In 2018, Stephen Nill invited me to publish on CharityChannel my most recent experience where I stepped in as the interim executive. I did that in my article, You Are Now the Interim Executive. Now What?, also published as the most recent blog post before this one.
In this article, I switch perspectives. I address the same kind of situation, but from the perspective of a board chair.
Doing It Wrong
Way back in 1992, I hired an interim executive director shortly after joining a charity board (my first board). I had been volunteering but only learned what a mess the organization was in right after the annual general meeting. The board chair “hadn’t wanted to worry us.” The executive director position had been vacant for months, with no effort to recruit, and a power struggle combined with a lack of fundraising put an important community organization at risk of winding down almost immediately. It seemed to me we needed an experienced hand at the wheel to get us through the crisis, and as the person who suggested it, I naturally became chair of the search committee.
Since the skill set needed for a permanent hire might be quite different, and besides, we weren’t exactly an appealing organization right then, it seemed prudent to find someone who only wanted the job for a short time. I’d never heard of an interim ED and there were no internet resources back then to help. Finding the person was easy; our main contact at a major funder had just retired, lived nearby, and loved the charity’s work.
That’s a win, right? Well, not really. Some tough actions were needed, and we wanted an ED who cared more about the charity’s future than about being liked. But he soon realized he really loved this post-retirement, part-time work and instead focussed on being liked. The money situation got better but the power struggles and inappropriate use of resources (I could be using much stronger words here) by staff members got worse. He talked the board into making his appointment permanent, and then stood by while directors on one side of the power struggle quit (including me, eventually) and the other side recruited like-minded people. He soon had no ability at all to lead the charity and was pushed out of an organization once again in chaos.
The Starting Lesson
The lesson? Determine in advance whether the interim ED will be allowed to seek the permanent role. Be explicit in the contract about when it ends (e.g., three weeks after the new hire starts). Based on my experience and what others have shared with me, interim EDs are at their most effective when:
- They know they have only a short time frame to meet success measures, and
- When their decisions are aimed at creating the conditions of success for the new or returning ED.
Contract wording of “will not seek” or “is ineligible to apply” doesn’t prevent the board from proactively asking the interim ED to consider staying on, near the end of the contract. Perhaps no one better was found in the recruitment. Perhaps the ED who intended to return from leave had a change of circumstance and couldn’t. But the expectation of leaving is critical. And boards need to understand that many people willing to fill an interim role don’t want the permanent one.
The Learning Curve Goes Straight Up
I’m going to assume you’ve found someone without much, if any, advance knowledge of the organization, at least at the leadership level. And that they’ve started on short notice because of a sudden leave or departure. If your nonprofit’s situation involves someone more knowledgeable or with more time to prepare, consider yourself extremely lucky.
It’s scary to give that new person immediate decision authority and avoid getting drawn in to operational issues. Yet they have to establish that authority quickly or they won’t be effective.
So, what can you do? First, have a detailed onboarding plan. What information does the new person need to know right away? What can you tell them and give them to read on Day One (or before)? What time can you spend reviewing the strategic plan and board agenda with them, item by item? Can you be readily available to them as decision issues arise where they need more context?
Who can you introduce them to and in what order? Much of the time in their first few weeks is going to spent building temporary but positive relationships with board members along with key staff, funders, partners, non-board volunteers, suppliers, and more. Which of these people are you, as chair, going to take lead on for introductions, and who will take lead on the others? If there is a senior management team, the team members will manage introductions in their areas of responsibility, but they need to know that’s expected. If there are few or no staff members, then other directors, such as the treasurer, will need to step up even more.
Make sure the people they are being introduced to already know about the appointment. Use all your communication vehicles to announce and introduce the new interim ED. Tell all stakeholders that the appointment is an interim one, so they won’t think there’s been a failed recruitment when the person leaves in six months.
And set up regular communication sessions between you and the interim ED to talk about the smaller stuff that doesn’t warrant an urgent call.
The board of course decided in advance which few priority items had to be accomplished during the interim role. It did, didn’t it? If not, that’s really urgent.
It’s your role as chair to make sure the interim ED understands what is expected, and also to listen well if the interim ED comes back with suggested changes. Maybe something you thought was small is really big and only Phase 1 can happen. Or maybe something the board didn’t know about is on fire and has to take priority.
The new person will have so much information to absorb that it will feel like drinking from a fire hose. They will mix up names, forget the meaning of some of hundreds of acronyms and make some mistakes. They may ask the same question three times in three weeks because their brain got too crowded. They may be overwhelmed and exhausted at times.
Be understanding and encourage them to engage in self-care. Don’t add three new priorities as soon as you see the beginnings of progress on the first three!
Inspire Your Board
During the transition, the members of the board are going to work harder, on average, than at any other time in their service. They are going to be helping the interim ED with extra information and consultations (especially the officers), while also participating in the recruitment and orientation of the permanent hire.
What can be put off during this time? Which directors simply can’t spare the extra time right now and how can others step up even more to fill those gaps? What can you do to ensure they all continue to be optimistic and motivated during this difficult time?
Some may find it very helpful to their careers if they can take a role in executive recruitment. Some will be learning enough to let them lead such efforts in the future, perhaps in their other not-for-profits. Learning and strengthening business and personal skills can be powerful reasons to make that extra effort. What else might your board respond to?
Do They Help You Recruit?
If you have engaged an experienced ED, they may have great insights into the key requirements of the role and the most important skills. While they don’t have a vote, they can certainly help advertise for and track applicants, ensure logistics are handled for interviews, be your administrative liaison with the executive search consultant, and answer questions from candidates at interviews.
Given that one of the primary reasons for having an interim ED is to create conditions for success of the new hire, it makes sense to involve them from the start in the preparation and search. It will be really important to the interim ED to hand the reins to someone amazing, then stand back as they succeed. That’s key to their job satisfaction and their willingness to serve more organizations as an interim executive.
What If It Goes Wrong?
One organization had appointed an acting ED shortly before I started working with them. The individual was a disaster, and it was really unfortunate no one involved in the selection had been familiar with the concept of interim executive. The new hire, who was terrific, spent six months cleaning up serious problems caused by the interim one. The whole issue could have been avoided if the organization had developed a decent executive succession plan in advance.
Separately, I once watched a client follow the advice of an executive search consultant and hire an interim ED who I regarded as totally unsuitable. Only a couple of directors knew my concerns, and I didn’t tell others, but it wasn’t long before all or most of the directors realized the individual was far worse at the job that I could ever have anticipated. They ended the contract early and moved to permanent hiring much faster than planned. That was better than continuing with a leader who was ruining the organization’s morale and reputation. Be fearless, if that’s what the situation requires.
At the End of the First Thirty Days
So that leads us to evaluating how well or poorly the engagement is working out for you, the organization, and the interim executive. After a month, step back and thoroughly review the priorities together. Consolidate the feedback you’ve been getting from other directors, staff, clients, and other stakeholders.
Usually, there will have been stumbles as well as accomplishments. Consider what you can do to help the interim executive understand the feedback and try to change behaviors if necessary. But make sure to focus on the successes, including just that the organization is continuing to serve people well, and attract resources, during such a major transition. That alone may be a success worthy of a celebration!
Regardless of the missteps, it is likely much better to keep going than to have a gap. And by this time, it may not be worth bringing in another interim executive. So you want to find a way to make it work, and to convince the interim ED to stay despite the stress at this stage of the assignment. The end of the first month can be an emotional low point, with little actually accomplished; make sure to identify the progress that is happening and the potential for success.
And take care of yourself. You have months left to go before this transition is complete. And probably no one else wants to be chair until it is. You’ve come this far; stay for the win.