Succeeding With Interim Executives: An A-To-Z Guide

December 17, 2019 Sandra Pinnavaia

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Interim executives can help companies address skills gaps, pilot new initiatives, and tackle business transformations and other critical priorities. Yet success isn’t always straightforward. After more than a decade helping clients source on-demand interim executives from the Director to the CXO level, BTG has learned a lot about what it takes to make interim engagements productive.

Here’s what to expect when you work with an interim executive—and how our own process can help.

Step 1: Conducting the Search

The quest for an interim executive is not a hyper-fast version of traditional executive search.

There simply won’t be time to cast a wide net and process a funnel of possible candidates, not to mention to unwind them from existing roles. In the past, executives worked connections of the board of directors, hoping to find an (often retired) executive who was willing to step in.

Now, there’s a new and growing group of talented freelance executives who are in the middle of their careers, independent by choice, and eager to tackle hands-on projects at top companies. BTG’s approach leverages this marketplace, and after more than 10 years of nurturing it, we are confident that we have the largest and highest-quality network in the US.

We also know who is available, what they are good at, what they love to do. We use this knowledge to generate a tight slate of two to three qualified, interested, and available candidates within a week. This jumpstarts the process and makes it pragmatic and real from the beginning.

We do this work with no upfront cost or obligation. The “downside” is simply this: we cannot generate an endless stream of candidates. We know our network well, and we can work quickly—very quickly—with insights that help clients pragmatically assess the fit of real, available people for a specific interim situation and role.

  • DON’T: Expect to see dozens of resumes or to interview more than 3-4 candidates.
  • DO: Work your own networks and turn to BTG to extend those networks. Be thrilled if BTG’s slate of candidates is very small and tight, if, in fact, it is well aligned with your interim need. This one of the best ways to move quickly.

Step 2: Creating Job Specs

Interim roles and responsibilities are not the same as your permanent job description.

The need for interim leadership typically arises from a special situation that colors the immediate context in which he or she will operate. An important transformation might have gone off course; a business unit may be preparing to spin off from the parent company. Often, these moments call for extraordinary actions or a significant re-prioritization of more “regular” business responsibilities.

That’s why BTG’s approach focuses intensely on the situation at hand, and—most importantly—on the work that must be done by the interim executive and the team in the next three to five months. This work might involve overseeing the normal course of business, but it typically requires something different or additional.

In fact, many clients come to see the interim period as much as an opportunity as a challenge. There is the chance to reset, or to unite around a simplified focus point, or to get an important atypical piece of work done to prepare for the arrival of a new permanent exec. BTG helps clients prioritize and streamline the must-have attributes of an interim. And we do a careful reality check on the culture and style requirements that the immediate moment requires rather than those desired for the long term.

  • DON’T: Recycle the job description you used for the former CXO or the one you plan to use for the permanent search. Don’t let yourself envision the interim as a perfect plug providing “magically continuous service” for the gap.
  • DO: Be prepared for BTG to pose some radical or unexpected questions to help you reconsider the main priorities of the iCXO for the coming months. We may also suggest that you adjust the work of the organization during the interim period.
  • DO: Consider pausing some longer-term or high-change initiatives, including other key recruits, for a few months.
  • DO: Think about giving short-term “battlefield promotions” to trusted or rising star leaders in the organization to help cover workflow or accelerate the completion of key projects. Then, make sure you support those acting leaders, either by pairing them with a skilled part-time advisor and/or simplifying their job description by carving out some project work to tackle on the side with a consultant.

Step 3: Interviewing and Selecting Candidates

Clarify and streamline the selection process before you begin.

Your top goal is likely to move quickly. Of course, you also need to be smart and get buy-in from the right people. But you’ve got a gap right now, and taking more than two weeks to interview prospective candidates will significantly diminish your chances for success. The search for an interim executive is not usually a moment for consensus—it is a moment for ruthless prioritization around the most critical needs.

  • DON’T: Allow all stakeholders to weigh in with nuance over the course of the interview process. This frequently adds little value and can significantly clutter the process.
  • DO: Identify the primary decision maker (for an iCEO, typically the Board Chair) and a small committee of two or three others who will do interviews. Prepare those people uniformly with the job description you’ve created and align on goals.
  • DO: Coordinate schedules for interview and debriefing times up front—even before the candidates are presented.
  • DO: Manage other stakeholder expectations. Not everyone will get to be part of this decision or meet the iCXO before his or her selection.
  • DO: Expect to make explicit tradeoffs in selecting your interim CXO. You’re looking for the most pragmatic option, unless you’re prepared to limp along with an open position.

Step 4: Determining Compensation

Do not expect a bargain. Remember to think big picture when it comes to fully loaded compensation comparables and, more importantly, the value to your business of not having a gap.

Interim executives are more expensive than permanent hires, certainly on a cash comp basis. Why? Because they are coming in on short notice, for an open-ended period, to rescue what is likely a complex situation. Typically, interim executives are not around long enough to justify bonus or equity compensation. You also won’t be paying for many indirect employee expenses like benefits or recruiting.

  • DON’T: Compute a comparable annual salary and give yourself sticker shock at the front end of the process.
  • DO: Expect, on a direct cash comp basis, to see an annualized salary that looks significantly higher—by 50% or more—than the base salary of the outgoing exec. Remember, though, that you’re only paying this person for as long as you need his or her services. BTG’s model also enables you to taper or turn off the expense as soon as your permanent solution is in place.
  • DO: Think of this expense as a special, one-time situation with a total project cost, as opposed to a permanent change in the operating economics of the business. And consider the value of not losing momentum against goals, over-taxing remaining team members, and putting critical operations at risk.

Step 5: Making the iCXO Successful

Set up clear expectations and manage the situation mindfully.

Onboarding an interim executive requires perhaps even more attention than onboarding a permanent exec. Your Board must communicate its full support; you must also give the iCXO’s team clear, simple, confident messaging, not just at the beginning but throughout the interim engagement.

  • DON’T: Expect that the board’s role will lighten up fully once an iCEO is in place; ongoing support will be needed. Ditto for other interim C-suite roles.
  • DO: For interim CEOs, appoint a small, clear oversight committee (or just the Board Chair) and agree to a calendared rhythm for check-ins and adjustments so that you can work in close partnership during the interim period.
  • DO: Use BTG as a neutral resource to help problem solve, convey messages, or offer additional suggestions or solutions during the engagement.

Today’s interim leaders are a more powerful, flexible, and time-efficient resource than ever. Manage your expectations and process, and you’ll be amazed by how much they can accomplish.

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About the Author

Sandra Pinnavaia

Sandra Pinnavaia is BTG's EVP and Chief Innovation Officer. She brings over 25 years of experience as a business leader, management consultant, and trusted advisor, and she drives the development of the company’s enterprise relationships with top clients.

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