Need a leader now? These are the 5 key traits your charity’s interim CEO should have

5 key traits your charity’s interim CEO should have

Louise Beales, Head of the Charities Practice, explains which 5 traits charities should be looking out for if they are considering an interim CEO

So your charity’s CEO has just resigned. Perhaps they have accepted another role or maybe they are pursuing a career as a non-executive director. They could be stepping down for retirement or perhaps their performance was a concern and the Board is leading the change. Whatever the reason, few charities can afford to operate without a leader at the helm. Many will seek out an interim to ensure there is continuity in leadership or to address a specific issue – such as an organisational restructure or strategy refresh –until a permanent CEO is appointed. Others use it as an opportunity to take a step back, appointing an interim in order to get an objective perspective around how they could improve.

In these situations, finding a candidate with previous experience as a CEO is not always essential. Whilst the Board may find comfort in hiring a candidate who has been there and done it, more important is finding an individual who aligns with the culture of the organisation, whose expertise matches the brief in hand and critically, who comes equipped with a suite of skills that enables them to lead an organisation for a fixed period of time. With that in mind, these are the 5 key traits you need to look out for in an interim CEO:

1. A good listener

Getting the ‘lay of the land’ is imperative for any interim leader. They need to have the confidence to walk the floor and very quickly build a picture of the current state of affairs. This is an individual who can tease out the good and the bad, with the aim of building trust with different teams and different personalities. This will enable them to pick up on any pain points, identify areas of improvement and report back to the board on what’s working and what’s not. 

Often viewed as an ‘outsider’, an interim CEO will always start on the back foot in this capacity. It is therefore critical that they are an individual that is just as good at listening to the workforce, as they are at leading it. 

2. People management and leadership

A leader who understands people in all their many guises is already a step ahead. As an interim CEO, they need to have high levels of emotional intelligence and be someone who can ’read a room’.

When an individual is leading for a fixed period of time, they need to very quickly gain an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of those they’re leading. This is someone who can improve relationships between colleagues, move people into different roles for improved performance and make smart hiring decisions. They may have previous experience implementing a development programme in line with strategic goals or restructuring an organisation for greater efficiency.

3. Stakeholder relationship

There may be a disparity between what the Board wants for the charity and what the CEO desires for the direction of the organisation. This requires an individual who has a strong ability to influence and persuade those that they report into. They will need to have the conviction to advocate their own decisions but be adaptive enough to not come across as uncompromising.

Whilst experience of managing a Board is not essential, experience of managing senior stakeholder relationships is. 

4. Communication

If an interim CEO is brought into the organisation, the workforce is likely to feel nervous about the appointment. The individual therefore needs to be a highly visible and very present leader who can engage with employees on a personal level. Not only should they be excellent at communicating with the workforce, but they should also be able to interpret what they’re hearing on the front line and relay it back with constructive insights to multiple stakeholders.

This individual could have previously been a chief financial officer who led siloed departments across a business or implemented a matrix structure. Alternatively, they might have been a marketing director who had brought together multi-disciplinary teams to formulate a marketing campaign. Whatever the individual’s experience, they need to be able to evidence a strong ability to collaborate across multiple functions.

5. Strategic thinking

‘Where are we going?’ and, ‘how are we going to get there?’ are two questions an interim CEO should ask and be able to answer. In their position, they are going to need to bring a clarity of purpose to the organisation in a very short period of time and they should therefore be able to define what it is that the organisation is trying to achieve and identify the route to getting there.

The ideal candidate is someone who has reviewed an organisation’s strategy against a given timeline, supported the development of a new set of strategic objectives or overseen a restructure in line with a new set of goals. This could be someone who has previous experience in organisational change, financial sustainability or brand positioning.

Importantly, the interim CEO can play a critical role in the transition to a permanent replacement. They will be able to support the Board in defining the profile of the new CEO and help choose a leader who aligns with the charity’s strategic outlook. As a board, this period of transition should be treated as an opportunity to take the charity forward. Whilst change can be feared, more of the same is often the hallmark of failure. An interim will offer new perspectives, bring new ideas and challenge the status-quo; and they will do it all with the aim of leaving the charity in a better state than they found it.


David Boydon at 30/04/2019 09:31 said:

I think this piece offers a really useful and incisive overview of interim leadership as a whole.

Many thanks

Charles Darley at 30/04/2019 13:49 said:

This is an excellent piece. Absolutely correct in every respect.

Ewan Shinton at 01/05/2019 11:12 said:

A refreshing and motivating article reinforce my own thoughts. As a leader with the ambition to secure an interim CEO role these insights are invaluable , thank you.

Richard Kozlowski at 05/05/2019 09:48 said:

Great article Louise

Paul Atkinson at 03/09/2019 12:16 said:

Just come across this excellent article, somewhat belatedly. Thanks Louise; very thought provoking and it has given me food for thought with regards to potential Interim appointments in the future.

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