The Role of an Interim Executive Leader

Remember that ad that UPS was running for a while?

The line from those ads, “What can Brown do for you?” got right to the point: You think you know UPS, but there’s so much more than you think.  The line still sticks with me, despite having no real need to think about UPS services beyond my steady stream on online package deliveries.

It made me want to ask: What can Interim Leadership do for you?

Of course, I don’t mean you personally, but rather your organization, your programs, your staff, and your donors.  There is a perception that interim executives are really just professional babysitters; they keep the lights on and make sure people do their jobs until the next person is in place.  Using that description, you’d think it was the easiest gig in the world.  But when has an easy babysitting gig ever truly been easy?

Roots in the Church  

Interim executives for organizations in the social impact sector (often referred to as the nonprofit sector) have their roots in interim ministry for church congregations.  A piece published by the Center for Congregational Health clearly lays out the case for interim ministry after a longtime leader departs and before a new one is chosen.

The goal of interim ministry to both tend to needs of the people in the congregation and create time and space for lay leaders to consider what its current are and what they might be in the future.  The interim minister allows the congregation to pause, reflect, and move forward with shared intention.

The role of an interim leader in a social impact organization is the same as an interim minister in a church or parish.  When the leader of an organization leaves, the staff and board experience upheaval and instability.  An interim executive helps provide stability and coordinates the daily work of the organization and allows the organization to pause, relfect, and plan.  When done well, interim leadership provides an organization’s stakeholders, including staff, board members, donors, and community partners, to focus on envisioning the future that they want.

A Delicate Balance

The work sits in the delicate middle between stability and change; interim executives manage current programs and activities, provide a neutral perpsective on the agency’s current state, and identfy the internal and external priorities that need to be addressed.  If too many changes happen at once, the organzation will start to come apart.  If not enough change happens, the organization has missed an important opportunity to grow to meet the challenges of its next phase.

The Four Principles of Interim Leadership

The best interim leaders abide by four key principles.

Systematic, Deliberate, Change Oriented, Transcendant


  • Interim leadership is systematic.
  • Interim leadership is deliberate.
  • Interim leadership is change-oriented.
  • Interim leadership is transcendent.







Interim leadership is Systematic.

Experienced interim leaders approach their work in a thoughtful and methodical way.  They bring a systematic discipline to their role and use a process to learn about the agency from top to bottom.  They bring a set of tools-both physical and socio-emotional- to the work they do.  This can include things like:

  • An agency inventory. They have an approach to gathering the key information about the organization, so it is all in one place.  This information can include things like passwords for key accounts, banking information and contacts, and the location of key documents, such as the IRS determination letter.
  • An internal SWOT process. Interim leaders will engage in a process that is both thorough and transparent to identify the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (SWOT) that the organization is facing at that time.
  • An approach for progressing through the entire engagement. Boards and staff members can expect that their interim will be methodical in how they go through the entire engagement and that their work will align with clearly defined goals and scope of work.

Interim Leadership is Deliberate.

Interim leadership requires setting clear priorities and prioritizing which issues need to be tackled before the next leader comes on board and which ones can wait.  Sometimes, the priorities are obvious, such as completing a fundraising campaign.  In other cases, the answer isn’t quite that straightforward.  In all cases, the initial list of priorities will change once the interim has been hired and has a chance to learn about the state of the organization. Your interim leader likely will not focus on all the issues that need to be resolved.  Instead, the interim will focus on a handful—5 to 6—key challenges that need to be addressed before the permanent executive joins the organization.

Interim Leadership is ChangeOriented.

This may seem obvious, given that the reason to hire an interim is change.  After all, the interim is there to provide stability during a leadership transition.  They manage the organization’s operations, supervise staff and volunteers, and serve as a liaison to funders and donors.  This allows the board to focus on the range of tasks that need to happen to hire the next leader.

An interim leader will also serve as a change agent.  An interim leader will do more than stabilize; they will set the agency up for the future.  This can include implementing new systems to manage fundraising or finances, adopt new systems for human resources or board relations, or engage the board and staff in a visioning process that touches on all aspects of the agency’s sustainability.

Interim Leadership is Transcendent.

Transcendent isn’t typically a word associated with interim leadership. But ultimately, interim leaders serve as planned disruptions in “how things are done.”  They bring with them a set of skills and tools that are designed to shake people from their complicity, force stakeholders to make decisions about the organization’s future, and wrestle with existing power structures inside and around the organization, most critically those structures and systems that marginalize BIPOC stakeholders inside and outside the organization and concentrate influence among white, affluent, and otherwise privileged individuals.  (more on this at a later date)


Of course, not every interim executive will approach their engagement using these four pillars of interim leadership.  And not every engagement calls for a full scale, top-to-bottom assessment and action plan.  But every organization can benefit from engaging an interim executive that uses these four principles in their work.  Bringing in an interim leader who can provide a systematic and deliberate approach to create change is the opportunity that many social sector organizations have been wanting and waiting for to go from good to great.