By Shailushi Ritchie
Founder & CEO of Sevah Consulting
Recently, a colleague of mine shared with me that the CEO of her agency was leaving, and the Board had decided to appoint an internal staff person as the interim CEO.
“Please tell me the Board decided to hire an interim CEO,” I began.
“Nope,” she responded, “they are going to assign those responsibilities to a staff person until the hire is complete.”
Nonprofit boards make decisions like this all the time because of the pervasive belief that an interim leader is basically a temp, a seat warmer who signs checks and keeps the lights on. Although this person meets the technical definition of “interim director,” this misunderstanding of interim leadership and its benefits is a lost opportunity to prepare for and successfully welcome the organization’s next leader.
Interim leadership in the nonprofit sector has its roots in interim ministry, an established approach in many faith communities; it serves the same purpose in both settings. The goal of interim leadership is to provide stability and structure during a transition and to hold space for board members to decide what comes next. And in both faith communities and the nonprofit sector, it is defined by a set of principles that guides the interim leader.
The Four Principles of Professional Interim Leadership
Professional interim leadership is purposeful. Interim directors offer focused guidance and direction by sharing an honest assessment of the organization’s assets and challenges with the Board and staff. Interim leadership is a time-restricted engagement, so it is important to set priorities and time-sensitive goals to focus on the most pressing issues, often those that are most likely to hamper the new hire’s ability to lead effectively.
Interim leadership is methodical. Professional interims bring tools, strategies and protocols to their work that create order and stability during the transitional period. For example, a professional interim CEO will typically provide an organizational assessment to the Board and staff within the first 45 days, implement work plans developed in collaboration with the Board, and provide information and support to the Board and search agency during the hiring process. Many interim leaders will also complete an organizational inventory and develop an organizational dashboard focused on key metrics to promote organizational transparency and provide a strong foundation for the new leader.
Interim leadership is transformational. Professional interims understand their role is to serve as a catalyst for organizational change. They see and share — honestly and kindly — what is happening regarding programming, staff, finances, fundraising, support staff and board members in making needed changes. The interim’s fresh perspective can be a driver of organizational improvements to systems, policies and procedures that transform the way it does business.
Lastly, professional interim leadership is profound. An organization’s journey during transitional periods can be intense. An interim leader can also push an organization to tackle entrenched issues that pose a significant risk to the agency’s long-term sustainability. They identify and quickly implement changes designed to address big issues such as diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), generational shifts in the workplace, and ongoing trauma from COVID, local and/or global violence.
Transitions are opportunities to grow or to languish. Professional interim leaders offer a deft hand in dealing with challenges and bring optimism and energy when the situation might look bleak. They work with the board and staff to initiative organizational changes for immediate and long-term benefits. A professional interim leader is the bridge between “now” and “next” and ensures that the organization remains strong, steady and sustainable.