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A friend was recently asked to serve as interim leader of his organization. I immediately offered him my sympathy. The last time I was in that position it was awful, as if on a tightrope in a gale.

Usually such appointments are made in panic – the current leader has died, unexpectedly resigned, or been turfed, and the gaping hole has to be filled immediately. There are rarely a lot of choices. There are no guidelines. It is usually assumed the interim leader should not act like the ultimate leader – not shuffle staff, for example – but increasingly, in today’s hectic world, they can face significant decisions. I faced a tough budget chop – given two hours to decide – and managed to alienate almost all of “my” leadership team.

Given the paucity of study into this unique managerial situation, I decided to reach out to some who had also experienced it, starting with Tom Williams, who was twice a high-profile interim leader: at the helm of Queen’s University from 2008 to 2009 and in an earlier stint as head of the Kingston Economic Development Commission (KEDCO). Although only expected to hold the job at Queen’s for a year to 18 months, he was formally named the 19th principal of the university, without any associated interim moniker or asterisk, a wise board decision that strengthened his hand.

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The university’s endowment fund took a bad hit during the financial crisis and the university needed to retrench, with Mr. Williams making some tough, unpopular calls. “It mattered big time that I was The Principal. If I had the acting title I would have had more trouble implementing the decisions I had to make,” he said.

At Queen’s, he was an insider, which helped. At KEDCO, he was an outsider, with no experience with the organization or economic development, brought in because of his management skills. It was politically trickier than he expected – a public institution the public loves to dump on, with a board far from unified. Should you be put in this position, “be very aware of the dynamics of the board,” he warns.

Also, be very clear on your decision-making power. He felt he couldn’t start things. He just tried to support staff. He was told he would be in the post six months but it stretched to 16 months.

Jo-anne Marr, currently president and CEO of Markham-Stouffville Hospital, was senior vice-president of York Central Hospital in 2009 when its president suddenly left and she was plunked into the role, told by the board not to use the word “interim,” but choosing to do so as that’s what it felt like, with no term of office. The organization faced severe financial issues and she had to cut about $8-million in 90 days from an annual budget of about $250-million (and more later during her 19-month tenure). “It was my moral obligation to take them on this journey, but did I have trepidation? Yes!” she says in an interview. Originally not a candidate for the top post, she realized her skills and the situation dictated otherwise, and asked for a three-year term with an escape clause. She was rebuffed – good enough to turn things around but not to win the post.

Being interim can be good as you discover your own skills and display them in action to others. But Ms. Marr doubts she would do it again. “When interim, your guns are not fully loaded. You can’t do what you really want,” she says. The scars still linger from her experience. It’s best if you don’t want the permanent job, she adds.

While most interim leaders in the corporate and university world are chosen because they happen to be available, many churches educate some staff deliberately to be interim ministers, teaching them skills to help the congregation determine what leadership they want when a minister dies suddenly, is ousted, or after a long tenure retires and a new future should be carefully contemplated. They slow down the clock – usually for two years in the United Church of Canada. The interim ministers are adept at short-term relationships and short-term goals. They allow the congregation to vent. “Interims allow people to talk about the priorities of the new minister, the style and other issues,” says Rev. Jenny Stephens, the church’s team leader for policies and programs for ministry personnel.

Being interim is tricky. My friend, whose six-month term ended this week with the new boss’s arrival, considered it a fabulous learning experience. But it can also be a snake pit.

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Cannonballs

  • Quebec’s gender-balanced cabinet gives us a second major government in this country to take that route after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed his first cabinet in November, 2015. Given how slow progress has been for women in senior roles in government and business, we need more dramatic approaches and these are welcome. Perhaps a major corporation will be next.
  • Younger employees live on mobiles but less than 1 per cent of employee training occurs on their favourite technology.  
  • John Flannery, ousted CEO and chairman of GE, was replaced by two members of the company’s board of a similar age, one becoming CEO and the other becoming chairman. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, associate dean at the Yale School of Management, says such board members might have mixed motives – the decision could reflect their own career aspirations, rather than a simple judgment of his performance  – and GE is not unique. It has happened, recently or historically, at United Airlines, Ford Motor Co., General Motors (twice), Citigroup, CBS, Boeing, Delta Airlines, Saks Fifth Avenue, Athena Healthcare, Vail Resorts, Starwood Hotels, Martha Steward Omnimedia, Apple, Starbucks and Dell.

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