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Filling the Gap: Five Critical Factors to Ensure Interim Executive Success


With the unemployment rate for business professionals at a 50-year low (1.7 percent), the chances of your organization needing to fill a key role with an interim leader are relatively high. While an interim leader can fill a vacancy until a successor is named, in an era of “full employment” for many industries and roles, this may take several months, meaning your “interim” could remain for some time or become permanent.

The unexpected departure of an executive leader, whether due to illness, family leave, or another job opportunity, can create uncertainty and potentially loss of confidence both within and outside the organization. Questions may arise about the preparedness of the organization to handle such situations, as well as the stability and sustainability of the company overall. Not surprisingly, organizations often feel a sense of urgency to fill the gap as soon as possible. A common scenario is the temporary promotion of an internal leader into the executive role on an interim basis, while the formal selection process unfolds.

Regardless of what’s prompted your need for an interim leader, how can you help ensure this executive succeeds? What’s the best way to prepare an organization, function or team for an interim leader? And how might external resources potentially assist with this process?

Five Factors for an Interim Executive's Success

Your organization and leader will more likely succeed when you adhere to the five following factors when promoting someone into an interim leadership role.

  1. Start long before you need to fill a key executive role— Ensure you have up-to-date role profiles for all of your organization’s most critical executive roles. This is fundamentally important for identifying and preparing succession candidates, as well as being prepared for the possibility of interim leadership. Your role profiles should detail all of the expectations, competencies, and capabilities required for each position, as well as the key experiences needed for someone entering that role.

    Equipped with a role profile, you will be better able to objectively determine if and when someone is ready to assume a particular role, not reliant on potentially less-important selection factors such as years of service or individual personality. Your organization’s leaders should regularly engage in deliberate discussions about organizational bench strength for top executive roles and other critical positions. Beyond simply a list of names for roles, a bench strength talent review should compare/contrast the attributes and experiences of each person on the list versus the role profile and business needs.

  2. Engage in ongoing career conversations with succession candidates— With role profiles in hand, engage regularly with succession candidates across the organization about their viability for and interest in various positions. For those who express interest, candidly discuss their readiness (capabilities and skill gaps) and help them gain the knowledge, skills, and experiences they need to become viable interim or permanent candidates.

    Do not make assumptions about a potential candidate’s level of interest in a role. Ask. Know that just because a candidate doesn’t volunteer interest in a particular role at this time doesn’t mean he or she lacks interest, or won’t be interested tomorrow. Aspirations to advance are not fixed. Generally, as detailed in the seminal book, “Women Don’t Ask,” women are less inclined than men to express interest in a particular job, yet this should never preclude them from consideration.

  3. Use validated assessment tools to confirm your leadership bench— On your own using internal experts or with the assistance of a qualified consultant, use assessment tools to objectively and accurately determine potential candidates’ leadership preparedness for particular roles. The goal is to accurately assess a candidate’s next-level role readiness in ways that past performance reviews or interviews simply cannot deliver. Proven and powerful assessment tools are available for roles ranging from front-line and mid-level managers up to CEOs.

    Be careful what types of assessment tools and/or services you employ. While standardized personality measures and intellectual aptitude tests can tell you whether an individual possesses the foundational attributes important for future leadership success, they don’t measure the impact of experience or someone’s specific skills and competencies. As a result, such assessments are relevant, but insufficient for understanding readiness for a broader executive role. Assessment tools like 360 interviews and business simulations provide insights related to actual skills and impact, including business acumen, strategic thinking, and others’ trust and confidence in this person, and their willingness to follow.

  4. Communicate expectations and don’t play the waiting game— Often an executive is plunked into an interim role without sufficient alignment and communication regarding what is expected of them. There is a human tendency for the organization and the interim leader to think, “we need to wait until we have our long-term leader.” Yet this state of uncertainty can lead to missed opportunities for the organization and also places the executive in a tough spot. Even when the belief is we should go back to business as usual, the organization benefits when the interim executive is empowered to address issues, advance an agenda, and make an impact.

    These expectations must be understood by the interim executive, of course, but also by other stakeholders. Proactively communicate to all pertinent work groups about the interim role, including how and why an “interim” was deemed necessary, and expectations for the interim leader and his/her colleagues and supporting team.

    An interim leader’s team members should be expected to willingly lend their insight and assistance to this leader’s success. It’s their success, also! If an interim leader has replaced someone who left due to performance reasons, the interim will often find team members eager to share their insights for process improvements and stronger results.

  5. Employ experienced third-party coaching as needed— Senior leaders in the organization should ensure that the interim leader not only has the resources needed for success, but also a ready sounding board if and when the need arises. This is especially important if the interim executive is now supervising former peers. A newly promoted interim leader often benefits from having an experienced and objective leadership coach to provide a “safe, neutral space” for thinking out loud, defining an appropriate leadership agenda, and testing messages before distribution.

    The cost of employing a leadership coach for an interim leader is nominal compared with the far higher individual and organizational costs if this leader does not succeed. Interim leaders who receive coaching are not only better set up for success, they also tend to be grateful for the investment made by their employer. This can be a positive factor for keeping the executive engaged even if he/she is not selected for the permanent position.

    Interim leaders interested in becoming permanent should know that their interview for the long-term job begins on day one of their interim leadership. An external coach can help an interim leader more readily achieve that goal.

No matter a leader’s talents and qualifications, an “interim” title comes with inherent ambiguity, particularly around the role’s scope and duration. By providing your interim leader with the resources and assistance needed for success, you will help your leader overcome that ambiguity, and ultimately, maximize the value of this position for your organization.

About The Author

Sharon Sackett leads the CEO and Board Services practice at MDA Leadership with a passion for helping boards achieve alignment on what they need from executive leadership and enabling them to make the right calls to ensure future success. Additionally, Sharon oversees all facets of MDA’s Executive Assessment services in conjunction with delivering work as an executive coach. With over 20+ years of experience in leadership assessment, development, and executive coaching, she possesses a deep understanding of the executive leadership implications of current business challenges. Connect with Sharon at ssackett@mdaleadership.com or LinkedIn.