Creating Lasting Impact As An Interim Leader

I remember growing up in the days when having a substitute teacher for the day meant watching a movie instead of moving forward with the planned content for the day. At the time, it left me with nearly the same feeling as a coveted snow day.

In the business world, stepping in as an interim leader can sometimes feel like you’re the substitute teacher, left to mind the store until a “real” leader steps in. I feel for substitute teachers and anyone stepping into a leadership role temporarily as they often feel somewhat powerless to act in the fear that they may break something.

Interim leadership roles can certainly come with their challenges, but these situations can also provide unforeseen opportunities that you otherwise may have missed.

Anyone who has been thrust into the position of serving as an acting or interim leader in an organization, can likely relate to this. This type of leadership situation presents some unique challenges, no doubt, but there are also quite a few potential opportunities that can be taken advantage of if you ever find yourself in this spot.

The term “interim”, by definition, brings with it a real feeling of impermanence. And, depending on the organization that you find yourself in, the ability for you to create real change while in an interim leadership role can vary dramatically. It can also sometimes feel like you are just the substitute teacher who is expected to play that old biology video to keep folks occupied until the “real” teacher returns. That said, just because the position may not be permanent doesn’t mean your impact can’t be.

It’s Not Without its Challenges.

Oftentimes, finding yourself in an interim leadership role can mean having to navigate various forms of resistance as people attempt to minimize change until the “real” boss enters (or re-enters) the situation. This hesitance to change things that may only need to be changed yet again with a new, permanent leader can be a really difficult mindset to break out of.

While external scenarios like the one above can certainly impede your ability to drive impact while in an interim role, your own beliefs, assumptions and realities can also force you into a situation where you feel your hands are tied. Feeling like you do not have the authority or the resources to create any meaningful and sustainable change, whether real or assumed, can bring any hopes of leading effectively to a screeching halt.

There Can be a Silver Lining.

Understanding the realities of the situation and the expectations of those putting you into an interim role will help to clarify your boundaries and will ease the tension that may arise if you begin operating under a false set of assumptions.

Depending on your history with the team that you are leading in this role, you may find yourself in a position where you can help them see this temporary reality as an opportunity. Perhaps it is a time where they can create and embed some new ways of doing things so that those new ways become the new norm by the time a permanent leader arrives on the scene.

This can also be a time where the team feels more empowered to try out some new and “wild” ideas in a safe environment.

These situations are also fantastic opportunities for members of the team to step up and shine by helping to fill the leadership gap that exists. Finding ways for people to roll up their sleeves and take the lead can be a great way to develop others while also solidifying a more robust leadership presence during a big transition.

In addition, in many cases, an interim leadership role can almost serve as a “try and buy” or a chance for you to prove that you have what it takes to assume this role long-term. If you’re goal is to make this a permanent situation for yourself, playing the role of substitute teacher may not be the approach you want to take.

Tips for Making your Interim Leadership Role a Success.

  • Play both the long game and the short game. What I mean by this is that while you are technically in an interim role you can create some meaningful change in the immediate-term by stepping up and actively leading (this is your short-game). Simultaneously, you may find that you have opportunities to create more long-term change during your tenure. Whether you stay on permanently or not, the team will be in a better place as will the new leader once they come aboard. That said, Josh Braaten, CEO and co-founder of Brandish Insights a brand analytics platform, suggests that interim leaders should, “Think of yourself as a steward, not a king.” Braaten’s two-year stint as an interim CMO for venture-backed startup Leadpages helped him to understand that trying to solve larger, institutional challenges may be particularly difficult as members of the organization tend not to view interim leaders as a resource for these situations.
  • Understand and respect what you’re walking into. Unless you are stepping up within your own intact team to take an interim leadership role, remember that you are entering a situation that has a history. Making sure to do what you can to understand (if it is a new team for you) and respect that history can go a long way in helping you to position yourself to be most effective.
  • Challenge your beliefs and assumptions up front. In order to be successful in any given situation, you must explicitly understand the expectations as well as the boundaries. Clearly understanding what people are expecting of you in an interim role can provide you with a target; otherwise you may find yourself struggling from a lack of clarity.
  • Leverage your strengths. Stepping into an interim leadership role can be a unique challenge. Don’t make it tougher on yourself by trying to develop that Achille’s Heel skill that you’ve been meaning to focus on. Understanding your strengths and playing to them in these situations can help give you the momentum you need to get things off to a good start.
  • Take the time to clarify expectations with your new team. Just as important as clarifying expectations for yourself in this role, setting aside time and space to engage in dialogue with the team that you will be supervising can help expedite things in a way that feels good for everyone. Times of leadership turnover, for whatever reason, can create anxiety and uncertainty. Helping your team to understand who you are and what is important to you can serve to help begin building trust while also clarifying what you expect during your time with the team.
  • Be prepared to provide a very detailed in-brief to the new, permanent leader when they arrive. Depending on how long you have been serving in an interim role, you likely have some real insights into the status of the team that a new leader would find helpful. Making the effort to develop a detailed transition brief not only sets the new leader up for success, but it shows that you have taken an active leadership role during your time with the team.

Interim leadership roles are certainly not without their own, unique challenges. But, if you play it right and if you are intentional about your role, you may be surprised at the lasting impact you can have. You never now, you may also find that you learn a thing or two about yourself along the way.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Chris Cancialosi, Ph.D., is a Partner and Founder at gothamCulture.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.com.

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Chris Cancialosi

Chris Cancialosi

Partner at gothamCulture
Chris Cancialosi is a recognized expert in the field of leadership and organizational development with particular focus on the leader’s role in shaping high-performing culture.
Chris effectively combines his operational field experience with his knowledge of organizational psychology to provide unique and practical solutions to today’s ever changing business landscape.
Chris Cancialosi

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