By Barb Ward from an interview with Gail Gumminger, Leadership Consultant

There has been a staggering leadership deficit over the past several years, most pronounced when Covid-19 hit and lingering to the present. While organizations are beginning to find their way out, the impact of this deficit has left its indelible mark.

According to a 2020 article in The Journal of Leadership, Accountability and Ethics, as many as 70% of nonprofit executive transitions are not planned and occur during a crisis. It makes sense that in this type of chaotic environment, clear and immediate action by an experienced leader must occur to continue a “business as usual” calm and prevent businesses from failing. Enter the case for interim leadership. In most circumstances, interim leadership positions help maintain stability and a state of normalcy that results in a positive environment and minimizes employee turnover. But that was before Covid-19.

“When COVID-19 hit, organizations experienced turnover in leadership that was unprecedented and unplanned for,” says Gail Gumminger, Leadership Consultant for Innovative Connections. “People left for a number of reasons, for instance, the challenges were more than they expected, after assessing what they wanted, they opted for a career change, or they decided to physically move to a new location. Whatever the reason, businesses floundered. They had leadership gaps they couldn’t fill because people were not applying for jobs. So, many of them opted to employ interim leaders to get them through the rough patch.”

Interim talent has been used for years and can be highly successful in aiding the transition when a high-level leader abruptly leaves an organization. Because the process for an effective and inclusive executive search can take six months or more, an interim leader can fill leadership gaps immediately and provide relief for leadership teams. This strategy allows the organization to continue running smoothly while also allowing time to successfully hire and transition to a new, permanent leader. Most times, interims are kept in this position for six months or less.

“The challenge is, the pandemic lasted longer than expected and then The Great Resignation followed, so many of these ‘short-term’ interim positions were in place for more than two years,” Gumminger says.

While interim leadership is a powerful and effective strategy in most cases, according to Gumminger, during and even after the pandemic there were often fatal flaws in this practice that have caused repercussions that are still being felt in many organizations and by many leaders to this day. While certainly not intentional, she outlines several missteps that occurred. In many cases, there was:

  • No clear role delineation: Individuals were selected for the position with no clear delineation between their current role and the interim role, so they were doing both, setting them up for a future of exhaustion, burnout, and little ability to meet expectations.
  • Delayed decision-making: Interim leaders were put in place to hold the line and maintain stability, not make changes, or strategies that could move the organization forward, so decisions were often not made, or it was a very slow process, leading to feelings of stagnation and unrest with teams and interim leaders alike.
  • Impact on relationships: Many times the individuals placed in these leadership roles were given a title, but no authority to make changes. This left the leaders and the teams wondering who was in charge. Environments were so chaotic that it was easier to put things on hold to “figure it out later” rather than come up with viable solutions. 
  • Unfulfilled expectations: When the time finally came for the leadership role to be filled, the interim leader, who had been in the position for an extended period, felt they were the obvious choice. When not selected, this led to disengagement, bitterness, and resentment. While they may not have had the experience or education for the position, they felt their years of on-the-job training in the interim position should be worth something.
  • Lack of transparency: When interims were placed in these positions, they were never told that even with this experience, they would not necessarily be named as the new leader. The lack of communication and transparency led them to believe there was an opportunity there that didn’t exist.

“All of these factors combined resulted in unintended consequences for organizations,” says Gumminger. “In many cases, good people left the organization because they felt used and betrayed when they weren’t the chosen leader. Others, and perhaps more detrimentally, stayed and became actively disengaged, with a poor attitude and lower productivity, often negatively impacting those around them.”

She continues, “There was a sense of urgency for organizations to fill these positions, and under this type of stress, it can be difficult to have a conversation that says, ‘We need you to fill this role now because we are in the middle of a crisis, but there are no promises that you are the right candidate for this position for the long term’. So, ultimately, they didn’t have these critical conversations.”

It is likely that we have not even felt the complete impact of these decisions yet. “As organizational effectiveness consultants, we are helping organizations walk through the aftermath of the pandemic. Many of our clients are experiencing trauma related to interim management situations that occurred in their organizations. There is a lot of resentment, grief, and difficulty in moving forward.” Gumminger says. “ As hard as it is to say, those who are still feeling burned or betrayed have a decision to make. They either need to get on board with the new leader and find a way forward, or they need to choose to move on. These are tough issues individuals and organizations are currently dealing with.”

While it won’t change past decisions, Gumminger has suggestions that can help organizations plan for and communicate properly to ensure this doesn’t happen again:

  • Clarify goals: The goals of the interim position needs to be well-defined and aligned with the organization’s needs. The expected timeframe and transition back after the interim position is permanently filled need to be addressed up-front as well.
  • Create more touchpoints: Checking in with the interim on a regular basis and identifying ways to help develop their skills into the position can help if that is a potential option for the permanent replacement.
  • Communicate effectively: Clear communication between the interim leader, the organization, and the team is critical. When expectations, responsibilities, and progress are communicated effectively, the possibility of success increases.
  • Plan for transitions: Well thought-out transition plans, both for entering into the position and transferring back out are crucial. Interim leaders who are able to integrate well with the existing team and build relationships will have better outcomes. Additionally, if there is a clear plan for the transition from an interim to a permanent solution, the interim leader can focus on achieving objectives and setting the stage for the next leader. Likewise, interim leaders who can leave their ego at the door and transition back to their former position as planned will have higher levels of success.

“The days of promoting individuals to leadership positions based solely on who’s been there the longest doesn’t really have merit anymore,” says Gumminger. “Organizations are looking for leaders who exhibit high-performance characteristics, are engaged in their organization and their work, and have high levels of emotional intelligence. These are the people who are equipped to lead others effectively.” 

The bottom line: Uncertain times and circumstances can prompt leadership transitions and, at the same time, demand strategic and well-planned changes. Interim leaders can be powerful and effective in maintaining stability and direction and in helping the morale and engagement of the team to thrive even when under stressful situations. Advanced planning is key to ensuring success in unpredictable times. 

We are an organizational effectiveness company and would love to partner with you to plan strategies to mitigate these challenges and find solutions that are right for your organization. Contact us for a no-obligation, free consultation by clicking this link: Innovative Connections or calling us at 970-279-3330.

Our mission is to give voice and action to an emerging future. As a partner in your success, we would love to help you find your voice, see your vision, and imagine what the right action could be for you, your team, and your organization.