I asked Jason Peetsma, Managing Director at Odgers Berndtson – Executive Interim Division, how boards of nonprofits could best use interim executives during executive transitions or leaves of a senior staff person.
Jason turned out to be an amazing storyteller, able to inform any organization facing an executive gap about another group who faced a similar challenge and succeeded.
Overkill on one special skill
He sees an interim executive as someone who can lead a major, much needed change in your organization. Very likely that change will be something outside the comfort zone or core competencies of your last or current executive director. This is your chance to bring in a specialist with exceptional skills in exactly that type of work, a process Jason describes as “overkill on one special skill,” such as advocacy. Have really specific objectives for that change, but leave the “how” to your interim executive. Fresh eyes may frame the issue differently and find innovative ways to resolve the issue faster than you could have imagined. And these are the kind of people who can maintain other executive work at the same time.
Work can also be rearranged to give other staff the chance to grow. The interim executive can be their mentor and coach. Jason says this is especially valuable if you have an internal candidate you would like to see in the senior role, but you’ve assessed that person as not quite ready. The transfer of knowledge from the interim executive, along with a chance to observe how they implement change, is what distinguishes interim executives from consultants who just give advice.
There’s a good chance your interim executive will be someone you couldn’t possibly afford to hire full time. Besides, most people doing interim executive work simply aren’t interested in working for you on a long-term basis. Their joy comes from making a major difference in a very short time, not in sticking around to maintain an organization. They’ll be on to their next short term challenge as a “Super-Temp.”
Jason stresses that your interim executive need not come from the same sector. He sees advantages to bringing successful practices and techniques from other industries or sectors. He or she can rely on the in-depth sector knowledge of board and staff members, and the ability to learn quickly, to function effectively in your organization. I’d add a caveat that if an interim CEO or Executive Director of a nonprofit has not worked in nonprofits, they will have taken their nonprofit board work seriously and read widely or taken training about leading within the sector. Otherwise, they might not grasp how different the role of the board, the revenue model and the accountability framework can be.
How do you find great interim executives?
You often have an urgent situation when an executive has abruptly quit, been fired or been hospitalized. As part of your succession planning, identify in advance some executive recruiters who specialize in filling those roles. Call your selected person, and you may be meeting with a proposed candidate within 72 hours! Executive recruiters have databases of people with proven skills in organizational turnarounds, new program launches or whichever major change you have determined matters most. You can also handle the recruitment yourself, but that will be from a much smaller pool and likely require time to advertise. Consider that only when you have months of advance notice, such as for a maternity leave.
Can we afford an interim executive?
Here are three reasons you probably can afford to engage a Super-Temp:
- First, there are no legal obligations to keep them long term, so you remove the liability that can arise from departures.
- Second, most are retired executives, or consultants with their own plans in place. They don’t need your benefit plan and that saves up to 25%.
- Third and most importantly, you don’t have to hire permanently under duress. Jason estimates the cost of a bad executive hire at 1.5 times the annual salary.
As well, you will be giving your permanent hire or returning executive a stronger organization and therefore a higher chance of success in their role. That means better results to satisfy your supporters and help you generate more resources.
Jason recommends you ask your Super Temp candidate to paint you a picture of a prior organization before and after their service there. Can you visualize that sort of change for your organization? Then you’ve found a fabulous way to fill that executive gap.
You can reach Jason Peetsma at 416-366-1990 ext. 367. Check out http://www.odgersinterim.ca/en/ and his profile here.