Over the last several years, I’ve had the chance to coach many leaders in a variety of roles. Often, I’ll receive a call stating that they have been placed in an interim role and asking the question: “What should I do now? I don’t want to mess this up!”
Whether you have taken the position hoping to make it permanent, or you see it as a temporary stop on your career path, succeeding in an interim role comes with a distinct set of challenges. Interim leaders, even those with significant experience, should not expect to encounter the same complications and situations in each role.
Teams or organizations that are in need of an interim leader are in the midst of change, and the dynamics will be continuing to shift during your tenure. You will need to create a sense of stability for the team you are leading while adding a fresh perspective.
I reached out to a few leaders who have each been very successful in interim roles, some even multiple times, to gain their perspective on this inherently challenging situation. I’ve combined their suggestions and my observations into the following key tips for success in your interim role.
Most teams in need of an interim leader are established. As the new kid on the block, it’s important for you to take the time to get a full understanding of everything the team has been doing, and how that relates to the success of the business. Be curious about everything. You want to know what the rhythms of the business exist, what the opportunities are, what challenges and risks the team is facing, and what the priorities are.
Your curiosity and willingness to hear what is going on will help the team to trust you. It will also demonstrate that you are invested in the success of the team, even if you may not be with the team for very long.
Many interim leaders are not selected to fill the role based on technical expertise. More often, interim leaders have been selected for their leadership skills. With this being the case, it’s critical for you to acknowledge what you don’t know. It can be tempting to pretend you understand something instead of asking questions, but that will slow down progress and erode the team’s confidence in you.
Instead, embrace learning new things - and have fun with it. One of the joys of being an interim leader is that you don’t know it all and you can focus on being the expert leader and not the expert doer. Go ahead and ask questions like, “what is that?” or “what does that mean?” If you don’t have an understanding of the basics, your opportunity to make a positive impact on the team is limited.
Once you have accepted that your job is not to know everything, you can relax and focus on making the best decisions for the team.
Start by gathering as much information as possible and make decisions based on what you have learned. If you learn something new and have to reverse course down the road, don’t be afraid to do it. You’re not going to have all the answers, but your role as a leader is still to make decisions. Do the best you can with what you know.
Not all of your decision making authority may be clear. You may also be tasked with continuing to perform in your prior position as well. You will likely be feeling pulled in different directions with loyalties to your current and prior teams.
You are residing in highly ambiguous areas. Attempt to clarify expectations about your sphere(s) of responsibilities as much as possible, but embrace the inherent ambiguity.
Fix the Small Things
Leaders are typically tasked with meeting large objectives and the focus is on figuring out how to achieve those goals. As an interim leader, you have an opportunity to make a lasting impression by focusing on the things that no one ever gets to.
Find out what annoys people the most, or what stumbling blocks you can move out of the way to smooth the team’s progress.
Ask the team what they need support on and make the changes you can. Be a force for positive change on the team and actively solicit their ideas. The focus isn’t on making you look good in this role, but making the team look good! Avoid the temptation to make large scale changes immediately, but take advantage of the low hanging fruit.
Commit to the Role
Some interim leaders take the approach of not rocking the boat or just keeping the lights on. Whether or not you will be named the successor you have a real-time responsibility to this team. If you can provide feedback to team members to help them improve, then take the time to do it. If difficult discussions or hard choices need to be made, then make them for the good of the team and the organization.
On the flip side, celebrate the successes of your team. For many people, it’s harder to build a personal connection with their interim team because they know that they will have to say goodbye when the posting ends. This is a disservice to yourself and to the team.
Fully invest yourself in the success of this team. Provide positive feedback and recognition when warranted.
By implementing these tips, you’ll avoid some of the common pitfalls of interim leadership and increase your success in this role.
You may be viewing this as an opportunity to be a team player in the organization or as a way to advance your career by demonstrating you’re ready for increased responsibility. Regardless, the most successful interim leaders focus on making a positive impact with the team and these tips will help you achieve just that!