Critical Strategies for Interim Leaders

Interim leadership: It’s a big job, but somebody has to do it. And there’s too much at stake in healthcare today for an interim leader to simply keep the seat warm. It’s not uncommon for hospital boards to charge interim leaders with much more than maintaining the status quo while they search for the next permanent leader. But how can an interim leader expect to make a positive impact on the organization in such a temporary position?

A matter of mindset

Herb Dyer, a healthcare executive veteran who held various leadership roles at Ascension for more than 11 years before starting his own management consulting firm in 2017, says it starts with mindset.

“An effective interim leader is someone who walks into a situation not labeling it as a short-term gig,” he says. “You go in knowing a timeline, but you can’t know if that timeline will remain intact. Walk into an interim leadership role thinking that you could end up being the permanent leader.”

That mindset can help you commit yourself to the organization’s mission and vision.

It’s also important for any incoming leader to have clear expectations before accepting a position.

“What’s expected and what actually happens sometimes can be very far apart,” Dyer says. “A lot of that has to do with clarity, or lack thereof, around expectations. With organizations that are very well run, there’s more likely going to be a clear understanding of what those expectations are.”

When you’re dealing with organizations that aren’t as well run, he says, the burden often falls on the interim leader to make sure those expectations are explicit as possible—and as early in the process as possible.

Typical expectations for an interim leader range from “holding the operation together” to being a change agent. Most often, it’s a combination of the two: “While you’re holding the operation together, you can also assess the organization and look for areas of obvious need to address,” Dyer says.

The longer the timeline—a year, for example—the more likely it is that the organization will ask the interim leader to perform a full assessment and make changes as they go. 

Whatever the timeline, Dyer says it’s important not to get deterred by the temporary nature of the position. “Whatever the opportunity, you can chip away at it even if you’re not able to see the project all the way through.”

The right style for interim leadership

Taking an interim leadership position is not the time to flex your authoritative leadership muscles. While there may be situations where that’s necessary, in Dyer’s experience, a collaborative, listen-first approach works best for interim leadership.

Before starting your interim position, research the organization’s mission, vision and most recent strategic plan. “I would do my homework to understand accomplishments on that plan to date,” Dyer says.

Then, the first 30 days should be about observation—learning, meeting people, listening to them and getting to know the key stakeholders. “This is definitely not the time to be a bull in a china shop,” he says. “It’s important to build trust. It takes a long time normally, but people will recognize in the short term that you’re trustworthy if you go in with that collaborative style.”

In addition to trust, interim leaders should also work quickly to establish credibility and accountability. Dyer suggests making a 90-day plan, based on initial observations, and sticking to it as much as possible. Also, spend a lot of time having face-to-face conversations.

“Ask questions, don’t give solutions,” Dyer says. “As an interim leader, one of your biggest roles is facilitating and coaching the process, allowing existing team members to be the ones who bring the solutions to the table.”

For more leadership tips for interim executives, check out the June 2019 HealthTechS3 webinar The First 90 Days of a Healthcare Executive. In it, Michael Lieb, vice president of interim services for HealthTechS3, shares more about how new executives should tailor their leadership approach depending on whether the position is permanent or temporary.