You Are Now the Interim Executive. Now What?
Stephen Nill has invited me to share with you my most recent experience where I stepped in as the interim executive and successfully led the nonprofit organization to a healthy place, ready for its next full-time executive director.
I’ll do that and go further – I’ll give you the benefit of my experience by talking about the questions you should be asking and steps you should take both for the organization and for yourself, should you find yourself facing, as did I, this kind of a challenge.
It’s Tough to Serve as an Interim Executive
I know how tough it is to find yourself in the role of an interim chief executive for a nonprofit organization. The organization that brought me in had a thousand active volunteers, no staff (ever) or human resources systems, a facility lease about to expire after major renovations (despite no renewal clause), a board down to legal minimum, financial records so far behind no one could know whether the organization had money even for paper towels, and a major issue I can’t tell you about.
The former executive director would not talk to me. The only other person who knew where to find anything at the office was one of her best friends (and I owed a lot to her willingness to initially help me despite that). A key group of volunteers was ready to mutiny because the board had put on hold a program they cared very much about.
An organization that had served the community for twenty-three years was very much at risk of closing. I spent five-and-a-half months with little sleep and a lot of anxiety, but I hired an amazing manager of operations; supported the board as it chose a wonderful executive director; helped get a much stronger, rebuilt board off to a good start; kept the programs going; sorted out facility issues; and cleaned up the financial records and controls (the bookkeeper was a godsend).
A year after I started, the charity launched a good new strategic plan and reported that the key issue I couldn’t tell you about was fully resolved in the best way possible. Don’t lose hope!
Prepare for a Wild Ride!
You, too, may be walking into the equivalent of a swirling mist, with little knowledge of what you’ve gotten yourself into, in an organization that knows almost nothing about you. Now you are in charge.
Perhaps a few days ago the nonprofit and the executive director parted ways. Abrupt departures are rarely amicable. Or perhaps the executive director was hit by a meteor, leaving a giant hole in the organization. No one in the organization is ready to step up, even on a short-term basis. Or perhaps the board of directors doesn’t want any of the people who might step up. So they’ve gulped hard and turned to an outsider. Maybe it’s someone they knew in another context, or someone they found on the Internet or through an agency.
Yes, there are people who do this kind of leadership work, to give a worthy organization a chance of survival. It’s a growing field, and some amazing people have served as interim executives in a dozen or more nonprofits. But let’s assume this is your first chance at interim leadership. You’ve had almost no time for research or relationship building. The chair told you just enough about the organization to get you to agree to the role. Perhaps some of the most critical issues were mentioned, but the chair took care not to scare you off. With luck, someone on staff or a key volunteer is going to be around to introduce you to others and give you a tour. You can’t even count on that.
Now that you’ve found the washroom and the kettle, it’s up to you to get off to a running start. You are the leader, even if no one thought to give you access to the computer network or a key to the facility, let alone anything like an organization chart or contacts list. The next thirty days are critical to organizational survival and your personal success in the role.
You won’t know all the really important issues, even if you’ve already signed a confidentiality agreement as part of your contract. (You do have a contract, right?)
You won’t know the range of reactions to your appointment, but you can assume many are mystified by the idea of bringing in someone new at the top. Some won’t believe but the beloved founder/long term leader could possibly keep the organization going. Some think there was an obvious choice that was overlooked. Many are nervous about their future as staff or volunteer. Keep in mind the need for reassurance and confidence-building, no matter how confused you are right now.
What Matters Most
The most important thing I’ve found about interim executive appointments is that they are not about my successes in the role. What matters is creating the best possible situation to enable the new or returning executive to be successful. Sometimes the best you can do is provide excellent support to the board, especially about transition, put out the largest wildfires, and take strong action to move the culture from toxic towards positive and productive. Sometimes you can turn around the most problematic areas, hire great new staff members, and really move the needle on the strategic plan.
Remember that you don’t have to be loved. You aren’t building long-term relationships (though please don’t burn bridges with existing good ones!). Therefore, you can take the really hard actions, like firing a long-term employee whose bad performance has been documented for years and who is harming the work and mood of the rest of the staff. Your predecessor didn’t act, perhaps out of friendship, soft-heartedness, or fear of a successful lawsuit. Get that out of the way, so that your successor can start with positive actions.
Oh, and those meddling board members who don’t understand their role? Work with the chair to get them to stop calling staff for special privileges, requesting mounds of trivial information not relevant to board-level issues, or interfering with hiring. Your successor will be grateful.
Keeping the success of that person top of mind, let’s move to actions. The order in which you proceed will depend on who is available to you when. A quiet coffee while scanning whatever overview documents have been collected for you will also give you time to think about the many questions you want to ask. You can’t ask everything at once.
Where Might You Start?
Have an in-depth conversation with the chair, who may now be more forthcoming than in the hiring interview. Ask questions such as:
- Can you please t ell me more about your expectations of me?
- I s this a status quo role or a time of major advancement? How much change do you want to see or will accept?
- Can you go through the strategic plan with me and highlight what progress you expect during this Interim role?
- What will be my biggest challenges?
- What outcomes will be perceived as success? What one thing matters most to you?
- What would make you feel supported?
- How much authority do I have and for what?
- Are there critical outstanding issues with government, funders, or regulators? If yes, please tell me more.
- What significant revenue or cash flow risks have you identified?
- How is the organization currently viewed by its key stakeholders? How does my appointment affect that?
- Who else do I need to talk to?
- What important questions am I not asking because I don’t know to ask? What rocks do I need to turn over?
Get a communication out to the community with your picture and some information about you as a person as well as some key qualifications. Names and titles aren’t very meaningful; we relate to people. Keep up the communications going throughout, using social media, newsletters, e-blasts or whatever else works with your community. Be visible at key events.
Step back to reflect on what you’ve learned so far. What’s the highest potential of this role for me? For the organization? For the community? For the new hire (or returning ED if the situation was caused by a medical emergency)?
Try to be positive. There are no miracle workers; the people in this nonprofit likely realize that you didn’t come with a magic wand. The organization is desperate and regardless of your doubts, they may not have a better choice. And it’s not forever; the light at the end of the tunnel is not a train. If an orderly wind-up truly seems necessary, consider how you would broach that conversation with the chair and what role you would play.
Have versions of that in-depth conversation with other key individuals, such as the treasurer, and each management team member, adapting the questions as needed. And, of course, seek to learn about the individual aspirations, ideas, and concerns of each person you meet with. You will be depending on them to keep fulfilling their responsibilities. Help them stay optimistic!
If the former executive director is on good enough terms with the organization, and healthy enough for a conversation, start that relationship. It’s likely your best source for learning about outstanding major and urgent items, as well as getting insights into the key individuals in the organization. Listen but be prepared to form your own opinions about the people in the organization.
Based on what you know so far, seek answers to these questions:
- What do my board, staff members, and volunteers need to know to stay productive and positive? How can I best communicate that knowledge?
- How do people feel about this change? How do I need them to feel and how can I make that happen?
- How can I build good relations with people in key roles and with key stakeholders? Remember that they won’t want to devote as much time deepening the relationship with a temporary leader as they will with a permanent one.
- When is the best time to reach out to the major funders and partners, and service providers such as your accountant, banker, lawyer, and landlord?
Based on what you know so far, act on urgent important tasks. People will be more willing to talk to you if you don’t miss key deadlines, like material for the auditor, board packages, or signing off on grant application and reports. Defer what you can until you get a better handle on the situation. Watch out for smoldering fires that could have dire consequences if not dealt with.
Review your meeting schedule. Do all those committees really have to meet during executive transition? Am I the best person to represent our organization on those community councils and other umbrella bodies, or is this a good chance for a manager with better knowledge to get some exposure? How am I going to fit in all those critical meetings? How can I best engage with groups of staff members and key volunteers?
Go back to a key person you now believe you can trust and ask for a fully confidential conversation. Ask tough questions like:
- Who else can I trust to have the best interests of the organizations at heart? Whose personal agendas do I need to be wary of? Who can I count on?
- Who resents me being here and why?
- Who is going to be angry I haven’t already met with them?
- What T-Rexes are waiting for me hungrily that you didn’t want to tell me about earlier?
Start a high-level organizational review. Seek to confirm what you’ve learned and find the hidden issues and the procrastination areas of the last executive director. Everyone has part of their work responsibilities they like less than others, or don’t think they are good at. Maybe there are no written human resources policies and there are complaints about unfairness. Maybe the flagship program everyone is so proud of is down to three participants. Maybe government filings you were assured were done, weren’t. Maybe the security systems don’t work and privacy of personal data is a joke.
Or, maybe everything is running smoothly, and you can relax and maintain. (Ha Ha!)
Go back to the board members with your suggested revised list of interim priorities. If the finances are in complete disarray, then implementing new donor stewardship software may not be as urgent as they thought (not that I’m speaking from experience, of course!). Make sure the list is aimed at the success of the next incumbent, including helping the board with the executive search and transition as needed. The key word there is helping; it’s the board’s responsibility and you don’t have a vote in the selection. Get board agreement on a revised list of success measures and target dates.
Implement but take care of yourself. Get some sleep. Spend time with family and friends, even if not as much as usual. Do something active that you enjoy. Meditate. Maintain contact with colleagues, online at least. No matter how much needs to be done, you’ll do it better when rested and calm and with a support network.
Celebrate successes. Celebrate organizational survival. Celebrate the people who made it happen. Strengthen community by bringing people together socially.
At the End of Your First Thirty Days
At the end of your first thirty days, it’s time to reflect again on what you’ve accomplished, what you’ve started, and what you wish you had done differently. Have another in-depth meeting with the chair to talk about what’s happened so far. Have one with the management team too, or the whole staff if the organization is small, or maybe both. Find out to what extent your perceptions of the situation match theirs. Rethink your plans going forward and address any misunderstandings or relationships that got off to a bad start. Hey, you survived this far and so did the organization! Congratulate yourself. Get some sleep. Indulge yourself.
By the way, if you are reading this before accepting your first interim executive role, you might also want to read “Are you considering an Interim Executive Opportunity?” You can find it and other articles on interim executives by searching for “Interim Executive” at blog.garthsonleadership.ca.
Answering the Call
Although the term interim executive is fairly new, special people have been stepping up to save nonprofits in trouble almost as long as nonprofits have existed. Many nonprofits important to the quality of life in our communities and our countries are around today because someone put most of their life on hold for three months, six months, a year, or even more. They dedicated themselves to saving programs and services that mattered, sometimes without a lot of obvious gratitude or even continued connection with the nonprofit. If you are that kind of special person, and you answer the call when needed, thank you so very much.
Editor's Note: Be sure to read Jane Garthson's follow-on article, You Just Hired an Interim Executive Director. Now What?, that looks at hiring an interim executive director from the perspective of a board chair.
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