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Monday, June 27, 2016

Guest Blog: Musings of an Interim Executive Director

Late last fall, I accepted a request to serve as interim executive director of a well-known childcare center in our area. The previous director, a highly capable manager who was well-liked and respected by staff, board and parents, was leaving to take on a new challenge and the board decided to bring on an interim for the duration of their search process, which lasted roughly three months. My job was basically to keep the ship sailing roughly west while using my outsider perspective to assess the organization and recommend steps to strengthen it.

According to JR Yeager in the CompassPoint Nonprofit Services blogpost, So You Want to be an Interim Executive Director, the “ultimate goal as an interim executive during a leadership transition is to create the most stable platform possible for the next executive. This means a strong board, a functioning staff, good internal systems, and healthy funder and community relationships.”

Depending on the length of the interim, that’s a pretty tall order. Transitions are a period of tremendous uncertainty when organizational culture is at its most fragile. This is especially true with small nonprofits and notoriously complicated when the transition involves the departure of a founder.

Interim by definition means temporary and unless board and staff are handled with finesse, there can be a lot of pushback, both overt and indirect. Here are a few suggestions for making the most of the interim experience:

1.     Observe, ask questions and listen carefully. Pay attention to the roles that staff members play within the culture, not just those defined by their job title. Take time to learn about the rites, rituals and ceremonies that define the organization. How do people communicate within the organization as well as to their constituents?
2.     Let the staff know that, as far as you are concerned, they are the experts regarding their organization. No matter what your experience related to other organizations, no one knows the organization like the folks in the trenches day to day. Let them know you understand, respect their expertise, and that you will seek the benefit of their knowledge, experience and wisdom as you get to know the organization.
3.     In articles about interim directorship, much is made about the opportunity to clear out the dead wood if someone is underperforming or undermining the culture.  However, the interim also has the opportunity to compliment good work, notice if someone has talents that are not being utilized or would perform betterin a different position and mentor staff members who are growing in their roles.   Making sure that people are utilizing their strengths is just as important for creating a stable platform for the new ED, and it builds morale and loyalty.
4.     The interim’s outsider perspective can be in invaluable in observing the organization’s systems and identifying ways to be more efficient and effective.  However, the truth is people hate change and will be poised to pushback unless they feel they have been invited to collaborate to develop a more effective approach. Listening to board and staff perspectives on what’s not working and asking leading questions about what would work and how it could be made to happen before offering suggestions is more likely to win the interim allies when changing systems.
5.     When it comes to marketing and development, the number of board and staff members who underestimate their value as ambassadors and advocates of the organization is surprising. No matter how long the tenure, one of the best opportunities for any interim director is to help those closest to the organization recognize the value of their own passion and commitment as it applies to making friends and increasing funding for the organization.

So how did the interim experience end for the childcare center? In a surprising turn of events, the new challenge did not work out for the departing executive director. He requested to be included in the list of candidates and the board voted to hire him back, to the general delight of the staff and families.

This interim period provided the director an opportunity to step back and gain a fresh perspective.  Coupled with the insights gained during my tenure, the center is moving forward with renewed energy.

Donna H. Melton, Prinicipal 
Just in Time! Communications

Donna Melton and Just in Time! Communications are collaborative partners of MacIntyre Associates.