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  • Writer's pictureJo Butler

To Interim or not to Interim? That's just the first question!

Whether to appoint an interim leader is an important strategic decision for any school, and one that Boards often need to make in a stressful context. Deciding to appoint an interim, however, is just the beginning, and the choice immediately leads to a host of angles and questions to consider. Before we get to what's next, let's review the most common scenarios that motivate schools to appoint a short-term leader:

  1. Unexpected Departure – An inclusive, comprehensive leadership transition that is aligned with the talent market can take a year or more to plan and execute, so what happens when an unforeseen circumstance (e.g., illness, death, scandal) ends the tenure of a Head? The school must work fast to find a leader – and not just any leader, but one who can shepherd the institution through an uncertain, emotional time.

  2. Existential Crisis – Every year, there are independent schools across the country that recognize they need to make dramatic changes to survive, and the pandemic has increased the pressure on many schools. They face agonizing choices as they seek a path to viability (and hopefully sustainability). If a school is near a tipping point when they approach a leadership transition, it may seek a strong, experienced, short-term executive who can make fast, dramatic changes in the name of saving the institution.

  3. Following an Iconic Leader – When a school says farewell to a leader who looms large in the institution’s history (e.g., a Founding Head and/or a particularly long-serving Head), it can be a challenge for the community to immediately embrace a new long-term appointee. A school may want a measured, empathetic leader who can guide the community out of the shadow of the former Head and bring a fresh perspective to the school, ensuring it is in the best possible shape to welcome a long-term appointee.

Note that regardless of the reason, an Interim Head is almost always required to helm a school under unique and challenging circumstances. Unpacking the essential context and mapping out a school's needs is just the beginning; once a Board has elected to appoint an interim, they often wonder what's next.

How do we explain this decision to our faculty and parents? How does the search for an Interim differ from a traditional Head search? Should we consider or encourage internal candidates? How might an internal interim impact the search for a long-term leader? What is the role of the outgoing Head in the selection of the Interim Head? What if the Interim Head wants to be considered for the long-term appointment? What is the role of the Interim Head in the selection of their successor, the long-term appointee? How does a school maintain fundraising and enrollment momentum during the interim's tenure? What are the pros and cons of appointing an interim to a two-year term? Are all Interim Heads retired Heads? How long does an Interim Head search take? How much does it cost? Does an Interim Head get paid the same as a permanent Head?

We have thought about all these questions and more, so if your school is wondering whether or how to appoint an Interim Head, we can help. We rely on heuristics and time-tested models to assess the situation (schools often need to move quickly in these situations), but we know that the map is not the territory. We partner closely with every client to learn about the unique culture of their school and the special dynamics of their situation before making any strong recommendations.

If you are interested in a free, confidential, non-judgmental consulting session about your school’s leadership transition – you need only drop us a line via phone, email, or Linkedin.

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