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Authors: Erica Poff, MA, CAE, PMP, IOM, Vice President of Talbott Talent; and Heather Hunter, Marketing Intern

No leadership transition is easy. An organization’s board of directors will need to manage responsibilities beyond simply finding a replacement, depending on the circumstances surrounding an executive’s departure.

A solution for organizations navigating a CEO transition is to hire an interim chief executive. Depending on the needs of your organization, an interim CEO can provide essential leadership throughout the transition period. To decide if it makes sense to hire one, it’s important to understand exactly what an interim CEO is and when they can help you most.

What does an Interim Chief Executive do?

An interim chief executive is an experienced nonprofit leader who stabilizes an organization during an executive transition. They act as a bridge between outgoing and incoming leadership, softening the change as much as possible. In an article for Guidestar, Bill Hoffman explains, “An interim leader’s tenure can be a positive experience that moves an organization forward while a search is underway for a new CEO.”

An interim CEO will:

  • Manage day-to-day operations to continue the organization’s progress.

  • Deal with emergencies and fix immediate problems.

  • Set the stage for the incoming CEO by preparing the organization’s staff to onboard and work with their new leader.

  • Help prevent stagnation or decline during the leadership vacancy.

An interim CEO will not:

  • Spearhead new initiatives or get involved in organizational strategy. Since the interim CEO is temporary, it doesn’t make sense for them to roll out large-scale changes. These should be left for the permanent CEO to plan and implement. The exceptions are when the interim executive discovers problems that need immediate solutions or when they have intentionally been brought in as a catalyst for major organizational change.

  • Act independently of the board. Unlike permanent CEOs, who have the authority to implement the board’s strategy with reasonable autonomy, an interim executive does not act without the explicit approval of the board (unless otherwise stated in the contract).

When should my organization bring in an interim executive? Not every situation is right for an interim executive, but there is risk in leaving a CEO position vacant for any amount of time. You should consider hiring an interim if:

  • The vacancy occurs suddenly. If the CEO leaves without warning (of their own accord or at the request of the board), an organization’s reputation will be the subject of speculation from within their industry and community. Hiring an interim quells gossip and provides reassurance that the organization’s work is still on course.

Furthermore, an interim executive can boost staff morale by providing consistency and stability. Because the interim is handling the CEO’s daily responsibilities, the board can take the time they need to search for the best permanent replacement. This is especially helpful if the organization’s succession plan is too vague, outdated, or nonexistent.

  • You’ve tried – and failed – to find a new permanent CEO. An unsuccessful search is demoralizing for both the board and the staff. Whether the candidate rejected the offer, or the replacement didn’t work out, the failure is discouraging and represents a significant loss of organizational resources – time, effort, and money. As a result, people may lose confidence in the capabilities of the board, and the organization may face reduced productivity, reputational damage, and insecurity over an uncertain future. An interim can re-stabilize the organization, buying time for the board to consult a professional recruiter and build a better strategy for sourcing candidates. This article by Talbott Talent’s Vice President, Erica Poff, CAE, MA, PMP, IOM, offers advice to organizations for a successful executive search.

  • There will be a significant gap between the outgoing CEO’s departure and the new CEO’s start date. An extended period without leadership will stall progress – or worse, cause backsliding – of the organization’s goals and strategic initiatives. An interim can help maintain communication with key stakeholders and funders who may pull their support from the organization if they can’t see a clear plan for the future. When the permanent CEO steps into the role, the interim will have made it possible for them to take the helm without struggling to regain internal and external momentum.

  • The organization is underperforming or in need of significant turnaround. A skilled interim can diagnose the problems facing the organization and help to address them during the transition period. If necessary, the interim can also reorient the CEO’s position to meet needs the board may not have noticed.

In these cases, hiring a seasoned executive for an interim role is essential. This guide from BoardSource is a useful tool to understand which type of interim leader you should hire given your organization’s situation. No matter your needs, an experienced executive brings expertise and an outside perspective to an interim role, setting your organization on a sustainable path for the future.

Edited by: Leah York, CAE, President of Talbott Talent; Erica Poff, MA, CAE, PMP, IOM, Vice President of Talbott Talent; and Heather Hunter, Marketing Intern

Our featured executive this month is Don Gilpin, President and COO at International Facility Management Association (IFMA). Gilpin started his work with IFMA as an interim COO before taking on the permanent role in 2019. Talbott Talent’s VP, Erica Poff, MA, CAE, PMP, IOM, talked with him about the nuances and benefits of interim leadership.


Erica Poff: Tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got into the world of nonprofit executive leadership.

Don Gilpin: Like most of us, I fell into it. I came from a corporate background. Out of college, I worked for a Fortune 500 company called Dayton-Hudson Corporation, which is now the Target corporation. I worked in the direct marketing arm for a number of years. When I moved to Indiana, I got the opportunity to work with my first 501(c)6, the National Precast Concrete Association, also in a marketing role. That was in 1992. From there, I landed at another organization called the Custom Electronic Design and Installation Association [CEDIA], where I spent the majority of my career. I was with CEDIA for a little over 18 years, and when I left in 2016, I was the executive director and COO.

That led me to another opportunity with the International Facility Management Association (IFMA), which I was made aware of through Talbott Talent. I interviewed for the interim COO position and started working with that organization in February 2018.

As an interim, I was asked to come in to look at three areas of IFMA’s work: events, membership, and training and certification. Working in that short-term position, I gave the then-president my suggested changes for IFMA operations. This eventually led to a permanent role after the interim period, when IFMA asked me to become their President and COO in March 2019, and that’s where I am today.

EP: Had you served as an interim before?

DG: No, I hadn’t. It was interesting and extremely rewarding. Maybe it’s because I landed with a special team of special people. The team at IFMA really responded to my suggestions, and I felt as though I had their support with tough decisions. The results were dramatic – financial, sure, but more important to me was the attitude of the professional staff. The most rewarding thing is to see confidence coming back to a team with the knowledge that they were doing a good job and making a difference in members’ lives. The positivity just rushed back in. It was so fun to see these people start to celebrate [their work and each other].

EP: What initially attracted you to IFMA, and what were your expectations walking into the position?

DG: I liked that IFMA had an international presence. My time at CEDIA involved international members and activities, and I really enjoyed that aspect of association management. I got to meet people from all around the world, learn about new cultures and new ways of thinking, business-wise. I made some great professional friendships along the way. IFMA had that same international flavor, meaning I’d have the opportunity to work with professional staff and members from all over the world again.

But the idea of coming in as an interim COO was interesting to me because I knew upfront there were challenges within IFMA. I was made aware of that before I took on the position. It’s liberating to come in without any political baggage, and have the opportunity to observe people, places, processes, and financial outcomes. You help the group reset priorities without having the years of knowledge, or baggage, that sometimes come with this line of work. You can make some tough decisions and poignant suggestions without the burden of being too close to the subject matter. It’s easy to take your job personally, and get wrapped up in your staff, but as an interim you can do your job, provide suggestions, and move on.

EP: You’re vested in the sense that you’re going to do your job, and do it well, but you don’t have to take on that personal element.

DG: Yes, exactly. I walked into the interim role and told my team I was here to help them. I wasn’t there to be a ‘head count reducer’ or slash people's jobs. That’s always the big fear with an interim. Sometimes you do have to make the tough decisions about how to properly match skill sets to jobs, but I made it clear upfront that I was just there to observe, interview, assess and make suggestions. The group knew I was just there to do my job.

EP: You’ve been a nonprofit ED and CEO before. How is serving as an interim different than serving in a permanent role?

DG: There is that detached element we just mentioned, which is a pro and a con. As an interim, you need to be aware that there is a sunrise and a sunset to your project. You’re planning your next move, your next opportunity for a short-term project with an association that may need your skill set. So, while you’re dedicated to the project at hand, you're saying in the back of your mind, ‘what’s next?’ You need to keep yourself relevant, which means working with companies such as Talbott Talent to keep your name fresh in the industry.

EP: How does that mindset affect your approach as an interim?

DG: I didn’t approach the job any differently [than a permanent role]. I wanted to give them my best. I had a very clear set of parameters; I knew what was required of me, month by month, which was something I asked for upfront. I wanted to know how they were going to characterize success for this interim position, and I asked them to make it measurable.

I have a formula I’ve brought from my corporate days for developing goals: I will do X so that Y is accomplished by DATE. I asked the executive committee to use that formula to answer the question, “what do you want me to accomplish so the outcome is favorable by a specific date?” I think the executive committee appreciated the fact that we were walking into this [relationship] knowing what the short-term outcome would be. Having something trackable is so important. I couched my short-term interim opportunity by making sure I had those goals in front of me, and that I was working toward them.

EP: It seems like that set you up for a positive, trusting relationship with the Board. How did that translate when you became permanent?

DG: The first interim portion was basically a relationship between me and the executive committee. By coming on permanently, I got to spend more quality time with the staff, educating them on strategic planning and prioritization. It’s not just working on the short-term observations and recommendations anymore—it’s now an opportunity to start implementing change across the whole organization.

Another thing I introduced was something I learned years ago, at my very first trade association. We had an individual from the Ritz Carlton hotel chain provide a seminar on how Ritz Carlton handles customers. One of the mottos I interjected at IFMA is an old Ritz Carlton motto from that seminar: “We are ladies and gentlemen, serving ladies and gentlemen.” If we maintain this notion, it elevates the customer service of your professional staff. The members and volunteer leaders pick up on it immediately; they see a change in how you interact with them, a change in your voice, and a change in the importance you place on your memberships.

EP: When should a nonprofit organization consider bringing on an interim, and why?

DG: Getting the candidate right is so important. If that association has the luxury of time—12-16 months, sometimes longer—to go through that process, and there’s an in-depth referral process, and you’re getting honest feedback from people the candidate has interacted with, and if you’ve had the chance to see that individual in action, it may make sense to hire right off the bat.

But my situation is similar [to many] in that an association may not have the luxury of time, and the unspoken changes they’re planning need to happen quickly. Then you need to bring in someone to keep the ship afloat while the organization takes their time [with the search]. I wouldn’t lobby for one method or the other, but I’d lean toward the interim if that association doesn’t have the luxury of time to do a proper search for that position. Finding that culture fit, as well as the knowledge fit and the skill set, doesn’t happen very easily. It takes a lot of talking back and forth and a lot of observation. And the referral part is so important, so the organization can get feedback on the candidate.

EP: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

DG: I’ve liked association management so much [because] what other job lets you dabble in the wide array of running a business - marketing, business, finance, conferences and trade shows, international business development, industry standards, publications? It’s so fun to be involved in so many different aspects. You’re not coming in and doing the same thing every day. I don’t know of any other industry where you have that opportunity to spread your wings and be a great generalist. The reason for my success is that I can do a lot of things pretty well, but I’m not an expert in one thing. As a leader, you need to be flexible and knowledgeable and surround yourself with people smarter than you – then you’re golden.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Article Author: Leah York, CAE, President of Talbott Talent

Most people who know me have heard me mention Malcolm Gladwell at some point -- I’m obsessed. Right now, I’m particularly fixated on his podcast, Revisionist History, which he describes as “a podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood.” It’s fantastic. What Gladwell shares causes me to think more critically and ask better questions – it activates my curiosity about everything I experience. I listen and re-listen, but the episode I’ve played most frequently is “Hamlet Was Wrong: Hiring Nihilism in Action”. It hurts my brain, but in a good way. Here are three ideas from this episode that I’m still pondering:

  1. Gladwell explores two approaches to choosing leaders:

  2. Hiring agnosticism: We should choose people at random for leadership positions, because anyone can do the job.

  3. Hiring nihilism: Not anyone can do the job -- there are good and bad leaders -- but the systems used to select them often don't work. This reminded me of an earlier episode -- Season 5, Episode 3: The Powerball Revolution -- where Gladwell interviewed Adam Cronkright, a democracy activist who has "made it his life's work to convince grade-school kids to choose their student governments by picking names out of a hat."

Both approaches are extreme, and definitely not methods we use. But are there elements of each that can be woven into the selection of leaders?

2. The Peter Principle, coined by Laurence J. Peter: “In any hierarchy an employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence, and that’s where he stays.” Satire or truth?

3. “Teams managed by the friendly people do 30% better than the teams managed by superstars,” Gladwell reports. So why do we promote the superstars? And what’s the downside when we don’t?

I want to know your thoughts on these ideas, too. Leave a comment on this post and we can start a discussion.

Bonus! Book Recommendation: Gladwell reached a new level of awesomeness when he recorded his latest book, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know About the People We Don’t Know, in the style of his podcast, complete with interviews and news clips. Check out the audio version!