Managing Executive Transition Through Interim Leadership

Your Executive Director has left the organization, perhaps suddenly or with thorough decision-making. Regardless, times of transition can be unnerving for nonprofits. But it can also be a time of thoughtful reflection and welcome change. As your succession plan goes into motion, an executive director search begins. But how do you manage executive transition period?

Over the past few years, Central Texas nonprofits have embraced the national best practice of engaging an Interim Executive Director to manage the organization during the gap between “regular” executives. An Interim Executive Director provides stability and change management during a transition, so it’s important to hire and onboard the right professional for your organization’s needs.

Clarify the Role

The job of an interim ED is different from the job of a regular ED, so begin by understanding what you want the interim to do during the transition period. Side note: Some refer to “regular” Executive Directors as “permanent” Executive Directors, but that is inaccurate, unrealistic, and legally unwise, so we prefer to use “regular” when discussing the non-interim leadership.

There’s not a one-size-fits all approach since organizations have different size staff and varying priorities. Think about key management and accountability issues such as staff support and leadership and financial management and stewardship.

In general, the job should be considered part-time, even though we all know that even a full-time ED job is never limited to even a 40-hour-work-week commitment. There are multiple reasons for this limiting factor including:

  • There are some typical ED roles that are not appropriate for a temporary leader. For example, it’s ultimately not productive to have an interim leader establish relationships with your donors or the community and then have to re-introduce a new leader to these stakeholders when you hire your next ED. Accordingly, an interim’s job is mostly internal-facing and does not include the full job description of a regular ED.
  • No matter how good your interim is, the goal is to move to your next regular ED and organizational steadiness as quickly as possible. When a board and staff feel that everything is being covered perfectly by a leader they like (the best case scenario for any interim ED), they feel less anxiety and motivation to move the search forward. Engaging a part-time leader reinforces the temporary gap and drives the search process forward.

As you build the job description, think about how continuing staff and board members might take on additional leadership roles during the transition and how they will partner with the interim.

Find the Right Interim Leader

Rather than presuming that your Executive Committee is the right team to interview your candidates, create a Transition Committee that can steward the period of transition until your next regular Executive Director. This committee should be comprised of 4-6 board members of varying tenure and experiences and can even include a former board member or major external stakeholder; this group affirms roles during the transition, interviews and selects the interim, and leads the search for the next ED. By centralizing these roles in a single group, the focus on the transition and next phase of success is amplified and consistent.

Treat the interview process as a practice round for hiring your next regular ED by having questions that you ask all candidates, ensuring that all committee members have their voice in the process, and considering how to engage board and staff members in the decision process.

Mission Capital trains former Executive Directors to serve as interims and maintains profiles with contact information on all graduates of its certification program. Begin by contacting our staff for a packet about our leaders who are prepared to serve during your transition. All of our participants have participated in a multi-day training on the unique role of interim leadership and have passed background and reference checks

Onboard Thoroughly and Thoughtfully

Onboarding is an intentional education process to bring your new leader into the organization and prepare them for their new role. Think about their tactical and operational needs like keys, passwords, computer access, and knowing how to find documents online and in the office. And make sure to cover strategic elements like walking through the financials, strategic plan, and logic models and your theory of change.

A transition is a strategic time to conduct an organizational assessment, and having your new interim lead this process in their first month or so is a great way to understand where your organization currently stands and orient the interim. Not only will they develop a soup to nuts understanding of your organization, they will also interact with board, staff, and other stakeholders in the process and orient themselves to the organization.

Again, this will be good practice for when you hire your regular ED. Take note of what works and what you overlooked so you are able to be even more thorough in a few months.

For questions on interim leadership or if you’re looking to hire (or become) an interim ED, download the Interim Leadership Guide and Talent Pool.

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