Interim Leaders: Proven Experts at a Time of Crisis

By Brian Krehbiel

In times of sudden change or instability, interim leaders can be the preferred solution for an organization, leveraging a range of skills and experiences to keep a company on course. This article explores the many benefits of interim leadership and for organizations of all sizes in today’s challenging business environment.

Setting the Stage

Even in the third year of the pandemic, the widespread impacts COVID has had on health systems continue to persist. Even today, the effects are still being felt at every level, with continuous pressure placed on staffing and finances for health systems of all sizes. This has led to widespread burnout among healthcare professionals, with over half reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office. Similarly, and just as unfortunate, the pandemic has delivered financial stress to health systems, as safety protocols forced mass cancellations of elective procedures and numerous factors caused unsustainable increases in labor costs. 

We’ve also seen dire staffing situations across the board, particularly in nursing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “more than 275,000 additional nurses are needed from 2020 to 2030. Employment opportunities for nurses are projected to grow at a faster rate (9%) than all other occupations from 2016 through 2026.”

To combat staffing shortages, some organizations have turned to promoting internally — and particularly in cases of leadership roles, perhaps even before some employees are fully prepared to advance. There is an intrinsic quality to promoting internally, of course, and it can also be viewed as a convenient, cost-effective solution initially, since the individual is a known, trusted colleague. The internal candidate might also be a more affordable option for the institution as compared to sourcing an external candidate on the open market, but these situations can often lead to underperformance in the role and inevitably be a decision that is viewed as regretful in hindsight. In the end, the organization is back to where it started, with an urgent vacancy and no long-term solution to fill the void.

Where Interim Leaders Provide an Advantage

Rather than sourcing an internal replacement who may not be ready for the role or taking a calculated risk to rush a hiring process to make a long-term appointment, interim leaders can be your solution. These seasoned veterans often come with decades of relevant experience and proven track records of success to step into difficult situations, filling immediate needs while providing boards and other executive leaders time to assess and strategize a long-term plan and source the perfect external candidate.

Boosted by decades of experience, interim leaders have honed their communication style, listening skills, and conflict resolution tactics, which are all essential in a healthcare setting. These individuals are often late-career or even recent retirees who have a strong urge to return to the workplace because of a commitment to helping patients. 

Coming into new environments, interim leaders can provide immediate benefits as a fresh set of eyes to an organization. These executives carry zero historical baggage that might be found in internal candidates while offering the emotional and strategic confidence to instill thoughtful change and guide organizations through difficult challenges. They can often bring a sense of rational calm to otherwise hectic situations supporting the best interests of the entire health system.

Since interim leaders serve in their roles short-term — eight months, on average — these individuals tend to be less concerned with internal politics, and thus, more confident in providing honest feedback and suggestions for improvements. Oftentimes, their valuable inputs can lead to changes that continue to improve the organization long after the interim leader has departed.

Short-term Leaders to Solve Long-term Financial Problems

Interim leaders can be effective, efficient solutions across the board. They bring stability and deliver high-quality work while mitigating the risks involved with a potentially poor internal hire. This is experienced, and especially critical, in the case of a chief financial officer (CFO) vacancy. Interim candidates who are proven, experienced financial leaders can have a direct, often immediate positive impact on an organization’s finances and strategic outlook.

Interim CFOs possess the skillset necessary to keep an organization’s finances on course, avoiding a situation where a vacancy leads to a cumulative backlog of tasks and priorities while the organization searches for the right permanent replacement. And like other interim leaders, they bring new perspectives to the role, allowing a fresh analysis of the finances without the weight of past experience on his or her shoulders.

When a CFO has been at the helm for years, if not decades, they can develop “tunnel vision” over time, neglecting new ideas or approaches and becoming complacent with the status quo. But when an interim CFO comes into the fold, it can be much easier for them to spot inefficiencies within the organization that can save money while redirecting the system toward a path of greater financial success. For example, it’s common for interim CFOs to renegotiate long-term debt, potentially saving organizations millions of dollars over time. 

Equipped with an expansive toolbelt from their range of experiences and an appreciation for the variety and challenges of interim work, these individuals can keep organizations on track even through turbulent times. 

What’s Next

As the aftermath of the pandemic continues to strain health systems’ staff and budgets, the value and importance of interim leadership is only going to continue to increase in the months to come. But in the bigger picture, it’s still too early to predict what lies ahead in 2023 and beyond. There are too many variables still at play to inform a prediction, which makes it all the more important that your organization features strong, competent and experienced leadership to guide you through the months ahead.

Additionally, the flexibility offered through interim leadership roles ensures the long-term stability of this area of search, providing value for all parties involved. If your organization is seeking a high-quality interim leadership hire, consider the benefits of partnering with WittKieffer. Our team possesses strong relationships across the entire healthcare ecosystem, offering a proven expertise in sourcing and cultivating the right talent for your executive leadership team.