LEADERSHIP | When is an Interim Leader Helpful?

publication date: Jan 31, 2024
author/source: Ellis Katsof

Not-for-Profit organizations sometimes find themselves unexpectedly leaderless. Either their Executive Director (ED) or CEO has chosen to take a new position, retire, suddenly falls ill, or an unprofessional event has caused the Board to terminate her or him. Whatever the reason, Boards often must make a quick decision on how to replace their senior leader. The most common options include hiring an external Interim ED/CEO or promoting a senior manager to an Acting ED/CEO position until a new permanent ED/CEO is hired.

Internal appointments often seem the easiest option but there are reasons an external interim ED/CEO serves your organization better.

Avoid executive burnout

If a senior manager becomes the Acting ED/CEO they usually have to maintain their senior managerial responsibilities on top of the new Acting ED/CEO responsibilities. This can lead to burnout. As well, if there is more than one senior manager interested in applying for the ED/CEO position this gives one of them a perceived advantage in the ED/CEO recruitment process.

Providing space

If the former ED/CEO was in the position for a lengthy period of time and was highly appreciated—staff, volunteers and Board members often end up comparing the new ED/CEO with the previous ED/CEO. This often causes the new ED/CEO added challenges as their behaviours, actions and decisions are being evaluated against how the former ED/CEO would have done things.

Fresh perspective

An interim ED/CEO will provide new viewpoints on your organization’s strengths and challenges. They can support an organization in developing new strategies that enable it to move beyond the established pattern of decision–making that might have perpetuated organizational challenges.

Interim ED/CEO’s can also be asked to complete an organizational review using a fresh set of eyes to examine your policies and practices. This can provide the organization with new solutions to old problems.  As Albert Einstein said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Providing time to resolve challenges

When an organization is in a “crisis” mode, arising from the unexpected departure of its ED/CEO, an interim ED/CEO has the luxury of taking time to assess the organization’s strengths, challenges, and needs. This allows the Board to make confident decisions in a timely manner without the pressure of having to act immediately when all the information is not available for thoughtful decision-making.

Acting as a change agent when required

Experienced Interim ED/CEOs often become change agents after completing an organizational review. With the Board’s support, they can implement much needed changes before a new permanent ED/CEO is hired. This enables the new ED/CEO to take a positive leadership role without having to initiate changes that may generate unrest within an organization during the change process.  

Strategic planning

During a time of sudden change, the Board has an opportunity to review its strategic plan to ensure that it will meet the future needs of the organization. An Interim ED/CEO is well- positioned to assist the Board in this review in an objective manner.
Potential mergers

Current ED/CEOs can be a major stumbling block to pursuing potential mergers due to the potential that one of the two ED/CEOs would probably be out of a job after a merger. Having an interim ED/CEO removes this issue and allows a more objective assessment of an amalgamation opportunity. If two Boards decide to pursue the proposed merger, the interim ED/CEO can assist the transition Board in assessing and identifying the skills that will be required to lead a newly merged organization.

Recruiting the permanent ED/CEO

The Board can rely on the Interim ED/CEO to assist in identifying the skills and experience required by the new incoming ED/CEO so that the recruitment process can be laser-focussed on the future needs of the new organization.

Maintaining ongoing operations

In some cases, the Board may limit its concerns to ensuring continuity. With an experienced ED/CEO, the Board will have the confidence that there is capable, ongoing leadership during the interim period so its programs are seamlessly delivered.

External Interim ED/CEO – yes or no?

An interim ED/CEO brings an organization stability when it is most needed as well as providing the opportunity for change and objective input into the recruitment of the organization’s new permanent ED/CEO.  This will ensure that your new ED/CEO aligns well with your organization’s mission, vision and organizational culture.

One drawback that often stops an organization from hiring an interim ED/CEO is cost. It may seem expensive at the outset, but weighed against the benefits they provide, the value of an interim ED/CEO always wins out.

Ellis Katsof, a principal with The Osborne Group, is a highly accomplished executive with experience in strategic visioning, business planning, and fundraising. He has extensive strategic planning experience having completed numerous strategic plans across Ontario. Ellis is the author of “Life 3.0: Protirement NOT Retirement.” ekatsof@osborne-group.com

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