There were two times I recall being in interim roles during my career. One went really well, and the other was a disaster. There are many reasons why people end up being an Interim (fill in the blank Title), but usually it stems from a boss resigning or leaving the organization in some way, and someone has to  fill in while the organization figures out what to do about the vacancy. The length of time for interim roles can vary, but I have seen interim appointments last almost a year or more (which, by the way, is not good!). What I have seen for myself, and from working with my coaching clients who have been interim leaders, is that there are ways to successfully navigate an interim position and make it a great opportunity – and there are pitfalls to avoid so that the experience does not end up being a huge anxiety-producing disappointment.

If you are currently in an interim role or you’re managing someone in an interim role, here are a few things I recommend to ensure success for interim leaders:

  • On-board into the role – In my good interim experience, I had time to work with my boss who had given three weeks’ notice. I had filled in for him before and knew the ropes for the most part, but it was great to have him download the current status of projects and responsibilities and attend a few hand-off meetings before he left.
  • Set clear expectations – This goes both ways. You need to understand what is expected of you, and you need to share your expectations for taking on this responsibility. Will you do both your current job and the interim role at the same time? How long are you willing to do that? Will you have goals you must reach? What support can you expect/do you expect from your former boss’s boss – regular check-ins, timely feedback, additional admin support, stepping in as needed on tough issues, communicating to those who need to hear it that you have the authority, even with the interim title?
  • Assess the risks – In my bad interim experience, I didn’t consider the risks associated with taking on the interim role. In that case, I was taking on a dysfunctional team that became even more dysfunctional after my boss was fired. I inherited several problems that I did not handle well, and I felt it affected how those above me viewed my leadership ability. I didn’t ask for help soon enough, and I tried to “hunker down and power through,” which was not an effective approach. What I learned from those mistakes is to be sure to ask questions upfront, be honest about behaviors you exhibit that will help you in the role and those that will hinder your success, and go in with your eyes wide open to the reality of leading as an interim. By the way, you can also gracefully decline the opportunity if it looks like the risks and red flags are too great.
  • And assess the rewards – Taking on an interim role can also be a career booster, giving you more visibility to senior executives, demonstrating your leadership skills, adding great experience to your resume, and potentially opening the door to getting the job permanently. I always recommend inquiring about compensation implications for an interim role. You may be able to negotiate a bump-up in pay while you are covering the additional role or scope.
  • Communicate all around – As an interim leader, it is essential that you have regular touchpoints with whomever you are now reporting to, your former peers (who are likely now your direct reports, which can be difficult), and others who are critical to your performance in the interim role. This regular communication will ensure that everyone around you knows your expectations, needs, and ideas.
  • Off-board out of the role – Once a decision is made on who will move into the role permanently, if it isn’t you, then you need a clear plan for exiting the role. Just as you did with your on-boarding, a clear and clean hand-off of responsibilities and projects is key. You will likely play a big part in on-boarding the new person, and it may mean putting your hurt feelings aside if you applied for the job and didn’t get it.

Being an interim leader can be very gratifying, and also extremely challenging. But with some planning and lots of open communication, it can reap rewards. And speaking of planning, I have to drop in a bit of advice for getting ahead of the interim leadership challenge. Organizations that devote time and attention to effective succession planning processes have much greater success in dealing with sudden vacancies on their leadership teams. Before you lose another leader on your team, commit to developing a succession planning process or include it in your upcoming annual plan or strategic plan.

What lessons have you learned about being an interim leader?
Please leave a comment.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.


To learn more about ways to succeed in an interim role or successfully manage interim leaders, contact Robyn at rmcleod@chatsworthconsulting.com.

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