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When Elson S. Floyd died of colon cancer in 2015, he had been serving as president of Washington State University for eight years. Daniel J. Bernardo stepped in as interim president and served for a year. He was provost at the time and had also started in that position as an interim. He learned some lessons in his interim roles and is naturally interested in the role of presidents, provosts and others serving in temporary positions in higher education.

He’s written a guide for those who may be thinking about taking on an interim role: The Interim: A Guide to Transition Leadership in Higher Education (Washington State University Press). The book features step-by-step analyses of the issues facing an interim leader. Bernardo is an advocate of acting like a permanent president in the role of interim and not letting issues linger for the permanent president to eventually handle.

He responded to questions about the book via email.

Q: Who makes a good interim leader for a college? What kind of qualities should a college look for?

A: Successful interim leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and employ many different leadership styles. In general, the same qualities that make a good leader also apply to interims; however, some qualities that stood out as important for interims were:

  • Experienced: Experience provides credibility and allows leaders to quickly assess complex organizational situations.
  • Selfless: Interim leaders must be motivated to serve the organization, not themselves. Since a key role is to pave the way for the next leader, they need to possess the attitude “It’s not about me—it’s about the organization.”
  • Excellent communicator and collaborator: Communication is always important, but it is particularly true for interim leaders, who must listen well and quickly establish relationships.
  • Good administrative instincts—Interim leaders need to be able to assess situations quickly, but they also need the confidence to process this information and respond.

Q: Should an interim leader not be a candidate for the job permanently?

A: I don’t think that anyone should be ruled out for an interim position because they may want to be a candidate for the permanent position. Some universities have policies preventing interims from applying for permanent jobs, but I don’t see the wisdom in these restrictions. Obviously, such policies reduce the pool of qualified candidates available to serve in an interim role. Also, an interim role provides both the candidate and organization an opportunity to assess their suitability for one another. Sometimes people accept an interim role for which they have no long-term interest, only to find out they actually enjoy the work. Therefore, it is useful to have that option available.

Q: More colleges lately seem to be picking an interim leader for two years, not just the time to find a permanent leader. What do you think of this trend?

A: I like it. The principal thesis of this book is that interim leaders should not be placeholders but should lead boldly and in a manner similar to a permanent appointee. To the extent that appointing an interim leader for a two-year period provides more credibility and a longer period to execute a plan of action, these longer appointments can be positive for the organization.

Interestingly, my research for the book found that while most appointments were intended for a one-year duration, the average appointment is significantly longer. Universities are filled with “interim” leaders whose appointments have been extended several times beyond the original agreed-upon time period. In fact, over half of the interim leaders interviewed for the book were hired with the expectation of a one-year appointment, only to serve for two or more years. So, perhaps being more intentional by declaring a two-year appointment from the start is a more effective strategy.

Q: Should an interim restrict him or herself to the budget and crisis areas? Or focus broadly on the needs of the university?

A: Again, the primary thesis of this book is that interims should lead with an action imperative and continue to move forward on all major initiatives of the unit. The simple fact is that given the prevalence of interim leaders and the longer duration of these appointments, most universities commonly have several interim leaders in place at any one time. “Treading water” for extended periods of time will result in lost opportunities and have long-term detrimental consequences to the unit.

Like any new administrator, there will be areas requiring the attention of an interim. It is important that the interim dean gain a clear directive of these areas from the provost and that the provost communicate these areas to the internal and external stakeholders. The No. 1 piece of advice from interim leaders interviewed for the book was to make certain their boss had their back. People are going to challenge the interim dean’s authority and resolve, so it is critical that the provost provide unwavering support.

Q: When an interim succeeds a leader who was unpopular or controversial, what can the interim do to smooth things over on the campus?

A: The frequency of interim leaders following unpopular or controversial administrators appears to be increasing. Many interims inherit significant personnel, programmatic, financial and/or morale issues that require immediate attention. In the book, I refer to these as “clean up the mess” interim positions. Skilled interim leadership can transform this time of turmoil and transition into an opportunity for the organization to redefine itself. It is imperative to lead decisively and with an action imperative. Some strategies for interim deans that find themselves in this position are to take time to listen, gain clear support for an action plan from the provost, communicate the action plan to all levels of the organization, quickly identify any “land mines” and avoid them, and seek early wins to build confidence and credibility with your team. The book includes a model for a 30-day action plan for the initial month of the appointment which allows interims to hit the ground running and be very intentional in addressing priorities.

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