Robert H. Moran
Robert H. Moran is president and CEO of The Ancora Group, LLC in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania.
Bringing in an interim CEO to lead an association that is likely already struggling with change is a challenge—but it is possible. It requires proactive and transparent guidance to build trust from the start and ensure a smooth transition.
Executive transitions are difficult, and associations often face numerous challenges in managing them. The thought of introducing an interim CEO, effectively a stranger, into a system that is struggling with change seems counterintuitive. Having led several associations in transition, I would share that each in its way was unique, messy, complex—and rich in possibilities and potential.
The human factor—or condition—was palpable throughout the process, as was the culture. This work has enabled me to learn from remarkable experiences and witness the strength and resilience of an association and its stakeholders.
A recent ASAE Research Foundation study, “Effective Interim Transitions: Key Takeaways,” explores the experience of 15 associations and focuses on the process, the factors that influenced the outcomes, and identifies key elements of how vital an interim CEO can be. The study cites examples of associations brought back from the brink of insolvency, reversing high turnover, fixing board governance practices, breaking down silos, and guiding critical technology updates.
The case made for using an interim CEO is impressive, and the evidence seems clear. But questions remain: How does this model work? What conditions need to be in place to ensure success? Let’s focus on one of the study’s findings: the quality and depth of the board and interim CEO relationship, which is a critical success factor.
Thinking about this partnership—essentially a dance—and recognizing its importance, how do you figure out how it works? Several contributing factors come to mind.
Following interviews and initial contracting, you sit down for an initial big conversation. This is the classic getting-to-know-you exchange. It is a time to pause, tell stories, share pain, seek assurances, practice candor, give perspective, engage in catharsis, and do whatever else promotes healing and feels right in the moment. This sets the stage for what the study refers to as the “reset.”
The overarching message to participants is, let’s agree to be transparent, engage in fierce candor, substitute judgment with curiosity, and practice psychological safety. The themes that need to be elevated and discussed include trust, restoration, vulnerability, regret, and loyalty.
Questions should drive the conversation, and in the opening moments, the interim CEO will speak about experiences, lessons learned, and share words of hope and validation. This conversation is the first in an ongoing process of changing practices, adopting new methods, and behaving in new and more productive ways.
My experiences lead me to suggest—and strongly encourage—you to build and nurture relationships immediately. This newcomer is entering your treasured association with the authority to impact people and systems, so you must ensure that you are giving the interim the proper tools to help build trust.
The overarching message to participants is, let’s agree to be transparent, engage in fierce candor, substitute judgment with curiosity, and practice psychological safety.
You need to imagine introducing the interim on the morning of their arrival as you call everyone together and stand before associates and stakeholders (each experiencing the event differently) and welcome this new leader. Decide what you need to gain confidence and comfort. The stakeholders will listen and watch intently. In the process of taking it all in, they will likely interpret and reach their own conclusions.
In this process, intentionality is vital. Interims will go to great lengths to explain, gain clarity, and demonstrate behaviors and processes that are conducive to system change. Within this relationship building, you pause and reset.
During the dance, the magic elixir—the means of informing, influencing, and inspiring—is communication. This means delivering information, giving permission, injecting clarity, announcing decisions, responding to worried inquiries, and giving hope. Language is everything during a transition.
You have limited time and need to be clear. The board and interim CEO will want to co-create frameworks and protocols on how things are communicated, adopt practices that ensure clarity, and create opportunities for sharing information, answering questions, and providing updates.
You need to become an expert listener and be accessible and open. Throughout my interim career, I have scheduled a morning stand-up meeting designed to check-in, answer questions, and be together. While it began slowly, it soon became the source of information and facilitated the dispelling of damaging rumors. It is also an opportunity for dance partners (the board) to participate and engage with the interim. Watching new behaviors and witnessing a conversation that might have been previously challenging has an impact.
As identified in the study, culture can efficiently facilitate or effectively block organizational change. The interim CEO will initiate an early review of the prevailing culture and its fit. Boards often fail to recognize their role and contribution to culture. They are powerful forces in how an organization does business and will want to be centrally involved in a conversation that asks: Considering our aspirations, can this culture get us there?