One famously successful, yet infrequently told tale of an interim executive is that of Philip Morengo, Yahoo’s first CEO. Morengo rode in with VC investors, funding him as CEO for the first 180 days of Yahoo’s life.
Inside three months, Morengo incorporated the company, located and built out office space, outlined a business plan, identified and secured new business and investment partners, and hired its first line of managers. By the way, Morengo also recruited his replacement—Yahoo’s first permanent CEO.
For short-term, fast-results assignments, companies are embracing interim executives. Private equity need help with portfolio companies needing management coaching or building new bench strength. Venture capitalists find promising technologies from young entrepreneurs who benefit from shoulder-to-shoulder veteran managers to shift into higher gears.
Corporate boards, seeing senior managers struggling with no relief in sight, seek out interim CxOs to calm the storm—or assess and make necessary change happen fast. Founders and owners live, by definition, overloaded but fearing short-term help. An interim CxO brings credentials and an outsider’s perspective for a much-needed sanity check. Not to mention respite when the CxO handles the daily stuff.
Interim CxO: The firepower you need without adding permanent overhead.
Increasingly, this last example, the privately-held small to middle market company, ultilizes supertemps to get the firepower it needs without adding permanent overhead.
3 do’s and definitely’s for the interim CxO
- Focus, focus, focus: Prior to engaging an interim, they should (or you shouldn’t hire them…) be asking more than once, “What’s going to be different when we disengage?” If sales and topline revenues are Job #1, then say so. It does not mean they will not be zooming in upon operations or finance. In fact, they may come back in 15 or 30 days, telling you those areas may be intrinsic to the sales problem. Alongside the topic of focus, you both need to decide: Is he or she taking residence five days a week on-site, or can they come in three days and dial it in or work on the road? Every situation is different. Best to begin on-site for at least two weeks solid, boots on the ground. The interim needs to form relationships, observe interactions among key managers, and so on, before managing remotely, for example, on Thursdays and Fridays…
- Strategic, tactical or steady on the wheel: Few will engage an interim executive to keep things the same. But some may, when a great leader has vacated and it is steady-as-she-goes until recruiters find the next perfect successor. That can take several quarters to run a process, even a year. More commonly, the owner, investors or board see the need for tactical action. Buyer beware, this more often than not calls for strategic pivots. Remain open-minded. You’re hiring someone who gets it. By all means, ask that they seek permission first on big change and its steps. But don’t fetter an experienced, seasoned pro by walking onto the field mid-play and telling him how to executive every play.
- End-game: What are the results? What needs doing before the interim withdraws, and who will fill the vacuum? Is it a turnaround situation? Turnarounds may call for a longer placement, say, six months to two years. Adjustments, raising a round, re-stocking and re-organizing may call for shorter engagement, like Morengo’s. Together, be clear, be specific. If things change along the way (and they will), you adjust as you go. That means hiring a great communicator, not just a curmudgeon. Check references. Do they end well? If you want a chainsaw, by all means. But if having a culture rise during this interim’s residency matters to you, a more dynamic personality will be needed.
Interim CxOs are not for everyone. If you’re a possessive-type of founder/owner, and an investor or bank hasn’t required you to swallow hard and listen, you may find it more difficult to pair with an interim…leading to an exercise in frustration for the two of you.
So, know thyself rather than waste time interviewing a host of candidates, seeking subconsciously the most pliable personality. Or, put positively, if you need an expert in project management or lean manufacturing, then hire one. But do not seek a C-level leader; find an operational knight in shining armor, one who finds joy in their specific arena.