One of my career highlights followed the completion of an organizational review and presentation of my recommendations for improving the operations of an organization.
To my surprise, the board chair requested I act as the interim chief executive officer (CEO) with the specific goal of implementing my recommendations in order to "steady the ship," and at the same time manage change and conduct an executive search for a new CEO.
I accepted and found the one-year assignment very rewarding.
Indeed, there are many benefits to inserting an interim CEO into a leadership role while an organization is in transition. Whether or not the interim candidate has industry-sector experience, a seasoned executive can bring fresh eyes and provide a different perspective to organizational issues.
Overall, recruiting an interim CEO prevents the organization from rushing to hire a replacement before it has undertaken an in-depth analysis to identify the selection criteria most important to success.
An interim CEO also allows the organization to separate itself and provide distance from the presence and tenure of the former CEO. This is especially important if the former CEO was removed from the position.
Interim CEO's are brought into the organization to "steady the ship" and/or to bring about change. An interim executive can effectively stabilize an organization by being a good listener, identifying and resolving staff fears and concerns and once again aligning objectives with the mission and goals of the organization.
As agents of change, interim executives don't need to be concerned about internal politics, they can take more risks and be very effective because they don't need to worry about being liked or disliked.
Since the role of interim executive is very important to an organization, recruiting and selecting the right professional as interim executive is equally as important as selecting a permanent CEO.
There are definitely different qualifications, however, and candidate qualities that need to be considered for this role.
In most cases, an interim CEO appointment should not be considered a training assignment, although in some cases this does have advantages for all parties concerned. The most effective interim CEO is a seasoned executive who has experience working within complex situations, preferably across several industries, and with different sizes of organizations.
An interim CEO must be flexible and adaptable with strong administrative, financial and human resource management strengths. They must be quick learners with the ability to see the "big picture" of an organization while at the same time having the capability to delve into and make sense of the details.
They must have good skills in organizational diagnosis and understand how all the elements of the organization fit together. Their human resource management skills must include the ability to gain trust quickly, to ask good questions, to listen and process the answers effectively.
Prior to accepting any assignment, an interim executive must be given both clear expectations and the power and authority to do the job. At the same time, the organization must be very strategic with respect to assigning the amount and speed of change because "too much, too soon" could cause plans to backfire.
While being assigned the role of interim CEO is exciting and could be the opportunity of a lifetime, it also has many risks that could impact one's long-term career. In particular, if you wish to be an interim executive, you must be a quick study, especially since you won't have any internal relationships to rely on. You'll be in charge the moment you walk in the door. You'll have no opportunity for a learning curve and therefore, you must be very quick at assessing the organization and getting the big picture.
At the same time, you'll need to quickly establish employee trust so that they'll share issues and concerns with you. All in all, your role will be similar to swimming in the deep end where you'll either sink or swim. In other words, you'll have little or no time to settle in, little or no resources upon which to fall back and no alliances within the organization.
Entering the role of interim CEO as a stop-gap in your search for a permanent CEO role can be an exciting opportunity, but it also creates vulnerability with respect to ongoing career opportunities. For instance, an interim role is very demanding and often very-high profile, especially if the organization is membership based. On the other hand, well-known and popular organizations always seem to have a set of opinionated backseat drivers who aren't shy about making their opinions known. Therefore, in a scenario where you are expected to be the agent of change, you'll find there are many more eyes watching closely for success or failure.
One other challenge for interim executives is the risk of enjoying the role so much that you wish to make it a permanent assignment. While in some cases, particularly for internal candidates, an interim assignment might turn into a permanent role. This is often not the case, however, for external interim CEO's. That's because the selection criteria for a permanent CEO is often different than that of an interim.
It's unfortunate, but true, that when an interim CEO applies for and is not successful in achieving permanent status, the loss of the opportunity can be misinterpreted by the interim candidate and by external viewers.
From the individual perspective, there could be strong feelings of loss and perhaps even a sense of failure which, in turn, impacts one's self esteem and their ability to seek new employment. On the other hand, potential future employers sometimes perceive interim CEO roles as job-hopping and a sign an individual is generally not perceived to be successful in the role of CEO. When this misinterpretation occurs, a negative, grey shadow is cast upon the individual's career opportunities.
Internal interim CEO candidates are especially vulnerable to career risk if they are in the role for a lengthy period and if they enjoy the role, but were not selected as the successful permanent candidate.
In some cases, not only does the individual have difficulty returning to their old role but the newly installed CEO often views this individual as an internal competitor which in turn dampens the potential of a successful working relationship.
All in all, the role of interim CEO has benefits and risks for both an organization and individuals. As a result, it is important for each party to examine the opportunity for the interim CEO in depth and ensure it is the right thing to do for everyone involved.
Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP, M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org