Here’s a familiar story of late: A company’s leader has to step down, for any number of reasons, and the board of directors appoints an Interim CEO. Recent examples include United Airlines, DuPont and Twitter—where Interim CEO Jack Dorsey recently became CEO.
Let’s be clear: an interim CEO is not the same as a CEO even though there are many intersecting skills.
An interim executive parachutes in, takes charge, assuages fears, restores confidence, troubleshoots immediate to systemic problems, takes action, and plots direction—fast.
When the permanent CEO steps in, he or she will find a plan already in action and a direction set.
Done well, it’s a nearly seamless handoff.
I’ve done this many times. Often, I have to answer some basic questions about just what an interim CEO is there to do.
4 tips for being a successful interim leader
Here are four basic functions that apply to being an interim CEO and leader. These insights apply regardless of whether the company is small or large, global or local, and whatever the field or product:
- Hit the ground walking, no matter where.
In his book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters coined the phrase “management by walking around.” Whatever company we join as an interim leader, we immediately start learning how the company functions on all levels.
No time to warm that nice office chair: we get out there and make our presence known. We walk around, learn the daily flow, meet employees and listen to what they have to say.
This type of fact-finding is critical to forming personal impressions and can lead to successful problem solving. When I was looking at Styrotek’s manufacturing challenges, the solution came from spending time out on the floor. Robinson-Nugent’s shipping glitch was solved after joining the shipping team for a day.
- Know how to solve problems, no matter what field or product.
Interims are fixers—there to manage change. We may not have the specific domain experience; however, our experience is applicable across the board.
An interim CEO counts on the people who are making the toasters (or telephones or whatever) to know about successful manufacturing; we’re there because we know how to make a company successful, which encompasses critical skills accumulated over years:
- Being financially savvy
- Manufacturing experience
- Growing the business
- Integrating acquisitions
- Dealing with Wall Street
- Handling ERP installations, and
- Re-aligning strategies and objectives.
Not making toasters.
- Make short-term decisions for long-term efficacy.
Short term or not, the interim CEO is there to make the same (or more extreme) strategic decisions as a long-term leader. We’re there to take action, not write a nice report. Our job is to leave things in far better shape than we found it. There’s nothing passive about being an interim CEO, and there’s no such thing as an interim action or decision.
We’re solving problems that have already hit a critical stage, and everything we do has long-term consequences. Styrotek’s nonstop manufacturing schedule during grape season meant that any breaks for maintenance or repairs were devastating to the bottom line. Production couldn’t slow to train new hires either.
I shifted to a 365-day schedule at a lower rate of production, with scheduled maintenance and training programs. Over the long term, the move increased productivity, improved quality, and reduced costs by 20 percent.
- Always bring your A-game.
Is this really a function?
I’d say yes. Interim CEOs are sharp, seasoned executives focused on speed and execution.
There’s no sleeping on this job. We’re not just climbing out of a sales slump; we’re tackling issues of cash flow, payroll, and bank credit that can put a company out of business.
At the Association of Interim Executives, applicants have three successful documented interim stints before joining; the industry standard is high. Members have accomplished major corporate turnarounds that saved investors millions, spearheaded acquisitions in the billions, launched new divisions, and steered hemorrhaging operations back into the black.
These high-performing individuals are anything but seat warmers. They’re more like superheroes.
These four functions are behaviors, really, that reflect the high standards of leadership performance. They have to be.
As an interim CEO and leader, we’re making strategic decisions to bring profound and necessary change. We listen and learn, then establish assessments and baselines as well as clear objectives.
Then, we get everyone on board.
If employees trust and respect us, they’ll not only accept our authority, they’ll welcome it, and join the endeavor.
Because we all want success.
Image source before quote: Gratisography