Interim leadership: What it is and why it's beneficial

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Leadership is a key ingredient in an organization’s success. Without good leaders, organizations often lack direction, vision, and the inspiration teams need to accomplish their goals. While great leaders are often with companies for years and even decades at a time, there comes the moment when individuals in leadership roles must transition, leaving a vacancy at the top of a company or organization.

In this situation, organizations may face a double-edged sword: They either must rush through a leadership search and settle on a person who may not be the best fit for their company, or take the time to find a great fit for the role but face a leadership void in the meantime. This is where an interim leader can be an ideal solution.

Many organizations don’t initially consider interim leadership as an option. However, using a temporary leader can help balance finding the right person to fill the position for the long term while also keeping the organization moving forward. Here is an overview of interim leadership and why it is a beneficial solution for organizations.

What is an interim leader?

In the most basic terms, an interim leader is a person who steps into an organization’s leadership position on a temporary basis. Like traditional leaders, interim leaders strive to create a sustainable trajectory of growth for the organizations they serve. Some key differences between interim and traditional leaders are that interims have a shorter tenure to take on initiatives and do their job with preparations for their successor in mind. A few key facts and figures to help understand interim leaders include:

  • Interim positions can span a wide variety of time. Companies specializing in interim leaders, such as Third Sector Company, reports interim tenure spans between three weeks and two years, with an average of about eight months.
  • Interim leadership jobs include Executive Director, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Advancement Director, Chief Financial Officer, and similar senior leadership positions.
  • Interim leaders are not the same as interim managers. While managers are responsible for ensuring day-to-day functions are on track, leaders have the larger task of creating vision, strategy, and direction within an organization.

What organizations need from interim leaders

Interim leadership is not just about filling a position until another person comes along; interim leaders are agents of organizational change. Because these individuals are coming from other organizations and past leadership roles, they have the ability to bring new ideas and solutions to current organizational issues.

A recent survey, conducted by Third Sector Company, asked over 300 American and Canadian organizations from Southern California to Vancouver, BC to identify what skills, competencies, and abilities nonprofits need from interim leaders. The following are the key areas organizations identified:

Termination management

The most documented situation found in Third Sector’s research when surveying organizations was that interim leaders needed to manage repercussions of their predecessors leaving the organization. This included mitigating distrust volunteers and employees had with leadership and tying up loose ends.

Diagnostic processes and data collection

Another highly necessary skill for interims is the ability to streamline processes and find the necessary data to analyze an organization's performance. It takes interims an average of 90 days to gather data and other types of vital information, conduct an organizational assessment, and report on organizational performance in key areas.

Crisis project management

Many interims reported issues in the way organizations’ various initiatives were run and fulfilled. They also found many shortcomings that were symptomatic of larger organizational issues. This often included issues with special event fundraising, contract management, audit management letter elements, and significantly paralyzed cash flow.

Rectifying organizational communication

Communication is a huge factor in an organization’s success. Many Third Sector interim executives enter organizations that are highly siloed and lack clear and congruent communication. Many organizations include cliques, self-organized power structures, or other dynamics that hinder their ability to communicate clearly and ultimately function highly.

Benefits of interim leadership

Bringing an interim leader into your organization offers a number of benefits. These experienced professionals can offer their expertise and guidance and help your organization maintain its vision throughout a leadership transition.

Some reasons you may consider implementing an interim while searching for a permanent leader for your organization include:

They offer a timely hiring solution

A key benefit of hiring an interim leader is that this person has the ability to fulfill requirements of a leadership position while the organization takes the time to recruit. This gives organizations the time they need to fill leadership positions without leaving the leadership positions vacant during their search.

They bring new answers to old problems

Because interim leaders typically have years of experience in their fields, they have the ability to bring their knowledge from past positions to your organization and implement positive change. Having a fresh set of eyes and new perspective at the helm of your organization can bring new insight and inspiration to an organization and make leadership changes capacity-building opportunities!

They can help define leadership needs

Using interim solutions can help companies determine exactly what they need in a permanent leader. Is the organization moving through changes that they need someone with specialized skills to help navigate? Are there issues in organizational infrastructure they need help solving? Temporary individuals can help organizations answer these questions and clearly define leadership roles for future leaders.

Third Sector Company was founded in 2002 with a single mission: To foster a continuity of leadership for the nonprofit sectors of the United States and Canada. Now serving four regions of the Western United States and Canada and having helped over 500 nonprofits, Third Sector Company specializes in interim executive placement, succession planning, and board development strategies to further evolve its founding principles in unique and impactful ways.

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