The Use of Interim Directors

Sometimes your organization will need to make use of interim directors. Interim directors are useful in two instances:

  1. You need to make rapid change even in the face of lacking a strong leader
  2. You need to have someone nominally leading an organization even when you don’t have the ideal permanent team member at the ready to lead the organization.

An organization can make use of an interim director publicly or in secret. That is, the larger organization can be aware that the director is operating in a temporary capacity.

However, the use of an interim director in secret is not conducive to the second application of interim directors: the placeholder.

Observe the quadrant map below:

An interim director whose interim status is known by the company at large can be effective as a change agent, or as a placeholder. Employees naturally want to see progress in a company, and if someone is just running the department day-to-day, but the employee can see the organization is in the process of finding a more effective replacement director, they are more likely to give the company the benefit of the doubt and a little time before giving up and walking.

And it is, of course, a well-worn interim director tactic to bring in a “fixer” — someone known for getting shit done, making the tough changes, and handing the department off to new hands – perhaps an internal hire who can handle things once they’re set up properly.

You can also put someone in charge to be a change agent on an interim basis, but lend additional weight to their cause by pretending they’re permanent. They make the hard changes, with the clear backing of management, and when the work is done, oh, hey, look at that, this new role calls for a different kind of manager and I’m happy to say we’ve worked together to bring in X. No one need know that was the whole plan all along (though personally, I find it is usually more effective, and builds more trust in the long term, to avoid the secret change agent in favor of the open one).

But a secretly-interim director is a terrible placeholder. Employees aren’t dumb, and they know there are problems. You may know that you’re working on it, but if the interim director is just sitting there, holding down the fort, and no one can see that work is being done to fix the situation, employee morale will suffer. There are also serious drawbacks on the recruiting front: potentially “almost there” internal hires will not be motivated to step up and prove their worth — indeed, they may be motivated to move on to another company. And it’s pretty impossible to vet outside candidates effectively when most of the department members can’t even interview them.

Avoid the secret placeholder interim director.