6 Leadership Lessons for Interim CEOs
This year’s holiday gift to the next wave of up and coming CEOs is a six-pack of leadership secrets. They’re based on what I learned as an Interim executive, helming companies in distress. If business is a sport, Interim leadership is the extreme version. But here’s the bottom line: as with any endeavor you put your all into, it’s as much what not to do as what to do.
What I’ve found is that to lead effectively, you have to focus on the essentials. As an interim executive I have to do a lot in a very short period of time: I am usually brought into a high stakes, high pressure, short time frame situation, where I start running the company as soon as I touch down. It’s not time to focus on the extraneous, or second-guess either your own role — or what you do or do not know. It’s time to square your shoulders, roll up your sleeves, and get to work.
Here are 6 keys to getting the job done:
1. Mission alone means nothing.
Being appointed Interim leader doesn’t qualify you for anything on its own: you won’t get anywhere, mission-wise, without gaining the trust of those you’ll be working with. The VPs may find it hard to take orders from an Interim, let alone why you’re in that CEO seat to begin with. The managers may be used to operating despite perceived dysfunction. The employees may be inherently skeptical and unused to being heard. Surprise them all by listening to them.
2. Don’t be a corner office despot.
I often quote Tom Peters, whose book, In Search of Excellence, offers the apt phrase “management by walking around.” You have a lot to learn about this company that’s just been entrusted in your care. You won’t learn it by sitting at your desk. You can’t lead by staying in your office. Leading is an active verb that has to do with the company and the people you are heading up. So get on your feet and start wandering around, and never stop asking questions.
3. Don’t cover your ears.
The last thing you want to hear when you start talking is “No, that won’t work,” or “No, I don’t want to try that.” But get over it and let them talk. A stressed company is often filled with anxious employees. As a leader, you have to be able to reach people on an emotional level to gain their trust, respect, and cooperation (all of which you need if you’re ever going to hear a yes). So stay calm, quiet your urge to counter the negativity, and listen. I let them express their opinions and make sure they know it’s safe to do so. On a practical level, their opinions are going to give me a lot of information as well.
4. Don’t worry about what you don’t know.
Domain is overrated. I’ve learned this and I’m continually having it confirmed. When I was at Styrotek, a company that made shipping containers for produce, I had no idea how to make a Styrofoam grape mold. Did it matter? Not one bit. The company was at a standstill, hemorrhaging millions. I drew on my managerial, financial and production experience to develop an outside perspective and decide on a course of action. And I consulted with those who made the product to ensure the solution worked.
5. Don’t lead by proxy.
Not to be dramatic, but as a leader you always have a target on your back; it’s practically a flashing neon sign when you’re an Interim CEO. Among the many signs of weakness (besides obvious vacillation and indecisiveness) are sending others to make your case. So make yourself known, and not via representatives. Direct contact is key — and it’s critical to being perceived as authentic. I don’t just speak to the upper level, and then send VPs to transmit my message down the pipeline. That’s a palpable sign of detachment, and will erode any sense of trust or respect for your leadership.
6. Don’t cut corners thinking you’ll get back to it.
As a leader there are always decisions you can make and actions you can take quickly, and those you can’t. It’s magnified with an Interim CEO, who is expected to perform strategically and effectively in far less time. So don’t skimp on quality, and don’t bunt just to make a play. For every action, there’s a reaction; for every decision, a range of consequences — and no matter how informed you are, you may be in for some surprises. Always keep the long-term top in mind.
Three decades on the front lines of organizations in flux have confirmed my sense of what works for leaders, and what doesn’t. Turns out, what works is leading with a sense of quality, a striving for excellence, a genuine respect for people, and an acceptance that no CEO is an island. Keep your focus on substance, transparency, and good communication – and hopefully, I won’t have to take over your company some day.
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