Barbra Kavanuagh headshot and title

S9 Insights: An Interview with Barbra Kavanaugh, Director of Interim Executive Network

As the nonprofit landscape changes and governance boards shift to increase their engagement and effectiveness, many organizations are facing changes in leadership. While CEOs are retiring or being replaced, and as boards plan for successions, it can be a challenge to keep a nonprofit running smoothly. That is why the role of Interim Executives is more relevant than ever; interim leaders provide seasoned expertise and create a platform for smooth transitions that increase the effectiveness of nonprofits in fulfilling their missions.

We discussed the value of Interim Executives with Barbra Kavanaugh, the Director of the Interim Executive Network, to provide insights on shifting leadership in nonprofits. Interim Executive Network is an organization whose mission is to strengthen nonprofit organizations experiencing leadership transitions by providing access to a network of experienced, professional interim executives.

What led you to establish the Executive Network?  

We started the Executive Network for two simple reasons:

  1. to provide a professional community of interim executives to hold up the highest standards of professionalism, expertise, and principes for nonprofits; and  
  1. to offer the nonprofit community a reliable source for experienced professional interims while at the same time educating the nonprofit community about the value of interim leadership.

In my experience as the Director and as an Interim Executive myself, I realized that many organizations did not have the best resources for sourcing and hiring interim executives, since there is no license required to market oneself as an interim. Interim Executive Network streamlines this process by providing a network of vetted and experienced interims for nonprofits to contact for services. 

As part of the effort to ensure the highest quality leaders, the Interim Executive Network requires all members to commit to two principles:

  1. They will never apply for the permanent job at the organization where they are an interim executive.

  2. They will maintain their relationship with the organization throughout the transition, within reason, usually with an average of three to nine months of engagement.

One of the real values that an interim brings to an organization is their ability to take a step back with an objective view and assess the organization to make recommendations based on better practices from their experience working with other boards and organizations. These principles allow interims to maintain a distance from the organization and remain objective about the processes, but bring as much value as possible through their transition. 

How does the process of hiring an interim through the Interim Executive Network work?

Interim Executive Network has two levels of membership: 

  • Brown Bag Membership 

This level includes folks who are currently building their interim practice or would like to learn more about their processes. These members engage with the network and each other to develop their skills and learn from resources available to them.

  • Referral List Membership

These members are vetted professionals who have experience as both an interim executive and a permanent executive. They apply for membership and once accepted, they pay a small fee to stay on the Referral List. 

When an organization is considering an interim executive, they reach out to me and provide the description of their needs. I then share the post across the Referral List members, who individually contact the organization with their interest in serving as an interim executive.

For nonprofit organizations, the process of distributing their need to the Referral List members of the Interim Executive Network is completely free. From there, it is up to the organization to coordinate with potential candidates to perform interviews and ultimately, hire an interim. However, the Network does provide online resources that include suggestions and advice for organizations through the hiring process. 

What are the key differences between a permanent and interim executive?

There are two major differences between permanent and interim executives: 

  1. Programming 

The Interim Executive Network does not fill positions to focus on specific subject matter. Our subject matter expertise is transitional management. We will rely on your program staff. We do not, as a general rule, really get involved with program development or strategic planning. We try to leave as light a footprint as possible and really set up the next ED for success. The purpose of their interim executive leadership is not to restructure an organization’s mission, but rather to analyze current processes and reevaluate them for maximum efficiency and effectiveness. 

  1. External Relationships

When it comes to external relationships, executive directors often harbor the relationships with donors and other external stakeholders as personal ones; This is not the case for interim executives. It’s important that donor relationships stay with the organization and not the interim, so we will often try to give staff more opportunities than they may have had in the past to be that external-facing person. The network prioritizes making connections and progress for the organization, not the individual. 

What are the greatest advantages of hiring an interim executive and how can it advance the practice of nonprofits?

There are three main advantages of hiring an interim, including the ways they can help nonprofit organizations improve their work: 

  1. They have the unique experience of a fresh perspective and new advice to evaluate the organization, but in a more embedded role than a typical consultant might take on. This is helpful not just for organizations having tangible issues, but for every organization, since there are likely practices that can be fixed and reevaluated in all nonprofits. These discrepancies might not be noticed by those already within the organization, or permanent executives might not have had time to address them previously, but interims can hone their focus on perfecting the processes.  
  1. Interim executives can ease the transition and the feeling of change for employees. As an interim, I take all this anxiety around change with me. That way, the new executive director has a fresh start.”\ The interim executives do not create the new systems, but they get people used to the idea of change and show them it can be really positive so the permanent executive is set up for ease and success.
  1. They can prepare an organization to take on a permanent executive who might still be early in their career path. The nonprofit community is suffering a shortage of next tier leaders, and so newer executives are becoming more common in the space. By working with the employees and the board to perfect their structure and processes, an interim executive can make sure an organization is set up for success even if their next executive is newer to the career.

What is your advice to organizations considering hiring an interim executive? 

Organizations should go into the process understanding that they are hiring an interim executive, not a permanent one, and so the process should not be as long. Since the interim candidates are experienced and pre-vetted, especially while working with the Interim Executive Network, the process should be fairly quick and not as interview-intensive.  

Another critical recommendation is that the organization’s board should be ready to directly support the interim executive. 25-50% of my experience as an interim has been working with boards and educating them about board governance and what their role is vis-a-vis the management. It’s important for boards to understand that the interim executive will be evaluating the board and their processes as well, and that they should remain open to that since it can be a great opportunity for improvement. 

Finally, they should note that the interim executive will not be completing the search for a permanent executive for the organization. While we can support the process, that task still remains the responsibility of the organization. 

To learn more about the Interim Executive Network and Barbra Kavanaugh, visit their website here

If your organization is considering hiring an interim executive, or you are interested in interim work, feel free to contact Barbra Kavanaugh here.