Transition Management Consulting, Inc.

Interim Executives: When What You Planned No Longer Works

by Robert T. Van Hook, CAE, Jackie Eder-Van Hook | Nov 01, 2007

What does an association do when its chief executive gets “hit by a bus?” The “bus” in this case literally could be a fatal accident or illness, or the executive retires or takes another job without much notice. It could even be when the association is no longer enamored with the executive’s personality, performance or outcomes and decides it is time for the executive to exit.

Today, an association can expect its executive to stay in the position for about five to seven years. This means that associations should have a succession plan in the likely event that their executive departs. A good succession plan will detail how to deal with the executive’s departure. But planning for the future is essentially an optimistic enterprise. Unfortunately, some of our plans don’t always work out the way we anticipate.

INTERIM EXECUTIVE PROFILE

Associations are increasingly engaging professional interim executives as a way of dealing with unplanned executive departures. The first people who identified themselves as interim executives in the association community surfaced nearly 15 years ago. The first one we know about is Robert Bolan, CAE, who acted as interim CEO in several engagements until his retirement in 2004. Bolan was a seasoned association executive who was committed to providing interim executive leadership and was never a candidate for the permanent position. This distinction is important because it helps to ensure objectivity, focus and independence.

Until the past five or six years, most interim association executives were independent practitioners. Today, however, a larger number are being placed through transition firms that pre-screen senior leaders for placement in interim executive positions and support them during their engagements. In the past five years, for example, Transition Management Consulting, Inc. has placed nearly 30 interim executives. (NOTE: As of 2014, TMC has conducted over 80 interim executive engagements.)

Being an interim executive requires a different skill set than what is needed in a permanent executive. At a minimum, it involves excellent association management skills, as well as a deep self understanding and a sophisticated understanding of organizational and group dynamics. An interim’s repeated entry and exit into and out of associations creates increased value for future clients, because they learn from each assignment. Therefore, a good interim executive brings both a fresh perspective and broad experience to the association.

A typical interim executive is an experienced, senior association executive who has decided he or she is better suited to work with organizations on a short-term basis and desires flexibility in work arrangements. Some are retired executives who are not ready for a life of shuffleboard or golf. Most have some degree of financial independence, which is helpful since there may be long periods in between assignments. Often, a professional interim may have experience as an association consultant, which helps him or her understand the differences between being an employee and working in a consulting relationship.

PURPOSE: MANAGING CHANGE

Being an interim executive is hard work. It requires scaling a very steep learning curve in order to be effective from the beginning of the relationship. The 90-day honeymoon period simply doesn’t exist for an interim. Interim executive assignments range from four months to two years, with most assignments lasting six months to one year. The primary purpose of the interim executive is to get the organization ready so the next executive can hit the ground running and begin to deal with the association’s strategic issues from day one.

An executive departure is an excellent time for assessing the state of the association’s health and dealing with organizational adjustments that pave the way for the new executive. An interim executive can help the new executive avoid spending valuable time counseling or terminating non-performing staff; evaluating the adequacy of policies and procedures; stabilizing the organization’s operations; and directing the general clean up that occurs as a result of every transition. The interim executive, too, can attend to unhealthy board or staff dynamics; serve as a vessel for the staff, board and stakeholders’ healing; or support the association as it figures out where it is, where it wants to go and what kind of leader it needs to get to its desired future. This, too, makes the job of the new executive much easier. One new executive stated, “I would not have taken the job if the association hadn’t used an interim before I arrived.” For him, there was just too much uncertainty in the organization.

While historically the growth in interim management has been related to executive turnover, there are a small, but increasing number of interim placements for the specific purpose of managing a change process within an organization. We have seen interim executives engaged for the purpose of implementing an association management system or other large-scale change.

Associations would be well served to include interim executive management as an option for consideration during an executive transition.

Robert T. Van Hook, CAE and Jackie Eder-Van Hook, MSOD may be reached at www.TransitionCEO.com.

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