Interim Senior-Level Appointments: Why, When, How?

By Joseph S. Johnston Jr.    //    Volume 22,  Number 1   //    January/February 2014

Interim president. Interim provost. Interim chief financial officer. Titles like these seem increasingly common these days. They reflect a higher education enterprise beset by change and turnover. They also indicate how often decision makers in the sector answer those challenges by appointing short-term leadership.

Increasingly, we are even seeing short-term appointments of individuals from outside an institution. In practice, such external appointments are called “interim” as opposed to “acting,” the term traditionally used when a position is filled on a short-term basis by an internal appointee.

Is this trend positive for institutions? Interim appointments of senior leaders have their detractors. Some regard the appointments as decisions of convenience, reflecting stop-gap management. They think of temporary incumbents as figureheads or mere caretakers at times when leadership for change is required. They know that interims sometimes lack the authority needed to lead or that they are too powerful for the limited scrutiny they undergo when they are (sometimes hurriedly) brought in. Skeptics are especially uneasy with most external appointees’ relative lack of local knowledge.

To other observers, however, boards or other authorities who hire an interim administrator are exercising an important option. They maintain that, in many circumstances, the appointment of an interim can be highly strategic and can advance an institution in ways a permanent appointment might not.

At a minimum, boards and executive leadership should be alert to and informed about this alternative form of executive-level appointment. And they will want to know when and how it could make compelling sense for their institutions and what key issues to consider if this option is embraced.

The following discussion briefly summarizes current data and thinking about the use of interims, based largely on the responses to a brief, confidential, online survey of presidents, chancellors, chief academic officers, chief financial officers, other top executive administrators, board professionals, and deans conducted by AGB Search in September 2013. The 2,579 responses give a helpfully current view of a broad national sample of institutions and the experiences and views of their leaders regarding top-level interim appointments.

Interim Appointments Today

The results of the AGB Search survey suggest that tenures are increasingly short among those holding executive-level positions. Sixty percent of respondents reported more turnover in the leadership of their institutions in the last five years than in the previous five years. The wave of leadership transitions predicted for many years has begun.

Institutions have responded to the challenges of senior-level turnover, in part, by turning to interim appointments. Fully two in three respondents reported hiring one or more interim leaders, or a combination of interim and acting leaders, during the last five years. More specifically, 47 percent of respondents reported increased hiring of interims, and only 9 percent reported a declining number of such hires.

Approximately 6 percent of presidents, chief academic officers, chief financial officers, and deans currently serve as temporary appointees in their positions. Just under 4 percent are “acting” (internal) appointees. The rest—just over 2 percent—constitute the relatively small but growing number of “interim” (external) appointees. The expected length of the acting or interim appointment averages 15 months, although the range reported was from four months to three years.

Interims tend to have had prior experience in relevant settings and roles. For example, 53 percent had served previously in the same or a very similar position elsewhere. And 56 percent had experience at a similar type of institution.

About 70 percent of all respondents reported that their institution’s overall experience with interims had been positive. Even though most respondents reported increased hiring of interims in recent years, a majority (53 percent) thought that colleges and universities should consider interim appointments even more frequently.

Why? Reasons for Interim Appointments

The figures above suggest the general dimensions of interim service today and help document its growth. AGB Search’s survey sheds light, as well, on the reasons institutions have embraced the idea.

Of special interest is a group deeply informed about the context of current interim appointments—those respondents who are themselves serving as interims. Asked to choose as many reasons as applied to their appointments from a longer list of options, these presidents, chief academic officers, chief financial officers, and deans selected the following (in order of frequency):

  • A need for time to conduct a proper search (67 percent);
  • An abrupt departure (59 percent);
  • A need for someone to step in and manage (55 percent);
  • A calming, steady hand at the helm (45 percent);
  • A need to decide what would be needed in a permanent person (43 percent);
  • A leadership or management crisis (43 percent);
  • A widespread loss of confidence in previous leadership (36 percent);
  • A need for someone with an outside perspective (33 percent); and
  • A need for someone with particular skills to solve immediate problems (33 percent).

Open-ended responses from this group of respondents called attention to additional (again, possibly overlapping or related) reasons for their interim appointments—a need to reopen a failed search, a need (often after a long incumbency) to take stock and decide new strategic directions before initiating a search, or a need to reframe a unit or position and develop a more appropriate job description.

As a group, serving interims reported more factors at play—and such factors more at play—in these situations than did other respondents. Indeed, although some may see the appointment of an interim as a simple stop-gap measure, a resounding 86 percent of serving interims characterized the decision to hire an outsider for the position they serve in as “strategic.”

Some Guidelines for When and How

How, then, should a strategically minded board or senior leadership of a campus approach the possible use of interims? Fortunately, some consensus exists on best practice in this area. While situations—and the best responses to particular situations—differ, board members and institutional leaders should bear in mind the following guidelines:

When an opening occurs, consider a short-term appointment (acting or interim), if only to rule it out. Short-term appointments are often helpful. A great many permanent appointees would fare better if an effective interim period had preceded their assumption of the reins. That said, interim appointments can be overused (usually leading to drift and confusion) or misused (for example, as a backdoor for permanent appointments). In most cases of administrative vacancies, circumstances do allow for a brief acting appointment or continued service by the incumbent until a full search is completed.

If circumstances favor a short-term appointment, choose carefully between the acting and interim options. In brief, acting (internal, short-term) appointments are thought often to have the following advantages:

  • Ensuring a degree of trust in, and comfort with, the appointee;
  • Empowering someone with local knowledge;
  • Avoiding the need for a long learning curve;
  • Avoiding in some cases the expense of a brief search for the right interim; and
  • Providing promising individuals from within the institution on-the-job training, possibly as part of a succession or talent-development plan.

By contrast, an appointment from outside the institution may be favored to the extent that those filling the post put a premium on a candidate who:

  • Can tackle the job full-time versus (as is often the practice with acting appointments) juggling it alongside other duties that cannot realistically be handed off;
  • Has accumulated no ”baggage” at the institution and, in particular, is untouched by controversies surrounding past leadership;
  • Has few, if any, friends or foes at the institution, and is beholden to no faction there and can thus be seen as impartial;
  • Can provide a fresh look at things, but through an experienced eye;
  • Possesses skills that are needed but are in short supply on campus; and/or
  • Must make difficult changes that someone who would stay on campus might not survive.

If the choice is made to find an interim, move with all deliberate speed. A search for an interim should be expeditious. “It puts a stress on an organization to be without a defined leader, whether regular, interim, or acting,” wrote one survey respondent, and this “manifests itself through decreased efficiency, lack of continuity, and confusion.” That said, allowing time to identify and vet several candidates will usually pay dividends. A rushed search serves no one well because it can produce imperfect fits and undermine confidence in this and other appointees.

Decide on the tasks the interim appointee is to accomplish. Interims can serve a variety of purposes, as discussed above, but the particular job to be done at the particular place and time should be carefully thought through and agreed upon. As one respondent put it, “The highest priority for an interim and a school is to have a ‘shared vision’ as to what would be viewed as a successful term of employment.” A limited set of goals is best, reflecting clear priorities and a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished in the timeframe provided. And as the interim makes his or her own assessments of what needs to be done, some adjustments will need to be made.

Look for candidates who can do the tasks. “The skill level to be an effective leader in higher education has become increasingly complex,” observed one respondent. Given that truth, a careful enumeration of the abilities, experience, and skills required in order to meet the goals for the appointment should guide the search and the consideration of all candidates. Of special importance for most interims are the abilities to learn and assess things quickly, to win confidence, and to build the relationships necessary to get things done expeditiously. Beyond that, the particular priorities assigned the interim should weigh heavily in naming the interim. For example, an interim president asked to bring a capital campaign to its conclusion will need the skills of a fundraiser. One who is a business strategist may be best at addressing the problems of a business model under pressure. And it may take a diplomat to mediate disagreements among warring campus factions.

Focus the search effectively. Most institutions will consider the use of a search firm when approaching the task of selecting a permanent executive. A small number of firms provide services specifically geared toward interim searches. They have pools of pre-vetted candidates, and some have the capacity to quickly identify others. Institutions that decide not to seek outside help often look within a university system (in the case of a public college or university) or a sponsoring denomination. Current vice presidents or retiring presidents or vice presidents of similar institutions may be of interest, as might senior officials at higher education associations, many of whom may have held campus positions before.

Reach agreement on appropriate terms of employment. “It is my experience that a portion of these appointments are made for budgetary reasons,” wrote one respondent, which can result in “greater financial and human cost in the long run.” In most cases, an interim appointment should not be treated as an opportunity to save money. To help ensure comparable quality, interims’ compensation—their salaries, benefits, and perquisites—should generally be comparable to those of their peers with regular contracts. All arrangements should also be spelled out clearly in writing. They should include a term of appointment long enough to get the job done—and no longer. It is wise, however, to anticipate that circumstances may arise in which an extension might be warranted—for example when, in the search for the permanent successor, it might be important to accommodate different possible starting dates.

Decide whether the interim may, if interested, be a candidate for the permanent position. Most interim appointments expressly rule this out for two basic reasons. First, incumbency and candidacy can pull an interim in opposite directions, possibly tempting him or her to avoid hard decisions or to make them based on self-serving criteria. Even the perception that this is happening should be avoided. Second, the presence of an apparently strong internal candidate can deter other good candidates from entering the pool. Even given these considerations, however, some observers strenuously maintain that it is in the institution’s interest not to tie its hands, especially if the prospective interim appointee might, with a strong performance, turn out to be just what the institution needs for the longer term.

Give authority to the appointee and launch the appointment effectively. To be effective, an interim needs to have the right, within his or her area of responsibility, to ask questions, explore options, make decisions, initiate actions, and lead. In all respects he or she needs to be—and to be seen as—the person in charge, not someone who can be avoided, bypassed with end-runs, or simply outlasted. The granting of authority should be visible to all. Numerous respondents to the survey mentioned sympathetically the confusion and loss of confidence in leadership that interim appointments can cause among faculty members. A clear handoff will help prevent this.

Another dimension of an effective launch should be an effort to introduce the interim to new colleagues, to campus resources, and to significant issues that will affect his or her work. A well-planned orientation can greatly reduce the time the interim appointee needs to get up to speed—a central factor in the interim’s effectiveness.

Have a shared understanding with the appointee on where the limits lie. Interims need to understand not just what’s expected of them, but also what is not. For example, will board members or others who are responsible for making the interim appointment welcome absolute candor in the interim’s assessment of the situation he or she steps into? Probably yes. A transformational leadership style? In some cases. A role in identifying, vetting, and selecting a permanent successor? That may be a step too far.

Will an interim be looked to for trenchant analysis of long-term needs? Many are, and it’s often a good use of their skills and experience. Will he or she be authorized to make decisions and take actions that have significant long-term ramifications? That depends. In some cases (for example, where there’s housecleaning to be done) that will be the raison d’etre of the interim appointment. In others, such decisions and actions would be better reserved for a permanent successor.

The frequent subtlety and importance of the distinctions among such campus situations argues not so much for a one-time, rigid set of instructions to interim appointees as it does for arranging for continuing consultation between the interims and the boards or other entities making the interim appointments. Easy, ongoing access to those who hire them enables interims to find and stay on the paths likeliest to lead them and their institutions to success.

Given the increasing turnover of top leadership in higher education, we can expect more short-term appointments in the future. The responses to the AGB Search survey underscore the likelihood of growing numbers of interim, or external, appointments in particular. The guidelines outlined here should enable board members to consider and make these appointments with confidence.

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