A couple of times in my career as an academic librarian, a boss has retired or otherwise left their position and I was asked to take on their duties on an interim basis. While I’m not sure about other professions, this is not uncommon in university libraries. And I’ve learned a lot about how to make lemonade out of what could be a giant lemon.
My first experience as an interim something, I wanted it to become permanent. After two years in that position, I surrendered the fantasy. I faced that it wasn’t going to happen; those above me were going to keep me as interim as long as I allowed them to. And at a certain point, I no longer settled for it and moved on to a bigger, better job.
A few years into said next job, I was asked to take on interim duties — big ones — and, after some conversations, I agreed. Because of my previous interim experience, I was more careful this time and knew what questions to ask. I was a bit more skeptical than my rookie self had been. This time, I ensured I had as complete an understanding of the position and expectations as possible.
What am I getting myself into?
How you handle an interim position depends a lot on the circumstances. I am lucky that I was given a choice in both of my situations whether or not I wanted to take on the position. That being said, each time I felt my choice was limited in that I wanted to be a team player and felt some responsibility to the institution. You may not have a choice and just be told to make the best of it until the position is filled permanently. Whatever your situation, when you are taking on additional duties on an interim basis, it’s best to go into the situation with eyes wide open.
You may be wondering how you are going to manage additional work. Perhaps you question what the payoff will be for you; what are you getting out of the deal? How much leeway will you have in this new position? Will you be given all of the responsibilities the previous person had (and the power to complete them)? You might also be considering whether or not you would like to take on the position or duties permanently.
How these questions are answered will play a big role in how you move forward with your interim position. I’ve heard of some interim positions where the people in charge don’t want you to really do anything; they just want a warm body and someone who won’t burn the place down.
If you want to be considered for the position permanently, the way you handle your interim duties may differ from if you knew you didn’t want it to continue beyond an interim basis. The game plan for my first interim position looked a little different than my current interim position because I wanted the former permanently.
Make sure you understand what the case is for this position at your company (see #1 below). If it’s clear that they are going the warm body route, it’s best to not push the envelope too much. But if they allow it, some risk-tasking, however small, could be in order. This could prove to be a real opportunity for you, whether nor not you wish to keep the position permanently.
To that end, I’ve compiled some tips that I hope will help you to aim higher than not burning the place down.
1. Ask questions.
A LOT of them. Whether taking on the interim duties is a choice for you or not, you should ask questions. No one can foretell the future but try to know what you are getting into.
What is the timeline? What are the expectations? What are the duties? What will my stipend be (because you should get extra pay for your extra labor!)? What is the planned duration of the interim status? Before moving on to the tips below, ask questions and confirm how much latitude or autonomy you will have in your interim duties.
2. Prepare yourself.
Ensure you know what respite you’ll have from your regular daily duties in order to successfully take on these new duties. Tell your staff what’s happening and explain that your work day may look a bit different for a while. Get to know any new people you may be working with or any duties you may be unfamiliar with. Know where to go with questions.
3. Find allies.
Who can you trust? Who do you know that might have insight into the duties your interim position entails? Are there colleagues who are performing similar jobs or working on the same level that can lend you support or advice? Have coffee with them to get advice or just let off some steam.
4. Know your enemies.
Sorry to go low here, but if you know your allies, chances are you know a few enemies as well. Maybe these are people with whom you just don’t have a great working relationship. Perhaps it’s someone who wanted that interim (or the permanent) position. You don’t have to do anything about these people, just be aware of their proximity, their “advice,” and their motives, especially if the position is a step up the ladder or if you want the job permanently.
When taking on interim duties, most of us aren’t given the luxury of no longer completing our regular duties. Instead, the new duties are added to what you’re already charged with and this can seem unmanageable.
Once you have an understanding of what duties you are expected to perform in this interim position, take a look at them next to your regular duties. Determine what absolutely has to get done and what can be put on hold. Put them in order in a way that makes sense. Create a timeline or put them on your work calendar so you don’t drop any balls.
6. Be realistic and candid.
Both with yourself and others! Don’t expect to change your entire work world as an interim anything. Even if your intention is to get the job permanently, set realistic, achievable goals.
It’s imperative to be candid and honest about how your work may be impacted by taking on this interim position. Share the priorities from #5 with your staff or peers so they understand which projects or deadlines may need to be pushed back or put on hold until your interim duties have concluded.
7. Have an exit plan.
If this interim position is not one you are interested in permanently, be sure to talk to the boss about an exit plan. Just because my boss thinks that my interim duties will last through January doesn’t necessarily mean that will be the case. Most of us (especially in academia) know that searches to fill open positions often do not go as planned and can take months longer than originally thought. Some searches even fail and then the process starts all over again.
So in addition to having an idea of the tentative duration of the interim position, have an exit plan. You may consider saying to the boss: “I’m happy to help but if for some reason the timeline goes sideways, I will want to revisit the interim position.” This allows for communication, checking in, and possible renegotiation, if necessary. Even if you can’t say this to the boss, at least have an idea in your head of what you’re willing to do and for how long.
8. Keep records.
Take notes on the expectations of your interim position and on any new policies or procedures. I am keeping relevant emails and information on specific initiatives or decisions in organized folders, both for my own memory and also to assist in the transition when a new person takes over. It’s also a good idea to keep a paper trail (or virtual trail) of communications with higher ups, employees and others, in case of any misunderstandings or confusion that may arise during your time in the interim position.
9. Take advantage of the opportunity.
Ask yourself from the beginning: how can this help my own career? How can I use this opportunity to develop professionally or grow my resume? Even if you don’t want the job permanently, there are probably things you could be doing or skills you could be learning that will be transferable. This might even be forming new relationships that could last beyond your time as interim. If you can, take some risks. Do something you might not have otherwise had the opportunity to do.
10. Keep your sense of humor.
Most of us don’t hold people’s lives in our hands at work. I’m a librarian. No one in my regular day is going to die if I don’t answer their question about discarding a run of journals immediately. Keep your perspective — and your sense of humor.
I hope that some of these tips can help you make the most of your experience as interim anything. It’s certainly not an exhaustive list. Take time to reflect on how you can best make the experience work for you and your company.