The Importance of Being Interim

Leadership transition for any organization is a serious challenge that needs to be handled in a time-conscious, yet thorough, manner. Appointing an interim CEO from outside of the organization can often be a great asset during this transition, as it allows the board to conduct a more intensive search, in addition to the insight and guidance from an unbiased leader. For a first-hand look at this process (aided by GCN's Nonprofit Consulting Group), read how Susan Thigpen spent her time as interim CEO at member organization Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta.

Beginning in July 2013, I spent seven months as interim CEO of Girl Scouts of Greater Atlanta (GSGATL). From the start, the term “interim” had challenging connotations: Is this a part-time or a “real” position? Will there be any authority attached to the role or will I be a figurehead?  Is it just keeping the ship afloat or can I really make decisions? These questions surfaced immediately for me—but first and foremost, I asked myself, what is best for GSGATL during this time of transition?

When Myra Bierra, board chair of GSGATL, called me with the opportunity to serve as the interim CEO of an organization I had known and loved for more than 25 years, I was both honored and inquisitive. As I thought about the potential responsibilities, talked with others in our community who had served in similar interim CEO roles, and discussed the immediate priorities of the Girl Scout Council with Myra, it became clear to me that, for this organization, a “place holder” was not what was needed. Fortunately, Bierra and the board agreed.

If empowered by the board as a true leader, able to make decisions and move the organization forward strategically, an interim CEO can be a tremendous asset during this period, both for board and for staff.

A few weeks later, I started as a full-time interim CEO, managing the seventh largest Girl Scout Council in the nation: serving more than 45,000 girls, Kindergarten through twelfth grade, and 18,000 adult volunteers, in a geographic expanse of 34 counties.  I discovered a talented and diverse executive team and staff who were committed to a challenging mission—To build girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better placebeing executed entirely through volunteers, supported by staff. This was a world away from the banking career I had left behind three years earlier at the height of the Great Recession—thank goodness!

Immediately, my top priority became getting to know the executive team: understanding its strengths and weaknesses, familiarizing myself with its assessment of critical issues facing the Council, and spending time “walking about” to get to know Council staff personally. All of us focused on reassuring staff, membership, and donors that GSGATL, throughout the leadership transition, would maintain our dedication and passion for the mission, execute on our goals, maintain our financial strength, and work to position the organization for success with a new, permanent CEO.  With weekly calls to Board Chair Myra Bierra, I was able to communicate important issues quickly, make recommendations, receive feedback to help me prioritize, and then execute those tactics which better positioned the Council for a new leader.

Why was there the need for an interim CEO? I thought about this question often and concluded that while there are indeed costs, such as investing staff time to help the interim leader through the learning curve, there is also much value:

  • The board’s search committee can conduct a thorough search without the time pressure inherent in having to fill an empty position, or the worry that Council operations will come to a standstill—or worse.
  • An interim leader who is neither a board member nor a candidate for the permanent position has a unique opportunity to speak the truth and provide “outsider” insights to the board and the newly-hired CEO.
  • ​The board can rest easy that “business as usual” continues on the home front and in the community, keeping them from becoming enmeshed in day-to-day operations, and focused on its priorities: governance, fundraising, and the search for a new CEO.

In a leadership transition, the litmus test for any strategic decision is whether it better positions the organization for its new permanent leader. If empowered by the board as a true leader, able to make decisions and move the organization forward strategically, an interim CEO can be a tremendous asset during this period, both for board and for staff. To avoid disappointment on all sides, an interim CEO should have clearly defined goals, and be both supported and held accountable by the board.  With this mutual understanding, you’ll create a highly valuable partnership among board, staff and interim CEO.

Susan Thigpen is a former director at SunTrust Banks, and has served on the board of GSGATL and its predecessor organization, the YWCA of Greater Atlanta, and the Schenck School.

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