TREND | So, You're Hiring an Interim Executive Director, Part 2

publication date: Feb 14, 2024
author/source: Jane Garthson

Part 1 shared a tough lesson about engaging an interim executive, gave qualities to look for in an interim ED and provided tips for getting them started in the role. Next: Communication, measures of success, working effectively with the board and more.


Use all means available to announce and introduce the new interim ED. Tell all stakeholders that the appointment is interim, so they won’t think there’s been a failed recruitment when the person leaves in six months.

Support the interim ED by spending a lot of up-front time communicating. That's particularly true if staff and volunteers have been traumatized (death of a founder or long-time leader, an abrupt firing, or a toxic work environment). Donors may consider withdrawing support due to worry about the organization's future. They will need reassurance that there is a realistic plan to get back on track.

Ensure regular communication sessions between the Chair and the interim ED to talk about smaller issues that don’t warrant an urgent message. Depending on the situation, that might be every week or two.

Success measures

The Board will have decided in advance which priority items needed to be accomplished during the interim role. (It did, didn’t it? If not, that’s really urgent.)

It’s the Board's role to make sure the interim ED understands what is expected, and to listen when (not if) the interim ED comes back with suggested changes to the top priorities—usually in about 30 days. There is, almost always, something the board didn’t know about is on fire and must get priority attention. Multiple “fires” are common, and the previous leader may have been good at hiding the flames from the Board.

Have patience

Remember—the first thirty days needs to be about assessing the situation to bring an updated priority list to the Board, with rationale for the changes. At the same time, the interim ED will be meeting people and keeping up with urgent items like approving payments. You won't see major progress on big projects! Interim executives don't arrive with a magic wand to transform the organization with a wave.

The new staff person will have so much information to absorb that it’ll feel like drinking from a fire hose. They’ll mix up names, forget the meaning of some of your hundreds of acronyms, and make mistakes. They may even ask the same question three times over three weeks because their brain is crowded. They may also be slightly overwhelmed and exhausted.

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?
Who can step up even more to fill those gaps?
What can you do to ensure that all board members continue to be optimistic and motivated during this difficult time?

Volunteers may find it helpful to their careers to participate in executive recruitment. Learning and strengthening business and personal skills can be powerful reasons to make that extra effort. What else might your board respond to?


The interim executive will have great insights into the key requirements of the role and the most important skills. Their strategic advice can be especially important in choosing the top criteria for selection; no candidate ever has every desired qualification. While they can’t have a vote, they can certainly help to update the job specifications, create the job posting, 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 a new hire, it makes sense to involve them from the start in the preparation and search. Interim EDs want to hand the reins to someone amazing, and then stand back as they succeed. It’s key to job satisfaction and their willingness to serve more organizations as an interim executive.

What if it goes wrong?

I once watched a client follow the advice of an ill-informed executive search consultant and hire a bad interim ED. I told the new Chair the candidate was totally unqualified to even get an interview. It wasn’t long before the board realized the individual was far worse at the job than I could ever have anticipated. The contract was ended early but by then felt permanent hiring would be better than continuing with a leader who was ruining the organization’s morale and reputation. Be fearless if that’s what the situation requires. Exceptions happen.

At the end of the first 30 days

A professional interim executive will have completed their preliminary assessment. Thoroughly review that assessment and the proposed priorities together. Convey the feedback you’ve been getting from other directors, staff, clients, and other stakeholders. Discuss how both sides feel.

Usually, there will be stumbles, as well as accomplishments, as with any new hire. Consider what you can do to help the interim executive understand the feedback and try to change behaviors if necessary. Focus on what's going right, including that the organization is continuing to serve people well, and attract resources, during a major transition. That is a success worthy of a celebration!

Regardless of the missteps, it is likely much better to keep going than to have a gap and it may be too late to bring in another interim executive. The end of the first month can be an emotional low point, with little accomplished beyond a challenging discussion with the board about priorities. Make sure to identify progress and the potential for good outcomes.

And take care of yourself.

You have months left to go before the transition is complete. Whether you’re the Chair of the Board or an Executive Director—you’ve come this far; stay for the win.

Since 1992, Jane Garthson has dedicated her work and volunteering to creating better futures for our communities and organizations through values-based leadership and leadership services. Jane has served three times as Interim CEO or Executive Director, and on numerous boards including as Chair and as a regulatory Commissioner. She is a graduate of the Interim Executives Academy, and an executive coach for Interim and new Chairs, CEOs and Executive Directors. Jane is currently Secretary of the Oak Ridges Moraine Land Trust and on the Steering Committee of Seniors for Climate Action Now! (SCAN!) Toronto. Contact her,

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