The Space Between: What to do between out and in.
I learn slowly, so have, more than once, accepted a leadership position following a well-respected long-term executive. These great people are tough acts to follow, made tougher often by how the space in-between is handled.
In all cases, I stayed about two years and then, completely worn out, left for something else. And the people who followed me turned out to be really great at those jobs and went on to accomplish good, good things. I was, in fact, if not in intent, an interim, filling a wide open space, sorting and sifting out problems, making changes, correcting the course, setting the stage for real success to come.
And now as I work with organizations going through their own transitions of one sort or another, I’m trying, so hard, to remember my own experiences and pass along some wisdom.
As a very simplistic start, here are three (of many) missteps in the space between the outgoing and the incoming.
- Not planning the hand-off. There is going to be a hand-off, planned or not, and planning for how someone new will step in and assume responsibility can alleviate a lot of stress. Without a good transition plan, the incoming always feels as if they’re trying to catch up and are constantly surprised. Once, a very astute staff member said, “I watch you come in every morning determined to do a good job and then watch you run into a brick wall.” The brick walls I kept running into were things I didn’t know, situations that hadn’t been fully disclosed, “discoveries” that kept surprising me. A well-planned hand-off, with the work starting as soon as it's known there’s going to be a leadership change, can help the incoming deal with those difficulties without the head-bashing. (And yes, I know that everyone talks about transitioning planning, but honestly, who’s doing a good job? More often , organizations run out of time or money or patience and just say, “Here’s your desk. Run the place.”)
- Appointing the wrong internal interim. Unless you’re pretty certain your best candidate is already inside your organization, appointing a current employee as interim can be a huge misstep. There are, I suppose, a few people who can step up to a leadership role and then graciously step back when someone new comes in (these folks are always very clear up front that they are not interested in sitting in the chair permanently), but what I usually see are internal people who may think they are shoe-ins for the spot made even more certain when they are appointed interim, and then totally crashing and burning when someone else is hired. If you have current employees who are interested in the open position and you appoint them interim but have no intention of hiring them, you’ve set the stage for a power struggle of epic proportions when you do bring in your ideal candidate. Just never good.
- Discounting the value of an intentional outside interim. Hiring someone to steer the ship can give a board extra time to make a good hire. And if the outgoing isn’t leaving things in great shape, and/or someone new is going to get slammed with overdue personnel changes, financial worries, board problems, identity issues in the community - all the things that eat up creativity and energy - why not consider hiring someone to manage all that and pave the way for a successful permanent placement? A skilled intentional interim can make the hard decisions, take the hits, set things up well and then move on, leaving the organization primed for a great new leader to come in and focus on forward movement rather than cleaning up messes. Hez Norton, from Third Sector New England, sums it up like this, “Interim EDs arrive at difficult times and often help organizations make difficult choices. It’s not about popularity contests. Our goal is to leave an organization in a better place than when we came and to really prepare the new ED for success.” It does cost some money - would you do that hard job and then leave when things get better for less than a premium paycheck? (An intentional interim can be a great solution when the outgoing is so beloved that nobody can successfully step into their shoes. Give it a little space with someone who isn’t trying to be everyone’s new favorite.)
Leadership transitions are always challenging and we can keep working on how to do it better. The wide open spaces between out and in can be filled with positive, stretching, learning experiences and end with everyone in a better place. Onward!