The Interim Leader

Placing an “interim” label on an executive can result in an extremely unsettled atmosphere within an organization.  Employees seek direction but might not know who to ask for guidance.   They might become uncomfortable with making important decisions.  This sense of uncertainty can extend to stakeholders and shareholders as well.  All interested parties want to know that “the ship is heading in the right direction,” and that it has a captain.  That said, the “interim” option is sometimes the best short-term solution. 

When there is a sudden departure or loss of an executive or C-suite leader, the prepared organization executes its succession plan to address the gap.  It might miss a beat, yet it moves confidently toward its intended direction and goals.

For companies without a succession plan, or with a plan that is outdated or hastily crafted, the management team and/or Board must move deftly and swiftly to put the proper person, and sometimes structure in place.

Naming a leader/manager on an interim basis presents the Board or management team some options:

a)       It is an opportunity to evaluate the newly-named executive’s performance in the new role.  If the position reports to the Board, the Board can assess the relations with the Board as well as with colleagues.  Does this leader instill a sense of confidence moving forward?

 If all goes well, the interim title can be removed, and the executive can take comfort in being named the qualified successor to the previous job-holder.

 b)       It is a temporary, stop-gap measure that permits the organization leadership to openly or quietly find a replacement for the Interim.

In professional sports, those designated as “interim” are much less likely to later be named coach or manager of that same organization.   Looking at the track record and life of a head coach, one might wonder why more opportunities are not offered to the interim.  Yet, fan (stakeholder) sentiment is arguably an important consideration in such a decision.

c)       The Board or management team simply needs time to pick itself up and evaluate, not necessarily the acting individual, but the whole business – strategic and operating plans, organization structure, market opportunities and risks, financial picture, customer relations, and changes in the industry.

Or, the company might need time to get through a difficult period.  And, it is not an ideal time to make too many changes right away.

Sometimes, a succession plan will name a person as an Interim to pursue any one of the above-listed options.  What are some things a Board or management team can consider when naming an Interim?  Here are some considerations:

  1. Character and integrity
  2. Knowledge of the business and industry
  3. Commitment to existing strategic and operating plans
  4. Leadership and/or management skills
  5. Respect of internal colleagues
  6. Respect of the Board
  7. Track record
  8. Ability to navigate change and uncertainty
  9. Name recognition and visibility with outside stakeholders
  10. Presence in the community at-large.

Given human nature what it is, with most people not feeling comfortable with uncertainty, it is vital that the Interim provide stakeholders with a sense of calm and confidence that the business is on track.  If not, the leadership team will want to pursue an accelerated, albeit thorough search for a qualified successor.

Recently, Valeant Pharmaceuticals International and United Continental Holdings named interim leaders while the organizations’ regular leaders convalesce due to illness. 

Getting the decision for an interim is difficult… and making the right hire for a full-time replacement can be doubly difficult.  These weighty decisions are perhaps the most important decisions the Board will make affecting all stakeholders – both short and long term.


Posted on January 30, 2016 .