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Reflections of an Interim CEO

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Tim Ficker, Managing Principal, Trilogy Consulting

In my brief five-year career as a leadership consultant and executive coach, I have had the opportunity to do four interim CEO/Executive Director gigs.  These four- to six-month engagements have allowed me to keep my feet on the ground and my convictions about leadership ‘real’ as they say.

Have you ever wondered how long it’s been since the author of the latest greatest book on leadership actually led a team of people in some challenging endeavor?  Interim organizational leadership is a refresher course, a laboratory, and the leadership equivalent to a “Leadership” Consultant that Naked and Afraid is to the self-acclaimed survivalist.  It forces one to put all those nifty principals we espouse to work day after day with real people in real, often messy, circumstances.

Not many Interim CEO jobs are as messy as the one I recently stepped into and about which my next series of blog posts will be written.  The call began something like this: “Hello, Tim, my name is _______ and I am the Liquidating Trustee for “XYZ” CCRC, just appointed by the bankruptcy judge to find a new owner for this five-hundred-and-eighty-unit community, which is about half full and needs significant capital improvement.  I was told you could help me to manage the operations in the meantime.”  But wait [I wanted to say], I’m a consultant now, I write about how to run organizations, I come in for a few days, tell you how to fix everything, and then leave with a check.  I don’t actually slap on a name badge, roll up my sleeves and work with the team to implement my leadership principals anymore! [I wanted to say…]

But, I didn’t say that.  What I said was far more cowardly: “I would be happy to take on this intriguing assignment for you, but I am just transitioning my consulting practice and could really only commit about fifty percent of my time due to other client commitments.”  I knew that would not be adequate time for such a challenging situation and I could then magnanimously refer him to a couple of colleagues. “Sounds great! Can you start next week?” was his reply.

Seven weeks later, I find myself immersed in one of the greatest and most interesting challenges of my career, with the considerable hopes and expectations of several hundred residents and employees weighing heavily on my shoulders.  On Day Two of this assignment, I was introduced to those residents and staff members by the President of the Residents’ Council and then, somewhat unexpectedly, was handed the microphone.  So, I pulled out one of my go-to pieces of advice for newly-appointed leaders of organizations in distress…

The Four “L’s”

I told them that organizations facing hard times naturally have unrealistic expectations of new leaders and that it was my practice in new leadership positions to be committed to “The Four “L’s” for about six months.

Look!  Be very observant, take note of everything you see, especially those things that don’t seem quite right.  Write it all down for future reference so you won’t forget.  Keep in mind the reality that you will never be as objective and clear-sighted as you are on Day One.  Every successive day, you lose a bit of that fresh perspective and you become institutionalized, seeing things from an increasingly biased viewpoint.

Listen!  Listen to the voices all around you.  How do people speak to their colleagues?  How do they speak to clients, customers, residents, or patients?  Is their tone of voice different with their employees than with their supervisors?  Ask simple, straightforward questions.  Ask the same questions of several people.  And then, be quiet and listen.  Really listen.  And, re-state what you heard to confirm that you heard it correctly.

Learn!  Learn as much as you can in the early days about a) the history of the organization and particularly the recent years, b) the histories of the staff members you will work with most closely – their career paths, their families or their favorite non-work activities (if they wish to share), their favorite job, their best boss, their experience in their current role – c) the reasons for the transition that brought you into the organization, d) the reputation of the organization among people outside the organization, etc..

Don’t Leap!  If there has been trouble in the organization, they will want you to leap into action.  The customers will want you to fix the problems and the lack of customer service.  The employees will want you to fix their financial constraints, the cumbersome systems, the onerous policies, and their co-workers!  And, you will want to fix everything as soon as possible, so that everyone will think you are the best leader they have ever seen!  But Don’t!  Don’t leap, because, given some time for consideration, some better awareness of the potential “collateral” damage that your “fix” may actually cause, and some thoughtfulness about how others may benefit by the learning opportunities that a quick fix may rob them of, you will learn that if most of the problems could have been that easily fixed, they already would have been!

So, on Day Two of this current engagement, I eloquently explained the thinking behind The Four “L’s”.  Everyone nodded their approval and several approached me in the minutes and days after that introduction to voice their appreciation for the patient and sensible approach of the six-months plan.  I rode the wave of my wise leadership for the next ten days.  On Monday of Week Three, everyone wanted everything fixed…yesterday.

So, stay tuned, and I’ll let you know how that works out.