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Interim leadership: is it for you?

Ruth Mulryne draws from her own experience to share advice for those interested in following the interim path.

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Why choose this path?

I’ve mixed permanent and interim leadership roles with consultancy. This has enabled a varied career, having kids and living in the UK and abroad.  I love variety, challenge and change.

Interim roles can mean flexibility to combine senior leadership with other work interests. As we emerge from a global health and economic crisis, uncertainty and change envelop our sector. Talented interim leaders will have a role to play in a range of organisations – national, local, big, small and diverse causes. 

What’s the real story?

Obvious, I know, but get the story of the organisation clear before you accept the role. Ask the questions you need answers to. You don’t need ancient history but to understand the current challenges and risks. What red flags are waving, what time-sensitive decisions are pending? Why are the trustees choosing an interim leader? Was there a difficult parting of ways with your predecessor, or is this a positive plan creating time and space to appoint your successor?

What’s the story ahead? Your length of time in post may be clear or flexible. You can be clear however on what the trustees expect of you in this role and where they want the organisation to head. You may play a role in shaping that, so ask the sharp and at times blunt questions so there is clarity for both sides. Is everyone clear on what success will look like and where the lines of responsibility are drawn?

The ‘toolkit’

Many articles are written on the skills needed for permanent and interim leadership roles. I personally find they overlap.  Different roles require me to pull on my experience, knowledge and skills in different ways.

So how accurately I assess the ‘real story’ determines what I pull from my ‘toolkit’. The role is likely to be fast-paced, short-term and intense, but I want to enjoy it. I want to leave a valuable footprint as part of the organisation’s journey ahead.

Engaging quickly

When you’ve established the expectations of the trustees and agreed the priorities, keep an eye on these. Keep talking as they may well shift. Work out how and when you will communicate with the chair and board. Be honest, flag early any worrying discoveries, ask for help.

How you arrived at the role may shape the early relationships and knowledge transfer. In one organisation, I benefited from being approached by the current CEO, recommended to the board, and had a full handover. Sometimes there may be no handover, no familiar faces and a full ‘inbox’ of challenges ahead. Identify with whom the urgently needed knowledge lies.

What is the staff and volunteers understanding of your role?

They are probably expecting change of some sort. They may be unsettled, resistant, curious, hopeful, relieved, excited – or all of the above! Ask everything, be responsive, be thoughtful, be kind, even if you have tough decisions to make. Invest time with the senior team, but talk to others as widely as feasible – time consuming but invaluable. This helps identify who could step up when needed. You spot the patterns and nuances, the positives and concerns floating around – soak them up and add to the back-story.

Keep your outside network alive

What if you have concerns about how the board operates? What if you clearly see an issue they aren’t prepared to tackle? What if you just feel a bit overwhelmed? Who in your network can you talk to and think through your approach with?

What might be disappointing

If carefully building long term internal and external relationships, always seeing a plan through and being there to celebrate the success of an initiative is fundamental to your job satisfaction, interim leadership may not be for you.  There will be achievements, but you will also be paving a road for your successor as you set the organisation on its next journey. You may not see first hand much of that journey.

Your focus may be stabilising and turning around for future growth. You may not have time to change all you want to.  You might spot a great opportunity but can only embed the foundations. An inspiring initiative may need to be parked for your handover. Then it may be well received or politely ignored.

The board may be mightily relieved that you are there, lessening the pressure on them. Their intentions may be positive, but the support level mixed. You don’t have the history of contact for them to know what you need or you to gauge how to ask for it effectively. For example, in an interim CEO role when dealing with a sensitive restructure I felt a bit abandoned by the board. I hadn’t however taken my advice above and been direct enough on what I needed, no doubt keen to prove they had the right person for the job and I could handle whatever came up. 

When to go

You may be approached to consider taking the role permanently. Be ready for this. I had to decline an offer, as it just wasn’t the cause or size that floated my interest long term.  I probably fumbled the answer as was taken by surprise.  A clear answer leaves a positive impression of why the answer is no, if it is no, and doesn’t damage relationships.

Support your successor.  If you’ve built a good rapport with the team, your opinion will count. Try to get handover time with your successor built-in.  They will propose their own ideas and ways forward, but at least they are clear on the segment of the journey you’ve led.

Let go. Something I haven’t always done quickly enough, trying to make the handover perfect. A prolonged overlap helps no one. Don’t stifle your successor who is likely to be hungry to get on with a million ideas brimming.

Finally: be practical and prepare

  • Location or cause may not be your first choice, but does the opportunity catch your imagination?
  • There may be gaps between roles, financially is this ok?
  • Traditional benefits of employed status won’t be there, is this ok?
  • You have to negotiate your day rate, travel and other expenses.
  • Your personal development will need to be driven by you.
  • Keep abreast of opportunities via your networks, advertised roles and the recruitment agencies with interim portfolios.
Narrated by a member of the ACEVO staff

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