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How to Be an Effective Interim Leader

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Posted by Darleen DeRosa May 24, 2018

how to be an effective interim leader

Sooner or later, every successful organization will go through a change in leadership. While succession planning is frequently identified as important, it’s rarely made an urgent priority. Considering that about 10% to 15% of corporations are forced to appoint a new CEO each year for one reason or another, this lack of attention can cause significant disruption to an organization. Even if a firm succession plan is in place, unexpected circumstances (such as a death or resignation) can sometimes force an organization to fill a position on an interim basis until the search for an ideal candidate can be completed.

As the Baby Boomer generation ages out of the workforce, Gen X and Millennial employees will be increasingly pushed into leadership roles out of necessity. Since only 15% of North American companies report having identified enough successors to fill key leadership positions, circumstances may require candidates to step up into a leadership role before they are fully prepared. In these situations, there are a few strategies that can help these individuals get off to a good start and be successful.

Gain the Team’s Trust

Although interim leaders face a unique set of challenges, the core competencies of effective leadership still apply when it comes to managing employees on a daily basis. If anything, building trust and demonstrating accountability is more important than ever in a leadership transition . Employees need to know that despite whatever changes have occurred, work still needs to be done and they can count on their leadership team to support them and provide the tools they need for success.

Interim leaders can build trust and credibility by following through on commitments they make to the team and demonstrating interest in team members. Team members will be more willing to take guidance from someone who clearly places the success of the team before their own personal success. Whether the leader is filling a position temporarily or could potentially assume a permanent role, supporting the team in the pursuit of its goals helps to build trust among the members.

Get to Know Team Members Personally

In many cases, interim leaders are thrust into unfamiliar situations with people they have little, if any, experience working with. It’s critical, then, that they make efforts to get to know their team members as soon as possible. Depending upon the situation, some employees might be uncertain about how the changes will impact their work. By taking the time to get to know the people they’ll be working with, interim leaders can break down communication barriers and begin to establish trust in these new relationships.

Face-to-face meetings can establish initial impressions, but interim leaders should also consider taking a little extra time during personal interactions to learn more about their team members. Scheduling team-building activities that allow everyone to set work aside for a short time and learn something about one another can be an incredibly useful strategy as well.

Conduct a Needs Analysis

When an interim leader steps into their role, they can potentially face a significant learning curve with very little time to get up to speed. The team likely already has goals and work processes  that were established with previous leadership. One of the very first steps an interim leader should take, then, is to conduct a needs analysis to understand what is currently going well and identify any problems that require immediate attention.

The needs analysis is also an excellent opportunity to build working relationships with team members. By conducting one-on-one and small group meetings to identify what’s working and what could be improved, interim leaders can present a “big picture” summary of the team’s current situation. Recognizing current successes and honing in on issues impeding the team’s progress not only keeps the team focused on accomplishing its goals, but also demonstrates to the team that the interim leader is committed to their success.

Involve Others in Decision Making

Once an interim leader has identified issues that need to be resolved, they should involve the rest of the team to develop plans of action to address those problems. As a newcomer, the interim leader often doesn’t have all the information they need to make the best decisions for the team. Asking for ideas and presenting possible solutions to team members can greatly increase the quality of those decisions by bringing more voices and perspectives to the conversation.

Involving the team in decision making also gives the members a stake in the outcome. If they feel their voices were heard or that they understand why changes were made, they’re more likely to accept a decision and even take ownership of implementing it.

Be Accountable

Whether or not an interim leader is appointed temporarily or stands to take on the role permanently, they must be accountable for everything they do. They must manage the team as if it were their own and they must show a commitment to the outcome of their decisions.

This is especially important if a succession plan has created uncertainty in an organization. Even if the interim leader knows their time in the position will be short, they must act as if they will be in place permanently in order to provide leadership and stability to their team. If team members don’t think the interim leader will be around for very long, they have little incentive to take direction from them.

Communicate with Leadership

When an organization puts an interim leader in place, it needs to do everything it can to support them, especially if the candidate lacks the ideal experience for the role. To minimize disruption, there should be steady communication between the interim leader and their managers. By providing updates on their teams and seeking guidance on on how to best deal with a particular situation, interim leaders can lean into a robust support structure that has a vested interest in cultivating their leadership skills.

Steady communication also allows an organization to keep an eye on the interim situation. If problems are brewing, management will know early enough to provide advice or, if necessary, step in to support the team.

While a comprehensive succession plan can provide stability to an organization, there are many cases where installing an interim leader is simply unavoidable. Whether the candidate has been prepared for a leadership position or not, they can be successful in their interim post by fully embedding with their team and focusing on communication and establishing credibility. By getting to know team members and building up a valuable sense of trust, interim leaders can make the transition as seamless as possible and keep the team focused on accomplishing its goals within the organization.

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