Being promoted to acting executive director can be an honor but comes with its fair share of stress. You are suddenly taking on a new set of high-level responsibilities while still trying to maintain your existing work. There’s a huge advantage to the organization to temporarily fill a position internally. It is a fairly fast and simple process, but there are significant challenges to overcome.
I recommend to boards that they bring in an outsider as interim director, especially when an executive director leaves unexpectedly or after a long tenure. An interim gives the board time to find a great candidate without rushing through the process. It provides an experienced executive director who can jump right in. Plus it gives the board their own internal consultant for the duration of the assignment. Yet often boards don’t feel like they have the budget to bring in an interim (even though the cost will be comparable to what they were paying the ED) and think existing staff can handle it. If you are in the situation of being designated the acting ED, what should you do?
(Note: I use the standard terminology of interim for a temporary leader who comes from outside the organization and acting for an existing staff person who is promoted to the position temporarily.)
First, you need to talk with the board about what is realistic. Boards often think executive directors don’t have much to do. There needs to be an extensive conversation about both what tasks the ED does and what you do in your current work. How will that combined list of tasks be reduced? Are there tasks you can delegate to someone else? Are there items that a board member can take on? What tasks simply aren’t going to get done right now? Which projects need to be delayed or put on the back burner? You’ll need to revisit this conversation after you are in the role for a while.
As you are discussing roles and responsibilities with the board, it is also important to talk about salary. Boards often choose to hire an acting director as a cost savings without considering whether it will cost more in missed opportunities and mistakes. With an internal person acting as ED, the organization is paying one salary instead of two and should raise the pay of the acting ED to the level of a starting ED salary. I’m amazed when they don’t.
I came in as an interim ED in an organization that had had an acting ED for four months. Before I started, the board told me about all the projects they wanted me to work on right away. Once I dug in, I found that there were far more pressing problems that I had to deal with around operational issues and financial matters. After two months of clean up, I was finally able to start addressing the board’s priority list. They had no appreciation for what it took to run the organization. (Which was obvious from their decision to let the program manager try to be the acting ED on top of her already stressful job.)
As you take on the role of acting ED, it is important to focus on building relationships above all. Get to know any staff members you don’t know well. Take time to talk with everyone individually about what this new role means for both of you. It will definitely shift the dynamics in your relationship as you are now “the boss”. Get to know other key partners and meet with each board member individually as well. Be sure to communicate regularly with all of them. This will build trust and let you move faster as you make key decisions as the acting ED.
Know What You Can Do
You also need to talk with the board about your level of authority. Because an acting ED is being temporarily promoted, boards often don’t want to give them much authority to make decisions. While the acting ED may not have the full authority of the permanent ED, making the acting ED run every decision by the board takes a significant amount of time. Consider setting some boundaries together. For example, the board could allow the acting ED to make purchases up to $500, as well as pay any already contracted bills but require them to go to the board for approval of unexpected expenses over that amount. Decide if the acting ED can make hiring and firing decisions. Related to this, decide who on the board is going to be your primary contact during this transition and meet with you weekly. At some organizations, this is the board chair, at others, it is the executive committee.
In addition, it is important that you and the board jointly decide what the goals are for you as the acting ED. What does the board want you to accomplish? If they don’t know, suggest your own goals that would move the organization forward. This is your chance to make meaningful changes in the organization. As an existing staff person, you have likely seen needed small improvements. You aren’t going to be able to make sweeping changes in your short tenure but leaving the organization in better shape will be appreciated by the permanent ED.
Being an acting ED is a difficult position to be in. To be successful, you will have to negotiate with the board and help them understand what they are asking of you. Whether you hope to be appointed as the permanent ED or not, you need to be ready to ask for what you, the staff, and your clientele need to make this a successful arrangement.
Finally, remember that you can say no. It doesn’t have to be you rescuing the organization. Boards often like the internal person because it is the easy choice but you can push them to look for a professional interim director or someone else in the community with experience leading organizations.
In an acting role already? Considering whether to take one on? Or are you a board member weighing these issues? Contact me for a complimentary and confidential discussion of the situation.