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interim executive leadership with Jane Garthson

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Have you ever seen this in an organization? Maybe the executive director or founding executive director leaves and they hire someone to replace them, but that person may last six or eight months because the transition is just too hard. It's too hard to take over from long-standing ED or a founding ED or maybe you are the ED and you're really struggling with how to create a succession plan where your organization can be in really good hands after you leave.

In today’s podcast, Jane Garthson, President of Garthson Leadership Centre and experienced interim executive director, will talk about how interim leadership can help nonprofits navigate change and organizational transition.

Myths that Jane wants us to walk away from:

  • Internal promotion is always beneficial for the organization. Most small organizations do not have a lot of people who are ready to step into an executive director role and promoting someone without enough skills and experience to handle an executive role can be overwhelming for the person and can have a negative impact on the organization.

  • Interim leaders are just like consultants. Executive consultants always give advice to organizations, but interim leaders not only give advice to the board but also become part of the management team that implements the goals and objectives of the organization.

Jane’s thoughts around Interim leadership

  • Navigating change An interim executive’s role is to help any organization have a smooth transition when there’s a need to recruit a new executive. Interim leaders make sure that the organization continues to operate and do its mission, that board members have the time to make decisions on the changes and to make the new executive successful in the role.

  • Managing relationships Being hired externally, not all people in the organization will like the interim executive. If the leader speaks the truth about an issue, it should be related to how it is affecting the mission and how it reflects the organization’s values.

  • Success Measures It is important that the board member and interim ED be always on the same page. It is the role of the board to make sure that the ED understands what is expected of them, but also listens when the interim ED has any suggested changes.

Favourite Quotes from Today’s Episode

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“Most small organizations do not have a lot of people who are ready to step into an executive director role, or it doesn't have to be the executive director, it could be the director of development or the CFO or whatever, but they just haven't got any depths, but may not even have a senior management team at all. And if they do have one person, well, does that one person wants the job of what does that say to everybody else? If that person is acting, why would anybody else apply? That's just a temporary thing till they get the paperwork done and that person's guaranteed the job.”

“An interim executive forces them basically to accept change and be resilient and ready for more change. New person comes, they're not fighting that same level of we've always done it that way. They've seen change and they've seen that some of it is at least starting to work. ”

Resources from this Episode

The Good Partnership


Cindy W.: Have you ever seen this in an organization? Maybe the executive director or founding executive director leaves and they hire someone to replace them, but that person may be last six or eight months because it, the transition is just too hard. It's too hard to take over from a longstanding ed or a founding ED or maybe you are the ED and you're really struggling with how to create a succession plan where your organization can be in really good hands after you leave.

Well, today's conversation, I found really interesting, cause I didn't really know this was a thing, but there's a whole community of practice and people who specialize in being interim executive directors because let's face it, there is a challenge for organizations where they go through some growing pains, during executive director turnover. And so that's what we're going to talk about today is how to manage that transition and how to think about what replacing an executive director looks like and how you can use that as a time to really tackle some of your organization deep-rooted challenges and lean into new opportunities.

I'm your host, Cindy Wagman. And you're listening to the small non-profit podcast where we bring you practical and down-to-earth advice on how to get more done for your smaller organization. You are going to change the world and we're here to help.

So today's guest is Jane Garthson who is the president of Garthson Leadership Center, and Jane is an experienced interim executive director, which means she comes into organizations who are going through that transition, has the hard conversations really does the difficult work of getting things in shape so that the next and hopefully more long-term executive director comes in to an organization that is ready to grow and be successful.

Jane has dedicated work and volunteering to create better futures for our communities and organizations, through values-based leadership and leadership services. She is a respected international voice on governance, interim executives, and succession planning for boards and CEOs. Jane is such a delight and I'm so excited to welcome her to the podcast. Jane welcome to the podcast.

Jane G.: I'm honored to be here. Thank you so much for asking me.

Cindy W.: It is my pleasure and I'm excited cause you and I have crossed paths a little bit over the years, but you approached me about this topic and I didn't really, I hadn't thought about it until then, but once we started talking, I got really intrigued.

So we're going to talk about interim executive directors and to me, that's always been, a happenstance of, okay, let's promote someone, our executive director leaves let's promote someone within, see how they do, but your approach is much more intentional. And so I'm going to frame that as looking at, looking at this opportunity when you do have leadership transition to bring in someone who's an expert at that transition period. And so I'd love for you to start just by talking a little bit about what that looks like for organizations, why this could be a really good time to seek interim leadership instead of testing, someone out for the long-term.

Jane G.: Thank you. I'm happy to do that. We are mostly being heard by smaller organizations. So I think at least if you're aiming at, I think many, larger ones have learned to listen to you as well. Most small organizations do not have a lot of people who are ready to step into an executive director role, or it doesn't have to be the executive director, it could be the director of development or the CFO or whatever, but they just haven't got any depths, but may not even have a senior management team at all. And if they do have one person does that one person want the job what does that say to everybody else? If that person is acting, why would anybody else apply? That's just a temporary thing till they get the paperwork done and that person's guaranteed the job.

Cindy W.: And I've seen that a lot, right? Like we have seen that. This is not, it's not necessarily what's in the best interest of the organization, right?

Jane G.: Not if you wanted a true applicant pool and you haven't got one person that's really been prepared and the board agrees that's a good person. Then they have a competition, it doesn't work well, and they are not aimed at the success of the next person, which is what an interim is there for, their personal success, which means probably not stirring the pot too much. If you want the board to hire you, do you speak truth to power as an interim cap? Because there's nothing stopping them.

Cindy W.: Yeah.

Jane G.: Do you finally get rid of that employee who has been taking up a desk and a salary spot forever? No, because that person's probably liked by many people on staff.

Cindy W.: Yeah. I liked that enthusiasm like this, that we went through the process and the choice was deliberate. And so what you do and other people do is you say, okay, we can be an interim ED solution, which what I'm hearing from you is better than opening up the applicant applications for the executive director and certainly placing someone within the organization as acting in or interim ED or leadership position.

And I really find that intriguing because there are things that an interim ED, like a professional interim ED can do, as you've mentioned a couple of them, but I'd like to dive in a little bit more that can help an organization fix some things before they bring in that superstar, permanent executive director.

So let's talk a little bit about the experiences you've had and the types of challenges organizations face that an interim position can address that, as you said, unlikely, someone who's vying for that position permanently.

Jane G.: Or it's unlikely that they would attract anybody with experience and the ability to handle whatever mess they've gotten themselves into. I can mention one where there was no staff. The CEO had been given the approval to hire, but never hands because she didn't really get into delegating. She had a thousand active volunteers, many of them, 24/7 working quite well with a team of volunteers. A facility that had just been renovated, but had no time left on its lease and no renewal in place.

Few other things I can't even mention because of legal and accounting issues. Yeah. So any professional? Yeah. They don't want to come into that situation. You're not going to find a qualified applicant who wants to do that. Who wants to clean that stuff? The likelihood is that they will manage. Yeah. There's just so much at once. And they're likely to be a first-time executive director and it will, it could be overwhelming. I personally felt like I'd stepped into the thick fog with no floor when I started working except the programs, which the volunteers were actually running quite successfully, but, there's more than one organization than running the program.

Cindy W.: Wow. Yeah.

Jane G.: So that's an example of one where if you bring somebody in, who may have given up a good job to take it they become an unintentional interim that doesn't last. The other, and by the way, this person was also a founder. And that's another situation where the person who follows a long-time, beloved founder, is not likely to succeed. They're going to get mad at every stage with us, not how we do that. That's not how she would have done that. We don't change. An interim executive forces them basically to accept change and be resilient and ready for more change. A new person comes, they're not fighting that same level of we've always done it that way. Yeah, they've seen change and they've seen that some of it are at least starting to work.

Cindy W.: I can think of so many organizations who really should have gone this route. I'd love to hear like you gave a very extreme example, but I want to balance, I want to talk about some of the more common things that you see in organizations.

And then I want to talk about your advice around managing change, because even if you're, whether or not you're going through this kind of transition, I think people have a lot to learn from you. So let's start by talking about the type, the most common areas of change that you've managed as an interim executive director or, or executive.

Jane G.: Finance comes up a lot. And so to people, because everything we do in the sector, it's done through people, whether they're volunteers or paid staff and frequently they're fairly toxic relationships. At that point, people were mad at the board for firing their friends, for example, the executive director had polarized the staff before leaving, locking into something where you're not wanted. You get told that explicitly, by the way, we don't want you here, by the staff,, we want so-and-so back, or we want somebody who's an expert in the program area, but most interims are not expert at all in the program area and do very different types of roles organizations or, the one I just described as a large-cap, had very little to do with running social service programs for, to develop leaders among that Aboriginal youth in Northern Ontario, the one after.

Cindy W.: Yeah. So there are some universal experiences. And I think that's the one thing I always say to our listeners. It feels like we're so alone in our experiences because we are smaller organizations, but what I'm hearing from you is these are challenges. There are. Things that are unique to specific organizations, but for the most part, you see this across the board

Jane G.: I do in the third area that almost always comes up is the relationship with that pers, the outgoing person had with their board of directors, whether they got along or not, whether the board stronger, weak, there were relationship issues that have to be resolved before. Before, it's really safe to bring in an in-person who's given up a good job and really wants to be a long-term success. What's the interim job to make them a success, to do everything you can, the co-facilitator the search process of, they want you to not without a vote of course, and clean up the areas of the organization that would deter people as people become familiar with the concept of professional interims. And we are forming an association for that, growing enough to that level in the US primarily. They start to realize it's strong boards that bring in interim boards that are willing to risk that stranger to risk the level of change, to risk the kind of analysis they're going to get after. But one month and interim should be presenting a report that says here's my analysis of the situation with my fresh eyes and hopefully with the support of the staff that takes given a lot of information and incorporates their ideas. And here's what I think my priorities need to be for the next three months, six months, whatever which may overlap the list the board gave you when you started, but it won't be the same.

Cindy W.: Absolutely

Jane G.: The board is not aware of everything that happens. And sometimes they have agenda items. So in the situation I described, which desperately needed hiring HR policies, finance clean up and sorting stuff out with landlords and all that kind of thing. One of the directors said the top priority is implementing Salesforce. There were no IT people in the organization.

Cindy W.: And yes, database and systems, I agree are very important, but not to the exclusion of these other areas

Jane G.: And may be able to initiate things like that. But that's a longer-term project. And quite honestly, the volunteer database was working wonderfully.

Cindy W. : Yeah, interesting and technology implementation, like in my experience, the transitions, like a year and a half to really set up things. That's not what you wanted. And in terms of priority

Jane G.: And for big changes without an IT staff. Yeah, that's pretty tough. So that's also going to be very costly because you'd have these external trainers, external people to convert. So that was accepted very well as, okay. That's not going to happen while you're here because you're looking at. Somewhere between five and nine months, I've heard of them going much longer. And I've heard of interims having to finally say to the board, look, I told you this was an interim and I didn't want to stay and it's been 18 months and you don't even have the ad out you have three months left before I leave.

Cindy W.: Yeah. It sounds like these interim professionals. Really impressive. And so I can understand

wanting to hold on to talent like that. Like I understand the things that you talk about doing in getting the organization shape. It's easy to understand why you want to continue along that path. If you're making important changes.

Jane G.: The interim wants to move on to the next job with a break between because these are exhausting which is why the network that we've been forming over the past few years, but there is a group of people you can turn to and say if you run into this, you think I should do on a confidential basis

Cindy W.: yeah that's so true that the burnout and the exhaustion and having the structure in place where you can build in that time between contracts is so valuable. And again, if you had that in house, Your staff would turn around and leave anyway, because they'd be so tired.

Jane G.: It's just that they'd, be so tired if there was a void and everybody would do more including the board, but how many board members do you know that will double or triple their contributions and time for nine months?

Cindy W.: No, especially. And I think that, so one of the questions I wanted to ask you is what are the signs, like it, do you think that every organization should have interim leadership when they go through leadership transitions, or are there specific scenarios where this is the best solution? And if so, what are those scenarios?

Jane G.: The scenarios where they don't need one or first if you really do have a terrific successor, who's waiting in the wings. It's not just the CEO or executive director or director of development, whatever recommending them. They've been dealing with the board, they've acted in the role already during vacations or illness. And. Why would you go through

Cindy W.: If your organization is in good shape and the outgoing ED gives time and notice so that they can hire someone, would that also be a circumstance?

Jane G.: That's the other main one where you shouldn't need it, because most of the time the executive director will be saying, in about a year, I'm waiting for retirement starts and starts to now figuring out what kind of person you need to replace me, don't rush out to hire. And yes, I'll be around, they can't predict either that's going to happen because we now talk about being hit by immediate or because we used to say hit by a bus, but then somebody in my group knew someone who's been hit by a bus. Yeah, but no one can predict. I was in one organization as a board member where they thought they had a really good succession plan in terms of an operational hand, not looking for the permanent job near retirement, and when the person, when the CEO actually left, it was at the same time the person had just discovered his wife was terminal he said I was on sabbatical and they had no backups that make sense. And they should have gone for an interim. And instead, they picked another internal person. It was not success to put it mildly, but they didn't seem to consider it. I joined the board about a couple of months after they'd put that person in place.

But yeah, but the new person we did hire ended up spending the first six months fixing up the problems the interim had caught, the acting person, not interim, have been very loose, but now it's coming, we not acting as somebody from within your organization who has a position to go back to, interim is outside, although it doesn't have to be way outside. So I hired an interim once because he just retired from a major funder of ours and already loved the organization.

Cindy W.: So you're having, a really difficult conversation, right? You were bringing up things that some people don't want to hear. There's a lot of people affected by your recommendations and assessment of the situation. I'd love to talk a little bit about how you manage that I, it strikes me as your position would be very polarizing.

Some people might love you, some people might hate you. How do you navigate that within organizations? Because I think we all struggle with those difficult conversations, whether or not we're interim position.

Jane G.: Part of what we're trying to do is bring the organization into alignment with its measurement values. So if you're speaking the truth about an issue, you should be relating it to how is this affecting the mission? How is this current problem not reflecting the values we agree to want to live by? And the solution I'm proposing would bring us closer to the alignment of the values and the difference with the consultant if you're there to implement or at least start. So this isn't the consulting role of here's some advice. This is what I'm proposing to do. And this is what the budget's based on that I've prepared for everything that would go with the long-term job in that sense, except that you have the time pressure. Oh, I want to get this done before that person starts which means, do a lot because you've got also, we'll keep everything else go away there. You better be getting along with key staff members. Mm, because you don't have the knowledge they have,

Cindy W.: yes, it sounds straightforward, but I don't think it's straightforward in practice.

Jane G.: No, but we've tried to make it methodical there's a methodical process. What you should know before the end, before the interview, before accepting what kind of documents information you'd want right at the start about 30 days to present this situational assessment and then three months plans as should go for what you're going to get done. So the board has not gone any surprises of what you're doing

Cindy W.: yeah, so you're basically very upfront that you're here to clean things up and uncover. But the challenges are the changes that need to happen to create an environment that someone will be successful in it for the long term

Jane G.: I'd only questioned the clean things up part because sometimes you're moving into a good organization, but they want time to think about what the next leader needs to be like and do a really good search. So you're not cleaning it up, but you are transforming as best you can into something that's even better. Yeah. When you look back and say, I made it better, but it's not about me. It's vote, whether they were able to hire a club and keep a great person yeah. succeeded in the role. So this is not a job for egotists. You need a level of confidence. Obviously to walk into this swirling fall or an organization where the staff greets you in on day one. We don't want you here. We want Jim back, which happened to me on my first one.

Cindy W.: How do you manage, the staff in that situation, knowing that they know you're not there for the long-term, they might harbor resentment for you being there in the first place. So we talked a little bit about managing the board's expectations and having clarity around what kind of outcomes they should expect and how what the process is of working with you. How do you manage the staff? Because as you said, that's actually one of the biggest areas that require your skills.

Jane G.: I can't stop myself from being a coach. I'm going to be asking you to do some things differently, but I'm not going to leave you on your own to figure everything out. I'm going to be there for you. I want you to still be here when the new person starts. And be ready to support them even better than you did your past boss. In other words, you do a great deal of listening with your mouth closed at first. Tell me more shut up because they have the wisdom, they have the knowledge. It may not have been directive the right way, but you're dependent on them. You can't be looking around and saying all these are a bunch of incompetence and we'll get rid of all of them. That's not going to work, besides, the community is going to tell you they are, the community's going to say we're thrilled with the services we get and we wish it would grow so we could get even more.

You're listening to the community, to the stakeholders, like your major funders. What do they want to see for the future and help shape, reshape some of the staff work? to shift it nudge it. Current terms that you're using. You're not expecting them to completely change everything they do, but you are sometimes saying, no, you will no longer produce checks without the payee and amount for example.

Cindy W.: Wow. Yeah, that's

Jane G.: the first one, I went to years worth of blank signed checks. Didn't you want to change the bank account information because they didn't need to.

Cindy W.: Wow.

Jane G.: Those were all shredded.

Cindy W. : That's scary. That's so scary. Wow.

Jane G.: There are things you have to insist on because no executive director is equally good at all parts of their job. Yeah. There are bound to be areas that didn't get addressed and that procrastinated about because of what that person was good at. We still don't have an HR manual, even though we're up to 17 staff, that kind of thing because it just didn't glare. So you can fix stuff like that relatively easily compared to change in the culture of saying how decisions get made.

Cindy W. : Yeah. And it, yeah, it really, it sounds like a very challenging job.

Jane G.: Yeah, the only people that are doing this are ones that there's satisfaction from overcoming a challenge. All three of mine, I can look back and say in all three cases, those organizations, weren't sure they'd survive. it's not survived with an office and staff, all volunteers. But all of them were left stronger. In one case, even during the interim assignment, I had to move to bigger office space because we'd expanded the program.

Cindy W.: Wow. That's amazing.

Jane G.: And that was a long interim assignment. That was one way they tried several times to get me to stay. And I didn't know that anything other people doing three years,

Cindy W.: Similarly, how I've known a few people who do this kind of thing, but it didn't know it was it was a whole sort of specialization, which I think is great. I want, yeah. I want to talk a little bit about how you transition. First of all, what are the signs that the organization is ready? To start to look for a permanent position. And how do you manage that transition?

Jane G.: Great question. Several parts.

Cindy W.: I know this is a big question

Jane G.: An executive search consultant will always tell their clients. No, we're not starting with writing the job ad. We're starting with looking at your strategic plan and what some of your partners and funders are looking at change. In terms of what they fund, what they do, what's the new environment going to be like. And what does that tell us for the kind of competencies that your executive director's going to need?

All of that list of competencies, which you've probably seen can grow to a shop list. What three are you really going to concentrate on when you're screening applications and your interview, the more you can decide in advance before there are some people in names in front of you, the better you want to be putting the job before you've clarified what role is. And that generally means we writing the job description as well so that you have something to give the candidate. So at that point, you may be ready to start finding out who's out, there. The transition, it's an explicit stage for the interim executive.

So the organization is ready, who's going to do what in this executive transition, who's going to introduce the new person to key stakeholders, starting orientation, what rules do you want the antrum to play? But it shouldn't really be lead. You're the one that's going to provide them with a report. I tend to do it in a table that says here's all the projects in process and the status of each one and who on the staff knows most about it and where are the finals on it?

They can look at that and decide their own priorities. They don't have to buy into yours, but at least they're not saying, were we doing something?

How does that looking at a better donor database? We haven't done, but here's what we figured out for user needs.

Cindy W.: How does that compare, to the situation you usually walk into, so you're talking about, I think what most people, when they're starting a new job would want to walk into, which is someone has put together all the information that they're going to need to think about the priorities.

Jane G.: I just want to myself as a sucker, because I think I'm the one that they call a look at it and say, no one in their right mind would take this one. Let's call Jane.