On Being an Interim Executive Director

DetwilerI had the good fortune to interview Susan Detwiler, a delightful woman who has been successful as the Interim Executive Director of three very different US nonprofits, after five years as a full-time executive director. She’s run a religious school, a bird rescue group and an arts education group, and she’s sharing with us her hard-earned learnings from the field.

How could Susan perform well in such different organizations?

Because a good Interim ED brings fresh eyes, experience seeing different ways things get done in numerous organizations and a needed, specialized executive skill set. The key general strengths are people-related – being a great listener, willingness to learn, ability to accomplish things through effective people-handling and relationships. Susan didn’t need to know how to clean oil off birds! Subject-specific skills will be present in the staff members and volunteers and the Interim ED effectively mobilizes those. Susan recommends seeing the new organization with a gestalt mindset, listening for the interactions and the many possible connections.

Here’s more advice from Susan:

What one key benefit does the organization get?

Susan used one of my favourite phrases – they get someone who can speak truth to power. The Interim ED is not afraid of losing long-term employment, so the board can trust what they hear. And because they are present for only a short time, many people will see them as less threatening and will come forward with ideas and issues.

What one key benefit does the returning executive get?

If the Interim ED covered for a leave, they likely found at least one area of the organization was a mess. Maybe it was outside the core competencies of the ED, or perhaps there was too much angst in removing a long-term employee who no longer belonged in the organization. The returning executive comes back to a clean slate on whatever that issue was, and a problematic area that now runs much more effectively.

What one key benefit does the newly hired executive get?

New hires that replace a long-term executive hear a broken record of “she/he never did it that way” for each improvement they try to implement. Once board and staff members see the Interim Executive doing many things differently, the new permanent hire won’t hear that phrase so much, and will face much less resistance to change. People have become accustomed to new practices and don’t see all change as bad.

If the former executive was not liked, the staff and volunteers can discharge their anger and angst during the interim period, so the new permanent hire gets a more positive workplace atmosphere and culture.

How can the board help ensure success?

Susan recommends the board appoint one point person on the board who is charged with helping the Interim ED settle in and succeed. They are the person to call, and help that Interim ED be less isolated. She suggests that person be part of a slightly larger group that meets monthly with the Interim ED to discuss issues. As a whole, the board would approve a written set of expectations and clarify what is not within the purview of the Interim ED. If anything is added, it is with mutual agreement and is matched with something being dropped; the Interim ED cannot do everything.

How can the Interim ED enhance their own chance of success?

Put time into learning about the new organization, even before the official start. Immediately schedule one-on-one conversations with every direct report, preferably out of the office—go for coffee. Make sure the contract is explicit, especially about expectations and liability. Get your satisfaction by having a real impact on the organization and its mission achievement.

What about risks?

The organization has reduced its risks by using an Interim ED.

The Interim ED is taking a risk, particularly if they are also a consultant expecting to return to their small business. It can be the worst of both worlds, since there is no security or few benefits yet your time is not your own. Even a part-time ED job might jeopardize the continuity of a consulting business, if the Interim position conflicts with the time needed to meet with or woo other clients.

How does all this relate to executive succession planning?

Susan says any good succession plan includes the possible use of an interim executive. It won’t be as important if there is a long lead time to do good search, but organizations can’t count on that. “It’s much better to have an interim than a bad ED hire.”

Tim Wolfred of CompassPoint wrote a wonderful monograph for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, called Interim Executive Directors: The Power in the Middle. It’s a free download. http://www.aecf.org/resources/interim-executive-directors/.

Do read it all, but here’s how Tim’s summary ends:

“Interim EDs are not simply board members or staff who sit in the executive director’s seat for a few weeks or months until a new director is found. Interim EDs are highly skilled managers who temporarily take the helm of an organization (four to eight months on average), help the board and staff address important systems and capacity issues, and lay the groundwork for the permanent leader’s success. While not all organizations in transition require an interim ED, our research and practice at CompassPoint suggest that those groups that do use an interim ED emerge stronger, more financially sound, and with high levels of optimism about their future impact of their agency services. In sum, the use of interim EDs represents a powerful capacity-building strategy, one we believe nonprofits should carefully consider when addressing the challenges of their next leadership transition.”

Thank you very much, Susan, for sharing your wisdom to help organizations and executives. Susan lives in the Philadelphia area, facilitating strategies aligned with vision and values, and I highly recommend her to you if your organization could benefit from a consultant or facilitator. There’s more information at her site.

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