Leveraging Internal Interim Leaders in Transforming Environments

Many higher education institutions are considering and implementing radical transformative strategies to address current challenges. For example, the rate of consolidation and mergers in higher education has tripled in the last four years, as state funding shrinks and enrollments plateau.

A barrier to successfully navigating these complex changes is finding the right leaders - those who can operate in extreme ambiguity, who can understand and accept multiple perspectives, who can effectively manage extreme multitasking and project management, and who are fearless, yet compassionate and approachable (more on this in this blog in the weeks to come). Identifying these 'right leaders', however, takes time and patience as they are generally rare commodities.

A byproduct of the protracted search for the right leadership is an increased need for interim leaders to help guide institutions through these transitions. Such was the case at Georgia Regents University (GRU; now named Augusta University) which undertook not one, but two complicated institutional consolidations within a span of three years, to yield a comprehensive research-level university and an integrated academic health center and health system. That we were successful is testament to the dedicated efforts of countless individuals on our faculty and staff, notably our interim leaders.

Searching for internal Interim leaders

In transformative environments many administrators may prefer to bring in external candidates for interim positions, who then bring a fresh perspective and experience without the "baggage" of internal politics. However, baggage or not, our strategy of engaging internal interims was both pragmatic and necessary. We were undertaking relatively rapid transformation in an environment that was relatively insular and had seen little change in decades, with little in the way of additional funding.

Hence, we aimed to place leaders who didn't require lengthy onboarding time and who were already familiar with the people, practices, culture, and politics that drove the organization. In fact, during the peak period of change, some 75 percent of our top executives bore the title "interim" -- an extraordinarily high number historically.

The process we implemented to identify internal leaders was similar to that of an external search, though far less costly and extended. Search committees of no more than four members were charged with casting a wide net internally to identify potential candidates for interim positions. Interviews were conducted, and the top three candidates, in no particular order, were recommended to the immediate supervisor for a final decision.

While many of those who applied were perhaps expected, the process also attracted faculty and staff who might not otherwise have been "top of mind", expanding the portfolio of internal leaders and giving leadership opportunity to many new individuals on campus.

Not just 'holding down the fort '

Traditionally, interim leaders have been tasked with caretaking, 'holding down the fort', until the position is permanently filled. Our interim leaders were not afforded that luxury however, as we counted on them to ensure the aggressive transformative agenda was being implemented. To help ensure their success we provided our interim leaders:

  • Clear objectives. We provided specific and measurable assignments and goals, directing and equipping our interims to achieve key deliverables that would further the university's mission.
  • Empowerment. We made it clear that interims were not placeholders, but had the authority to lead, manage,... and make mistakes.
  • Honest open communication. Several interim leaders reported that frank open communication freed them to focus on the job at hand and spend less time mulling over personal options or concerns.
  • Mentorship and team-building. Leaders -- both interim and permanent -- spent significant time together not only to build new policies and strategies, but to provide mentoring and solidify a team structure.
  • Leadership development and training. Interim leaders were provided ample leadership development training and, in fact, developing system of supports for our interims became the first step in establishing a more fully formed institutional process for leadership development and advancement.
  • Opportunity. In addition to leadership development opportunities, interims were allowed to apply for the permanent position, if they chose to. Eventually, approximately 60 percent of interims decided to be considered for the permanent position and overall about 40 percent of positions were filled by interims.

The rigorous and structured strategy we employed to identify and select internal interim leaders contributed to GRU's successful transformation in several important ways, including:

  • Allowing scarce time and money to be spent on the critical tasks of consolidation rather than on identifying, onboarding and training new leaders who were unfamiliar with the institution.
  • Fostering buy-in for what turned out to be an extended period of significant and difficult change, both from the interims themselves and from their staffs and organizations, where they were already known and respected.
  • Leveraging decades of institutional knowledge to ensure a minimum of disruptions to operations.
  • Preparing talented and dedicated emerging and future leaders -- many of whom were largely unknown prior to seizing the opportunity and rising to the challenge.

In today's leaner higher education environment we face increasing pressure to undertake transformative initiatives amidst limited resources. When times of transition arise, identifying the right leaders is critical. However, as these individuals take time to find and recruit, a structured strategy of identifying and employing internal interim leaders can help continue to move institutions nimbly and effectively forward and on their strategic track throughout the transition -- and beyond.