Need an interim Executive Director?

As the baby boomer generation of Executive Directors (EDs) enters retirement, nonprofit experts are predicting leadership gaps in the sector. A whole generation of nonprofits run primarily by founders and other long-tenured executives may be scrambling to find its successors.

If it’s true that a wave of leadership transitions is coming, many organizations will experience lags in hiring replacement EDs. We can also assume that more nonprofits will be hiring interim Executive Directors.

Hiring an interim ED can put the success in a long-term succession plan. Many departing EDs recommend and initiate hiring an interim as part of their transition agenda.

Interims are a fit in several other situations: when the permanent ED unexpectedly departs, when there’s been a management or operational crisis that hasn’t been resolved, when the Board believes a change of direction is needed before hiring a permanent replacement, or when the search for a permanent hire is expected to take a long time.

Frequently an interim ED is a default move in which the Board saddles the Associate Director or other next-in-line with running the organization (while also doing her own job) until someone can be hired.  Usually worse is the situation where a Board member steps in to fill the job. Although there are exceptions, it’s only in rare cases that either candidate has everything that’s needed: the skills, interest, time, and objectivity to run the organization under those circumstances.

The most important thing to know about hiring an interim ED is that it should be a formal, well-planned, transparent process, not a seat-of-the-pants, behind-closed-doors decision.  Although there may be sensitive issues or awkwardness involved, it’s essential for the Board to be intentional, fair, and open if the hire is to be a success.

The second thing to keep in mind is that while the search criteria for an interim ED may differ from that for a permanent ED, hiring an unqualified candidate is just as dangerous, no matter how convenient or temporary. Don’t view the interim as a stopgap measure but as a critical hire for shaping the organization’s future.

The right interim ED will provide the Board with the opportunity to figure out how to move the organization forward. She’ll keep the organization’s operations and finances stable (or take steps to stabilize them), the Board informed, and the staff engaged. She’ll be the face of the organization to partners, funders and donors, and the general public, and may even fundraise.

The Alliance would love to hear your stories and perspectives on interim EDs. We’d appreciate hearing from you about how you’ve worked with an interim ED. (All personal information will be kept confidential.) Or comment below if you’ve got tips to share or questions about hiring an interim.

In the meantime, here are some basic principles to guide the interim hiring process, based on our own observations:

1.  First, develop a job description and hiring criteria. You might have to work fast to get an interim in place, but don’t skip these important steps.

2. Determine if the interim ED will help with the search for a permanent hire. The interim ED will help prepare the organization for the new ED, but this may or may not include a role in the search.

3. Determine the interim period. You’ll do this by setting a timeline for the search for a permanent ED and other related goals. Six to nine months is typical.

4. Plan for an operations analysis.  An interim ED will typically spend some agreed-upon period of time conducting an organizational analysis and creating a work plan for the Board’s approval.

5. Circulate the opening and request applications. Even if you have someone in mind for the job, you should consider multiple candidates. It will ensure you get the most qualified interim and avoid resentment from employees.

6. Network with colleagues and professional organizations.  Consult with those in your field, including local and national organizations, for names and recruitment suggestions.

7. Consider using a firm that specializes in executive transitions and interim hires. These firms usually have seasoned leaders who have served as EDs before and are skilled in organizational management, financial analysis, and strategic planning.

8.  Decide if the interim is a candidate for the permanent position before the hire. The Board and the interim ED should clearly agree about whether the interim ED is a candidate for the permanent position, and how and when consideration for the permanent position will be conducted.

9. Treat the interim search as an opportunity for objective assessment. Too often, Boards seek out candidates that are very similar to the departing ED without standing back to evaluate the organization’s needs.

10. Consider what else will change in the organization. Leadership transitions affect much more than just a single position. Anticipate decisions about personnel, program, and policy changes during this period.

11. Determine how to support the interim ED.  Board, staff, and/or outside coaching support will likely be needed. Even the best interim ED can’t fly solo.

12.  Prepare and conduct a thorough orientation.  Your interim ED will need to quickly get up to speed on the organization’s history, policies, programs, fiscal situation, fundraising status, and politics. Orientation will likely include a packet of written/electronic documents and numerous stakeholder meetings.

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