Ruth Mulryne

Nov 23, 2021, 10:00 AM

How to succeed as an interim CEO

Talented interim leaders will have a role to play in a range of organisations as we emerge into the ‘new’ future. Our sector, like many, is full of change and uncertainty and an interim CEO who can hold the reins long enough to establish stability and score some quick wins is invaluable.

So what’s the ideal approach for an interim CEO? These are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.

Find out the real story

Get the story of the organisation clear before you accept the role. What are the current challenges and risks? What red flags are waving and what time-sensitive decisions are pending? Why are the Trustees choosing an interim leader? Was there a difficult parting of ways with your predecessor or is this a positive plan, creating time and space to appoint your successor?

What’s the story ahead? Your length of time in post may be fixed or flexible but you can be clear on what the Trustees expect of you and where they want the organisation to head. You may play a role in shaping that, so ask the sharp and, at times, blunt questions so there is clarity. Is everyone clear on what success will look like and where the lines of responsibility are drawn?

Pack your ‘toolkit’

Different roles require you to pull on your experience, knowledge and skills in different ways.

So how accurately you assess the ‘real story’ determines what to pull from the ‘toolkit’. The role is likely to be fast-paced, short-term and intense, but an opportunity to leave a valuable footprint as part of the organisation’s journey ahead.

Engage quickly

Keep talking to the Trustees, as expectations and priorities may shift. How and when will you communicate with the Chair and Board? Be honest; flag early any worrying discoveries; ask for help.  Sometimes there may be no real handover, no familiar faces and a full ‘inbox’ of challenges ahead.  Identify with whom the urgently needed knowledge lies.

What is the staff team and volunteers’ understanding of your role? Think how you lay out how you intend to operate? They are probably expecting change of some sort. They may be unsettled, resistant, curious, hopeful, relieved, excited – or all of the above! Ask everything, be responsive, be thoughtful, be kind, even if you have tough decisions to make.

Invest time with the senior team, but talk to others – time consuming but invaluable. This helps identify who could step up when needed. Spot the patterns and nuances, the positives and concerns floating around. Soak them up and add to the back-story.

Be prepared

Keep your external network alive. If you have concerns or just feel a bit overwhelmed, who in your network can you talk to and think through your approach with?

Your focus may be stabilising and turning around for future growth. Accept you may not have time to change all you want to. You might spot a great opportunity but can only embed the foundations. An inspiring initiative may need to be parked for your handover. Then it may be well received or politely ignored.

The Trustee Board may be hugely relieved that you are there, lessening the pressure on them. Their intentions may be positive but support level mixed.

You may be approached to consider taking the role permanently. Be ready with your thoughts. A clear answer leaves a positive impression of why, if the answer is no, and doesn’t damage relationships.

Support your successor. If you’ve built a good rapport with the team, your opinion will count. And let go. A prolonged overlap helps no-one. Don’t stifle your successor, who is likely to be hungry to get on with a million ideas brimming!

If you are interested in placing an interim CEO role with Action Planning, please get in touch to learn more about the process and the options we have available. Email office@actionplanning.co.uk

Andrew Johnson

Ruth Mulryne is an experienced CEO, Consultant and Board Trustee, who has worked in diverse causes with organisations ranging from £250,000 to £100million+ in income. In addition to leadership roles, Ruth has operated as a Director of Services and as a Director of Fundraising. She is also a qualified coach, focusing on leadership and performance, and in addition mentors Charity Chief Executives through the ACEVO mentoring scheme.