In the mean­time

Pros and cons ac­com­pany in­terim CEO la­bel

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE - BAR­BARA BOWES

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 barb@lega­cy­

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