Guiding principles of successful interim leaders

Leading people is a tough gig. Stepping into the shoes of another leader for a short period without the authority of a permanent position makes the job even tougher.

As an acting manager, you’re accountable for the outcomes of the team without being responsible for setting the measures of success, team culture or the resources available.

While the principles of effective leadership may be universal, there are some that become increasingly important in short-term leadership roles. In my experience I have found that there are five key principles to being effective in these roles:

When filling in for an effective and well-respected leader, it’s tempting to mirror their approach.

While they may have many habits worth adopting, you have your own strengths, communication style and personality. Trying to be an out-going, fun-loving leader when you are an introverted, reflective person is a recipe for failure.

You can’t leverage your own strengths while you are trying to be someone else and your team will quickly recognise that you aren’t being genuine.

It’s important to openly acknowledge where your style differs from the previous leader and that while you are different, you respect their approach. Give your team an insight into your leadership style by calling out some of your strengths and weaknesses.

The gaps between you and the previous leader’s strengths offer an opportunity for others in the team to step up and lead.

People follow leaders who add value. The primary way established leaders do this is through the application of specific knowledge.

Specific knowledge is the knowledge that only someone who works/leads a given team has. These insights can take the form of technical knowledge of the product/service, understanding what makes the organisation tick or how to influence key stakeholders, to name a few.

As a new leader, you will find it difficult to add value based on your specific knowledge. However, you can turn this to your advantage.

Within the team, there will be a wealth of expertise that can fill the gap left by the previous leader. Combining this knowledge with your fresh perspective can improve decision-making and encourages increased input from your team. Increasing their input will promote greater ownership.

Demonstrate the value you bring as early as possible. One way to do this is to invest time upfront understanding the key challenges facing the team. Use your research and experience to develop new ideas that you can test with the team members either individually or as a group.

This effort demonstrates your commitment to helping your team move forward in times of uncertainty.

A common trap of temporary leadership positions is to delay key decisions and ‘tread water’ until the permanent leader returns.

Effective teams need forward progression. If their leader is treading water, why should they swim against the current?

Adopting the mindset that this is your permanent role has two benefits:

  • The team feel as though the expectations of them remain unchanged.
  • Your decisions will be based on what is best for the team long-term and not what will make the short-term easier.

This doesn’t mean you try and restructure the team or throw the current strategy out the window. But if it’s in the team’s best interest to make a decision now, do it.

A potential outcome of making decisions in an unfamiliar environment is that you will make mistakes. This is part of the job. The other part is owning the consequences of your decisions and taking steps to correct the negative impacts.

Effective leadership requires productive relationships. Productive relationships require trust.

As an interim leader, you only have a short window to establish trust. This means building relationships should be one of your highest priorities immediately after taking on the role. Even if your time as a leader is only a couple of weeks.

There is a range of approaches for starting to develop these relationships:

  • formal meetings e.g. scheduled one-on-ones
  • informal catch-ups e.g. coffee
  • team meetings e.g. scheduled meetings with an agenda
  • informal team activities e.g. lunch

Spending time with your team will allow you to learn about their individual qualities beyond their professional skills.

The reasons they work in their current role, what they enjoy (or don’t) about the job and hobbies outside of work are essential pieces of information for understanding what they need from a leader.

To understand what makes a person tick takes more than a look at their LinkedIn profile.

Some of your team may want guidance and instruction. Some may want greater independence. Whatever it is, understanding what each of your direct reports is looking for in their leader is essential to the team’s success.

Taking over a new team in an unfamiliar environment can be overwhelming. There is so much to learn while at the same time, you need to continue to deliver on the range of commitments that you didn’t make.

To prevent becoming overwhelmed, separate your to-do list into what’s important and what’s urgent.

Ultimately, there will only be 2–3 things that will be essential for achieving 80% of what’s expected from you.

These few things, if done well will keep the returning boss happy.

Establishing what’s important also allows you to direct the time, energy and resources to the right areas. Potential methods for prioritising including asking the team and permanent leader the following questions:

  • What outcomes are most critical?
  • If you could wave a magic wand and fix one thing, what would it be?
  • Are there multiple outcomes that are dependent on one initiative?
  • What do you think is the biggest risk to our success in the short term?

Combining the answers to these questions with your own reflections, write down the top outcomes that need to be achieved. Share this with your team and ensure that your daily to-do list is focused on these outcomes.

Simplifying the outcomes for yourself and your team provides clarity and purpose to your time as a leader, no matter how short that may be.

The challenges of building your credibility, adding value and achieving the required outcomes, as an interim leader is a great training ground for future leaders.

While the fundamental principles of leadership apply in both temporary and permanent roles, leading in your own style, demonstrating the value you bring, decision-making, building trust and separating the urgent from the important become increasingly important the shorter the role.

Aspiring stoic and strategist with an interest in leadership, history, and decision-making.

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