I recently saw the Annette Benning movie, Being Julia (which is wonderful, by the way). It reminded me of my life over the course of 13 years as a nonprofit organizational development and governance consultant. My film could be titled Being Interim.
Many ask me, “How do you do it?” or “Why do you do it?” When I hung out my consultant shingle, I knew I needed a niche or an extra tool in my toolkit that would bring value to the sector. At the time, interim leadership was common in the for-profit sector; not so much in the nonprofit sector. My courage to offer myself up as an interim leader came from an awareness of a need and personal insight. And, as the nonprofit sector faces what is likely to be the largest turnover it has ever known as many leaders retire, the interim leadership field will continue to grow and professionalize.
Since 2006, I have provided consulting, training, presentations, and coaching to nonprofits across the United States in the areas of strategic planning, board governance, resource development, human resources, team building, and conflict management, to name a few. My consulting is informed by the hands-on experience I have gained from a successful career in nonprofit management and volunteer board service since 1980.
In addition to providing this consulting assistance to nonprofits from start-ups to fully mature and complex nonprofit organizations, I have also provided interim leadership services for a variety of nonprofits. While typically these have been six- to nine-month engagements as the transitional CEO, I also have provided interim services at the senior staff level (such as filling in while an organization underwent a re-evaluation of a current role and searched for a new person in that position or explored the founding or creation of a new position within an organization). My clients have described me as a quick study with the ability to hit the ground running and assume the roles of caretaker, catalyst, creator, or change agent.
In general, a leadership vacancy, even when it comes about under planned circumstances, may shift an organization into a period of, at best, stagnation, and at worst, instability, while the search for the new leader is taking place. Recognizing this, many organizations now deliberately choose to engage a professional interim to provide a bridge between the departing and incoming executives. Reasons are varied:
- Sometimes using an interim is just a matter of having a trained executive steer the ship, providing day-to-day management/oversight and acting as an objective liaison reporting to the board so that it can stay focused on the organization’s strategic issues and the search.
- Sometimes an interim can provide a needed culture shift following the departure of a founder or strongly charismatic leader. Utilizing an interim can then give the board and staff some breathing room to have a facilitated opportunity for timely reflection about the specific qualities, skills, and experience the organization really needs in its next leader.
- Other times an interim is asked to help an organization recognize and move toward its next logical step along the organizational lifecycle by doing an organizational assessment and addressing specific governance or operational opportunities for change, so that by the time the new executive starts, he or she can hit the ground running without having to create a “new normal” or do “a fix,” which might compromise his or her relationships with board and staff. An interim offers objective insight without having a personal stake in the outcome.
- An interim also can be used to establish a new leadership position within the organization (COO or vice president of fund development, human resources, or business development, for example).
- And sometimes using an interim is a way for a board to provide a long-time valued executive with a short sabbatical to prevent burnout and allow the executive to recharge the batteries!
My courage to offer myself up as an interim also came from a keen understanding about my skills and what I know I do best. For me, being an interim plays to my strengths. I am a very quick study and often have insights that others (including ongoing board members) don't see. I can see a big picture, but then, because I am highly organized and extremely detail oriented, I can break things down into the smaller needed action items and get them done — I'm a finisher and a closer. I also can easily connect with a wide variety of people and generally can gain trust quickly, which I think has been critical to my success as an interim.
All of the interim positions I have held have required almost an exclusively internal focus. I have had to be extremely hands-on (no assistants generally and often doing a lot of grunt work myself — sometimes I have had to organize years of files just to make sense of an organization!). I've had to reduce or eliminate staff immediately and handle the fallout for lengths of time until alternate arrangements are finalized. Sometimes I have been in situations where there was no written knowledge management or the office technology was ancient. And I had to do the work to move operations along despite any challenges and not miss a beat.
So anyone considering “Being Interim” needs to have a wealth of personal insight. An interim is largely a steward of other peoples' strategy and vision (right or wrong), and because interim assignments are for a relatively short period of time, the role is simply a combination of caretaking and moving along process/programs while cleaning up messes that may have been left by the outgoing leader. Maybe it’s the kind of clients I have attracted but overall, all of them have been in crisis mode and needed someone to deconstruct and then reconstruct staff, infrastructure, and programs. Some have asked me to develop policies and procedures. Others have needed me to jump right into an audit process or a new website development. It can be crazy.
Those leaders who are externally oriented with a love of working on organizational vision and strategic focus might not make the best interims. The job is largely internally focused, and the interim needs to be single-minded on the tasks at hand. This is what boards want when they hire someone. The position is really viewed as a temporary fix — to keep things going while the board searches for the permanent person. And as an interim, I have needed to quickly establish vastly different kinds of relationships with board members, staff members, and other stakeholders than as I have as a permanent CEO — and sometimes that was lonely. At times, I really missed being a real part of an ongoing team. And I also had to know when I needed to push a client to let go of me so the organization and I can move on. In every organization I have served, I have been asked by board members to stay. I said no and sometimes that was really hard — until the day I said yes!