What would you do if your executive director unexpectedly left? Who would fill her shoes? Whether an executive transition is planned or unexpected, it is the role of an interim executive director to provide leadership.
Knowing that change is a constant in life, and in leadership, we talked with Chiquita Tuttle to learn more about the role of interim executive directors. Tuttle is an experienced interim executive director, so she knows all about change. She has worked with diverse organizations providing leadership and management during times of transition.
Saad & Shaw: What are some scenarios in which an organization needs to hire an interim executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: Interim executive directors are usually called into an organization when there is some form of transition taking place. It may be the sudden loss of an executive director, the firing of an executive director, or an anticipated transition.
Saad & Shaw: What are typical key responsibilities of an interim executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: Overall leadership and management of the organization; working with the management team; maintaining and rebuilding external relationships with funders; maintaining service delivery and client focus; and representing the agency in public forums are all key responsibilities.
Saad & Shaw: What is the role of the Board in working with an interim executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: The Board has an absolute obligation to work with the interim executive director to assure that their expectations and the scope of work specified in the contract they have made are being met. Open communication and transparency are critical to a successful transition.
Saad & Shaw: What should a Board expect when working with an interim executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: The Board can expect the interim executive director to be less involved in the daily political aspects of the agency. The interim executive director will be reviewing the operations and management with an external lens and making decisions based on his or her experience. The Board should be supportive of those decisions given the appropriate rationale and background. In some cases the interim executive director will tend to be a bit more assertive if he or she is there to implement a new direction for the agency.
Saad & Shaw: How is an interim executive director evaluated?
Chiquita Tuttle: An interim executive director should be evaluated on the completion of the scope of work initially discussed and contracted for. In addition, the interim executive director should be evaluated on the relationship and respect developed among the staff as well as external clients such as funders, clients, partnerships, and collaborators.
Saad & Shaw: What have you noticed is the difference between a planned transition in executive leadership vs. a crisis transition? How does this affect the work of an interim executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: Whether the interim executive director takes the role in a transition process or a crisis situation, the goals are the same. Management and leadership of the agency are primary. Being transparent and communicating with staff is critical. Working with the Board to keep them apprised of goals, objectives and decisions is paramount. Building trust and credibility will ensure a smooth transition in any circumstance. Also, this will determine how long the interim serves. Typically, interim executive director assignments range from 3 months to 18 months.
Saad & Shaw: We have noticed that some interim executive director’s fall into the “caretaker” model and some are brought in as “change agents.” Would you share your experience and perspective on these two different roles for an interim executive director and how a person serving as an interim executive director knows which role she is expected to fulfill?
Chiquita Tuttle: The caretaker role usually occurs when the current executive director has left the organization and the Board is engaged in a search for a permanent director. In this instance, the interim executive director is simply there to “hold down the fort” until that search is completed. That means working with existing staff, making sure the day to day operations are being enacted and clients are being served. Leadership, respect and managing are key elements where the interim executive director must take the lead.
If the interim executive director is hired to be a change agent, he or she will usually be charged with changing specific operations, policies, attitudes, expectations and/or accountability within the organization. This involves the participation and buy-in of the existing management team. In some instances, changes in the composition of the management team may have to be made. This kind of change is called for when systems and policies have not been working. Change agents are required when staff is not meeting goals, expectations and deliverables.
Then the interim becomes the enforcer of a new mind set and has the challenge of engaging staff to understand the rationale behind the change and acceptance of it. The interim executive director will need the assistance of change agents within the organization in making and taking the new direction. This process is often difficult, to say the least, because change is difficult. It can put staff in an uncomfortable situation; people may feel threatened and resist change.
When instituting change, it is always best to communicate the “situation at hand,” provide the rationale for the change and then implement the change. When staff fully understands the ramifications or consequences of not changing, they are oftentimes more accepting of change and will get on board. There will always be some resistance, but sometimes changes must be made.
Saad & Shaw: What are the ideal characteristics of an interim executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: An ideal interim executive director is a good listener, an innovator, excellent leader, open to ideas, flexible, transparent, accountable, human, has superb relationship and management skills, understands how to deal with conflict, and knows how to build strong teams. They must be a good communicator because they are the messenger of good and bad news.
Most importantly the interim executive director understands that it is the staff that makes the agency’s culture and provides the service; therefore an ideal interim executive director should always acknowledge and thank the staff for their expertise and work.
Saad & Shaw: When hiring an interim executive director should an organization hire an experienced executive director who is currently between positions or should they look for someone experienced in serving as an interim executive director? In other words, how is an experienced interim executive director different from an experienced executive director?
Chiquita Tuttle: An interim executive director has the luxury, if you will, of having to “hit the ground running” in a variety of organizational types. Therefore, their advantage is their flexibility skill set.
An executive director in between jobs also comes to the table with a wealth of long standing experience that becomes valuable to any agency.
Experience in leadership, management and accountability are really what matters. Whether they got it in previous executive director jobs or as an interim executive director matters less.
Saad & Shaw: Have you noticed differences in the requirements of the executive director across organizational types – for example museums, vs. higher education vs. community organizations?
Chiquita Tuttle: Clearly, having expertise in an industry is a strong case, but in the non-profit world, being a generalist is also important. One can learn over time about an industry. It is the management skill set and the knowledge of the fund development process that non-profits look for. All organizations want to be led by someone who understands sustainability, financial viability, good stewardship, strong staffing and, at the end of the day, isproviding for the clients according to their mission statement and vision. Leadership and managerial skill sets are transferable.
Saad & Shaw: Any last thoughts or guidance for our readers?
Chiquita Tuttle: Being an interim executive director is a special niche. It is challenging and difficult at times to gain trust within the agency. We should not be viewed as the “hatchet” person, but should be accepted as vital leadership whose responsibility is to sustain the organization.
It is our responsibility to review current practices, question them and make recommendations for more effective delivery of services. It is always our goal to leave the agency in a healthier and more stable state than when we first arrived.