Ken Goldstein, MPPA

Ken Goldstein has been working in nonprofits and local government agencies from Santa Cruz, to Sacramento, and back to Silicon Valley, since 1989. He's been staff, volunteer, board member, executive director, and, since 2003, a consultant to local nonprofit organizations. For more on Ken's background, click here. If you are interested in retaining Ken's services, you may contact him at ken at

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Interim Executives Are Part Of Succession Planning

Yesterday, on Alan Harrison's Voice of Reason blog, he posted a great article about the pitfalls of bad succession planning and the occasional need for Interim Executive Directors. As a consultant who has five times served as an Interim ED, I agree with much of what Mr. Harrison has to say.

In Mr. Harrison's colorful example, Jack is the departing long-term Director, who helps to personally choose Jill as his successor. Jill then flounders along for about a year before being eventually replaced. The details of the scenario presented ring all too true, and a story we've all seen played out before.

An Interim ED can be a great solution following the departure of a long-term leader. It gives Board and Staff room to breath, consider mission, separate the reputation and legacy of the departing leader from that of the organization, and contemplate changes in their vision before making the mistake outlined in the blog of trying to fit Jill's round peg into Jack's square hole.

So, who should be your Interim ED?

A well-meaning board member stepping in may sound great, but unless they've sat in the ED's chair before, and have the time and attention to devote, this can be a disaster (not to mention the conflicting roles of ED and board member).

A senior staff member could be a good choice (particularly if they're "auditioning" for the permanent job), but be careful how you back-fill their regular position - or are you expecting them to do two jobs at once? Be careful of setting unrealistic expectations for anybody you put in this tight spot.

An out-of-work ED, who is looking for a permanent position has other motivations in accepting your Interim offer. They're number one goal is completing their own transition, not assisting your agency in yours. If this is somebody who you are seriously considering for the permanent position, do not make the mistake of "trying them out" on an interim basis.

Those of us who regularly take on Interim ED assignments as part of our consulting business do so because we're not necessarily looking for the gig permanently. In fact, when I've accepted an Interim job that includes searching for a permanent ED, I would consider it a conflict of interest to then apply for the permanent position.

My mission as an Interim is to work on the Board's agenda, not my own, and to facilitate as smooth a transition for the staff, clients, funders, and community as is possible.

Returning to Mr. Harrison's post for a moment, he ends on what he considers to be such an important point that he prints it in bold and underlined:

It is never a good idea to have the outgoing director have a say on his or her permanent successor.  No matter who the outgoing director is or how amicable the separation is.  Never.  Never.  Never.
I found this point surprising, and while I'm not certain I agree, thinking of some real life examples I'm not certain I can argue with him either. It certainly goes along with my point of using an Interim to provide "breathing room" for the Board and Staff to do some reflection on where they've been and where they want to go, rather than just trying to duplicate the leader who's just left - an often impossible and unforgiving task.

Yes, it may sound self-serving (and it probably is), but if your organization is facing the departure of a long-term, strong leader, bring in an Interim ED first, before starting your search for a permanent replacement. Oh, and I just might be available ;^)