the interim can blend all of this feedback into a more accurate picture. But it is amazing how often group think runs rampant at an organization. Although it sometimes is positive, sometime it’s not. The interim may need to take longer to get an accurate picture of a situation. On the other hand, he or she has the advantage of being an outsider, which may allow him or her to look at situations more objectively.
As the bridge between two administrations for an organization, an interim CEO has the potential to make an impact. An effective interim will help the organization move forward during the search and transition, not simply keep it treading water. Achieving this goal, however, requires a concerted effort by the interim and the board. Setting clear expectations for everyone involved is key to laying the groundwork for interim success.
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.