Setting Up Interim Leaders for Success

You've selected your interim appointee, and he or she has accepted your offer. How can you help ensure that your goals for the appointment are met and major problems avoided? Here are four suggestions to prepare the new interim leader and your institution for success.

1. Make sure you've clarified whether, if interested, the appointee can be a candidate for the permanent position. Most interim appointments expressly rule this out for two basic reasons. First, incumbency and candidacy can pull an interim in opposite directions, possibly tempting him or her to avoid hard decisions or to make them based on self-serving criteria. Even the perception that this is happening should be avoided. Second, the presence of an apparently strong internal candidate can deter other good candidates from entering the pool during the search for the interim's successor. Even given these considerations, however, some observers strenuously maintain that it is in the institution's interest not to tie its hands, especially if the prospective interim appointee might, with a strong performance, turn out to be just what the institution needs for the longer term. 

2. Give authority to the appointee. To be effective, an interim leader needs to have the right, within his or her area of responsibility, to ask questions, explore options, make decisions, initiate actions, and lead. In all respects he or she needs to be-and to be seen as- the person in charge, not someone who can be avoided, bypassed with end-runs, or simply outlasted. The granting of authority should be visible to all. Interim appointments can cause confusion as to who's in charge and a sense that things have just been put on hold. A clear handoff will help prevent this. 

3. Launch the appointment effectively. Systematically introduce the interim to new colleagues, to campus resources, and to significant issues that will affect his or her work. A well-planned orientation can greatly reduce the time the interim appointee needs to get up to speed-a central factor in the interim's effectiveness. It also can serve to reinforce the authority of the appointee.

4. Have a shared understanding with the appointee regarding both what his or her duties will be and where the limits lie. A position description should be drawn up expressly for the interim, as should a list of key goals to accomplish. Interims need to understand, however, not just what's expected of them, but also what is not. For example, will the institutional leaders responsible for making the interim appointment welcome absolute candor in the interim's assessment of the situation he or she steps into? Probably yes. A transformational leadership style? In some cases. A role in identifying, vetting, and selecting a permanent successor? That may be a step too far. It is also prudent to determine whether an interim will be looked to for trenchant analysis of long-term needs. Many are, and it's often a good use of their skills and experience. In some cases (for example, where there's housecleaning to be done) the ability to make decisions and take actions that have significant, long-term ramifications is the raison d'etre of the interim appointment. In others, such decisions and actions would be better reserved for a permanent successor. 

Arrange for continuing consultation between the interims and the individuals making the interim appointments. Easy, ongoing access to those who hire them enables interims to find and stay on the paths likeliest to lead them and their institutions to success.