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  • John Chambers, PhD

Interim Inspiration

In 1959 Ferrari produced a handful of automobiles under the name Interim. They represented the chassis of prior years while acting as harbinger of exciting, new Pinin Farina body designs. The Interim, while few in numbers, was the bridge to transformation -- classical foundation driving future brilliance.

The most successful interim executives and organizational leaders align to this concept. Many years ago, I heard a reference to interim leaders as babysitters until the “permanent” successor is molded from within, or discovered outside. The characterization is offensive to the interim leader and offensive to the leader’s reporting team -- especially those leaders who understand their role is change agent, rescuer, or sculptor. For executives and leaders who consult, the interim position can be the most gratifying, inspiring and, surprisingly, "impactful" you’ve ever experienced. The company seeks eyes with diverse paradigms, versatile skills, and team trust. As interim leader, you've not much time to deliver that.

Corporate initiatives, strategies, or cultures need advancement and shaping, and not all approaches are appropriate. Similarly, interim leaders are expected to deliver according to the present need of the corporation, its current state and culture, and its future positioning. As corporate expectations and road maps vary, there are three types of interim executives, each with its own set of expectations: Sustaining, Refining, or Transforming.

Sustaining leaders are often engaged for 3 – 5 months. But sustaining is not idling. The corporate mandate, given the current activity of the group may require an operational manager who can continue the success of the previous leader. This is not stagnation by any means, and it's not easy. All organizations have had periods where activities and operations were generally robust, but without enhancement, the firm stalls. If you believe current processes are optimal, you misunderstand the innovation landscape.

Optimized processes are fleeting, an impossibility given the dynamics of change. Sustaining interim leaders are those who perceive the stresses and anomalies, identifying opportunities and recommending adjustments. That interim leader should bequeath analytical assessment of the environment, make some incremental changes if there is time in the “interim” period, and create a road map for continuous improvement.

The sustaining interim leader is she who ensures the current ship of state is clear, explainable and rational. Successors to the sustaining interim leader should be inheriting a department or a company that is crystal clear in its various organizational identities, touch points, and operating model. That model should have been re-clarified and formalized by the interim, and embraced by the team at large. This allows the interim's successor more time in calibrating the future against changing needs, rather than trying to define everyone’s role and purpose.

A successor’s expectant value is preparation and improvement. In standard operational analysis, the first step is understanding current state. Therefore, the sustaining interim leader leaves a legacy of explicit definitions -- documented and digestible knowledge on the firm's current state.

Fixing defects, filling gaps and running around to cover ignored and festering process liabilities without a go-forward plan are unfair to the incoming successor, which can result in unfinished promises and reputational decay of the sustaining interim leader.

Refining Interim leaders can be of short duration as well, but often require at least six months to institutionalize enhanced capabilities the group's viability, as a successor or sought.

This interim leader must rely on a shared frame of reference, illustrating the group's project portfolio. The refining leader manages and directs by way of a holistic view of initiatives and their impact and dependency on suppliers, business processes, services and stakeholders.

The refining interim leader must mandate a project portfolio management mindset and a business-impact perspective of all other managers. Ensuring there is a solid intake process is not enough. Exception management of a list of projects is a transactional necessity but that is not portfolio management!

The legacy value of the refining interim leader is a project and service view of the group’s value chain. The portfolio should be less a laundry list of initiatives and, rather, a dashboard of projects with explained prioritization, intersection with business activities, and ease in translating technical initiatives into the language of the executives and board.

The refining interim leader takes the best attributes of the sustained operation and now has elevated its perspectives in terms of fully documented processes, fully rationalized projects, and fully appraised business services. The holistic portfolio view is the refining interim leader's legacy.

This is welcome and formidable knowledge for the successor.

Transforming interim leaders will require nearly twelve months or longer. Firms who engage these interim executives are entrusting them with strategic creation and strategic accomplishment. Both sustaining and refining attributes are present in the transforming leader, especially a financial appraisal of a group’s services; but the real challenge is in reshaping the value proposition or the means of production.

Any transformation demands mobilization of work forces and capturing the buy-in of fellow executives. The transforming interim leader is expected to leave a legacy of optimization and rigor, and a thorough roadmap for the succeeding years; the successor can carry on the approach and vision of the transforming interim. This is not an undermining of successors, be they internal candidates or external ones. This is not stating that a successor is incapable of transformation.

But remember that transformational plans do not have the luxury of time; they must be launched as vehemently as competitors are launching theirs. The successor of the transforming interim leader will require the foresight and the experience to take a recent sea change in the groups’ capability and ensure it is achieved and molded into a sustainable competitive advantage.

The transforming interim leader prepares a strategy for competitive advantage in a highway of competition, always recognizing the changing nature of the innovation economy.

The periodicity for each type of interim leader is variable, of course. Nothing is etched in stone. But consider the expectation of the succeeding leader, the expected time frame for determining or discovering a successor, and the critical needs of the organization.

Interim Leader Legacy

As "interim," you may not demand race car speed, but your role should be specific and measurable, leaving behind a legacy – a smooth operational state, a strategic outlook, and team-building culture.

When the successor arrives at the doorstep, how much time should she spend learning the basic structure and the day-to-day processes, and in what manner? The environment should be explicit not just tacit. How much time is wasted if the successors’ “100 days” of observation are consumed by absorbing tribal knowledge, interpreting the whys of activities, and trying to determine the value propositions of her departments?

Your job in the interim role is to mandate documented clarity, and a unifying view of the operating model. Moreover, the team leaders who will report to the successor should have utmost credibility in explaining how their departments operate and how they are poised for a dynamic future.

All operating models and strategic roadmaps will assuredly evolve. All strategies and all organizations change, under competitive pressures and industry movement. So too shall the interim leader’s strategy and plan soon evolve and change under new leadership. But if the current operating model and strategy is absent or unclear, waiting for a successor savior, then you’ve made that person’s job excessively difficult; you’ve undermined your other leaders’ credibility, and you’ve left your company with dangerous gaps in its present state.

Interim leaders pass the checkered flag of success when their successors can hit the ground running, when the interim has bequeathed a vision and enthusiasm among the team.

Your greatest success as “interim” is watching internal resources assume your leadership traits or watching incoming employees leverage your refinement or transformational plan.

The "interim executive" is neither placeholder nor stop-gap, but rather classic vehicle driving future success.

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