Place Holder or Leader: What’s the Interim’s Role?

Copyright V2Soft.IT Solutions

You don’t need me to tell you this, but in 10 months the workplace has changed fundamentally. Human interaction is reduced. At my organization, spontaneous hallway conversations are rare, and many people are only seen via a screen. And, if you’re lucky to have a face-to-face conversation, the most interactive portions of your colleague’s faces are covered. Hurried writing via email or Google chat complicates communication, creating endless email chains where once a single face-to-face conversation sufficed. Add to that, some people don’t read because they’re busy or stressed, some comprehend poorly or put off reading ’til late in the day, and by then whatever mini-crisis has passed without their input.

Imagine that into all of this steps an interim leader. I became one in July, but as staffs shrink across the museum world, there are many taking on new positions in addition to their old ones. So what’s an interim’s role? Is it simply as place holder, making sure the program, department, museum or library doesn’t burn down before the real director arrives? As an interim are you expected to lead or simply to supervise? Should you have a point of view?

I’ll be honest, organizational vision was not at the top of my list this summer when I stepped into a leadership role. COVID pushed pretty much everything off the table as we worked to figure out how to open a library, archives and special collections while also keeping our community and ourselves safe. But we figured it out, and while COVID continues to escalate, we are blessedly free of illness. Most importantly we have an operational template that seems to work; however, our search for a new director is stalled again so is it time for some vision?

As I’ve probably shared, we are working through a series of workshops led by an experiential education leader to help us communicate better with one another. The team has worked without me until now, outlining communication issues and strategies it wants to address. Currently they’re utilizing Henry Cloud’s The Power of the Other. Cloud describes four “corners of connection,” places we go, and modes of behavior we adopt that range from isolationist to a permanent feeling of imposter syndrome, to folks who need to be bathed in adoration more or less permanently. Corner four is the place we all want to be, with people who connect from an authentic but vulnerable place.

So is there room for interim organizational vision in a workplace operating in the midst of a global pandemic and beset with some typical workplace communication issues? Sometimes an organization hires an interim precisely so it can institute change without having it affect the permanent leader. And sometimes it hires an interim to hold the fort until a permanent replacement is found. If the choice is binary, we fall more into the latter category than the former. So…the vision thing? Should someone who’s holding the fort have a vision? I’m going to say yes, particularly since our organizational sense of self wasn’t rock solid to begin with. And what’s my vision? To begin with, that we should take joy in the good work we do together, and through the work to create a culture built on kindness, empathy and learning agility. Second, to stop seeing ourselves as victims. We don’t need a new director to fix some imaginary set of faults, but instead to challenge us and help us become better at what we do. To prepare for that, we need a leader who puts connection first; who models it, who looks for it, who delights in it. We also need a leader who thinks in two time frames, strategies for the moment, and frameworks for the future. I hope for the short term I can be that person. And as a team we need to think that way because we’re not treading water. Everything we do lays foundations for future building.

So if you find yourself suddenly a temporary leader, even if it’s only to cover a maternity/paternity leave, here’s my two cents:

  • Diagnose what’s happening now, and look for ways to improve.
  • Be prepared to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions, and have uncomfortable conversations.
  • Know your program, department or museum’s DNA. Understand how “now” connects to the future.
  • Take care of your team. Help them self-reflect so they grow.

Sounds kind of like real leadership doesn’t it? It is. Interim leadership isn’t and shouldn’t be the poor stepchild of leadership. Unlike, permanent leadership, it has a beginning, middle and an end, but whether it’s two months or two years, it’s leadership. And once again, especially now, especially in museums everywhere, leadership matters.

Joan Baldwin

P.S. I want to give a shout out to my colleague Anne Ackerson’s new project. In collaboration with her partners, the wise and talented Dina Bailey and Gail Anderson, she has created The Resilience Playbook, an opportunity to work with all three to figure out where your organization should go next. Built around goals, plays, and self-assessment, it seems like the perfect tool to create change and leave the COVID swamp behind. Sadly, it’s available only for organizations. Maybe the version for individuals will show up in 2021?


One Comment on “Place Holder or Leader: What’s the Interim’s Role?”

  1. Denise McClean says:

    Joan, I always enjoy your columns. I achieved my director role after three interim stints when directors left for other opportunities. You are so correct on the role of the interim. On my first stint I was told to “just hold the fort”. Well, circumstances don’t always allow you to maintain the status quo. I had union issues, I had to fire a manager, I dealt with a harassment complaint and more. Holding down the fort still means making decisions, making improvements, and getting things done. It’s an important role and yes, it’s real leadership!


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