How and When to Leverage Interim Leadership

Most higher education institutions, at some point, find themselves in need of a seasoned leader who can step in temporarily to maintain continuity during a full search. Below, Joseph Johnston, Ph.D., head of AGB Search’s Interim Search Practice, provides insights about the process and benefits of appointing an interim leader.

When should an institution hire an interim leader?

In most instances, an interim is needed when a position has been vacated and must be filled before a full search can be completed. Additionally, institution leadership may not be able to identify anyone currently at the institution who is right for the role. 

The vacancy in these instances often occurs somewhat unexpectedly. For example, the incumbent might be taking a position elsewhere or perhaps was terminated. Before hiring a replacement, the institution may need time to repair damage, plan a search, then conduct it. A full search can often take four to six months, and even then, the selected candidate may not be immediately available. Accordingly, periods of interim service are often six to ten months, and they can extend considerably longer. 

What are the benefits of hiring interim leadership? 

When provided by a service like AGB Search, an interim candidate brings long-term, successful experience to the position to be filled. With a proven interim selected from outside the institution, that institution is at far less risk than it would be if it had chosen an internal candidate who did not have experience in the role.

An external interim brings not only an experienced eye but also a fresh and critical one. He or she will not have what can be perceived as the “baggage” of prior reputation, friendships, and affiliations on campus. This is all the more important as an interim’s job may include making changes that, though needed, might be highly unpopular. Or, it may require the ability to bring an institution’s constituencies together in ways that an insider would struggle to do. 

In what ways is an interim search different from a permanent search?

They are very different types of efforts. 

  1. An interim search is much faster, usually taking only a few weeks’ time. In fact, it is not a “search” in the conventional sense at all, since a service like AGB Search maintains and turns primarily to an extensive pool of pre-vetted candidates. These represent a fraction of those who have applied or been nominated; they are individuals we can confidently suggest as appropriate candidates, depending of course on the position. In the case of AGB Search, our interim service candidate pool includes individuals with experience at all cabinet-level positions. Most are recent retirees or late-career professionals who are prepared to step in for the right opportunity. 
  2. The process is simpler and more streamlined. The interim search process rarely warrants a formal search committee – just a hiring authority (typically a board chair or president) perhaps advised by one or two others. Good-fit resumes are shared, candidates are called, one or two are interviewed on campus, and a contract is negotiated. 
  3. The expense is considerably less. There are few of the travel, administrative, and advertising costs associated with a full search. And the search firm’s entire fee should be in the range of $15,000 to $30,000, depending on the level of the vacancy and the type of effort conducted. Institutions should be cautious of proposals to charge a percentage of compensation as an interim search fee, which can lead to their paying much more than is necessary. 

In short, speed, simplicity, and modest cost are all features of good interim searches. Not surprisingly, institutions are employing them more and more to meet their needs for high-quality continuing leadership.