The UK-based Interim Management Association defines an interim leader as:
• A top-level independent executive or project manager
• An expert in his or her field
• A high-level performer with a track record of quantifiable achievement
• A possessor of drive and energy
• A perceptive individual capable of adapting to new environments and delivering results
• Available immediately
Besondy and Travis suggest in Leadership on Demand that an interim can function in strategic or operational capacities, or both. The interim’s value is “to bridge the performance vacuum between transition events and to avoid the deep declines and valleys common with a full-time employment strategy.” While an interim is effective in either a strategic or operational role, the interim’s critical contribution is to accelerate, redefine, and deliver organizational change. This might not necessarily be the same as a “bridge”. It is important to understand the term “interim” in this context. Interim does not necessarily mean a holding, transitional role between permanent appointments. Indeed, for an interim leader this is rarely the case. The reason an interim leader brings value to an organization has a completely different dimension than to provide cover. An interim is a change agent, dynamic achiever, and motivated fixer!
When and why do organizations consider hiring an interim leader? Organizations want more flexibility. They want a resourcing model that allows for injections of expertise as well as the stability of leadership to implement long-term strategy. Organizations often consider the option of an interim leader when they need an immediate, highly experienced resource to lead acceleration and transformation. As William Bridges explains in Job Shift, “Because conventional jobs inhibit flexibility and speedy response to the threats and opportunities of a rapidly changing market, many organizations are turning over even their most important tasks to temporary and contract workers.” Hiring an interim is also a pragmatic choice; it does not disturb the dynamics of organizational hierarchies, progression, and career interests.
An interim leader engages with the client by having an “interim mindset”. This is primarily to exceed the expectations of the client in delivering the assignment, build rapport, and engage stakeholder support. It is also understood that the interim will move on from the organization once this is achieved. This is a goal-oriented mindset. It is not unusual, however, for a client to extend an interim’s contract and expand the scope of the interim’s contribution once the client has experienced the quality of the interim’s work. An interim leader is more than an intellectually bright individual who develops great solutions. An interim is a leader who is used to leading organizational dynamics at an executive level. Sometimes an interim is hired to tackle tightly-defined projects, and on other occasions an interim is instrumental in defining corporate strategy. Clients should not be surprised if the interim makes broad observations about direction, design, and culture. An interim leader brings an executive perspective, developed during years of experience and application, that renders him or her invaluable.
An interim leader works with the client organization for a temporary period of time and is not a threat to succession planning. A strong consequence of hiring an interim is to introduce talent, drive, and delivery into an organization. Having an interim leader on board inspires others to raise their game, provides excellent on-site mentoring, and disturbs any inertia that may exist. “Importing intellectual capital” is how McGovern and Russell, in A New Brand of Expertise, describe the opportunity that hiring an interim brings. An interim leader adds gravitas; an interim is a heavyweight resource who can make a significant difference.