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Interim Leadership: Bridging the Gap

I learned the value of hiring interims when I was an executive director. As a consultant, I now provide that same value to my nonprofit clients.

I was in a bind. The program director of the education organization I led resigned in the fall, a bad time to recruit an educator. My initial search failed. I needed help to get our program through the school year, knowing it would be easier to recruit a strong candidate in the spring and summer. What to do?

I hired an interim program director. Working part-time, the interim stewarded program operations and staff, assuring that students received our typical high-quality services, and allowing me to conduct a thorough, thoughtful, and successful search for a great program director.

Working as a consultant, I have now served in interim leadership myself, most notably in the development arena. As Interim Chief Development officer for a homeless services agency and Interim Director of Grants for a healthcare organization, I managed fundraising through key staff transitions, conducted assessments of strengths and needs, and assisted in the search for and onboarding of my successors.

Here are some lessons from the field.

For executive director transitions — and more

Many organizations opt to engage interims during an executive director transition. This gives the Board time to delve into organizational needs and strategize about the future, while assuring that operations are well maintained.

Nonprofits may also hire interim executive directors to create space between leaders in a transition from a founding director. They may need an interim during extended leaves; in a start-up or merger phase; or at a time when there are critical structural problems to be diagnosed and addressed to lay the groundwork for a greater vision ahead.

Moreover, as my experience shows, interims can be valuable in roles other than executive directors. Program, development, finance, and operations directors are all positions amenable to interims under the right circumstances. Organizations may choose to hire interims in these positions to lead temporarily when the senior position will take time to fill, or to maintain programs, operations or fundraising that would suffer without leadership.

In short, interims serve as a “bridge” between leaders, easing transitions and setting organizations up for its next phase of impact.

Are interims change agents or stewards?

Both or either.

In some cases, organizations want an interim to effect significant change: find the “skeletons” and clean them out of the closet; or design and implement a better staffing structure; or facilitate strategic visioning before a new leader is hired.

In other cases, the organization needs an interim primarily to serve as a reliable steward, who manages operations and program, assesses needs, facilitates the hiring of new leadership, and makes incremental changes as necessary. In these cases, the interim supports stability and creates the groundwork for future strategic growth.

Who are the best interims?

Relevant experience is key. If the organization needs an interim executive director, it may benefit from a consultant who has already served as an executive director. The organization should also look for significant experience in the main areas about which it is concerned. These could be, for example, staff supervision, operations, program, development, organizational culture, or strategic planning.

But the right skills and aptitudes are just as important as experience. The best interims are “quick studies” and strong communicators, who bring to the table flexibility, strategic thinking, a dose of humility, and the ability to jump into leadership. Most importantly, interim leaders must care about the mission of the organization and come to the position with healthy respect for their clients. (Click here to see my blog post on the importance of respect.)

As an executive director, hiring an interim saved the day for our program and students and showed me the value of having a “bridge” leader. As an interim myself, I have seen even more of the value of the role. I encourage nonprofits to consider hiring interims for organizational stability and long-term success.

Edie Canter, president of Canter Strategies, provides nonprofits with expert consulting in
development assessment, planning and execution; interim leadership; strategic planning; organizational management; and writing.

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