4 Levels of Transitional Leadership
Design Group International provides transitional leadership (often called interim leadership) for nonprofit, ministry and enterprise organizations. Transitions like these provide occasions to do organizational development work with a temporarily embedded organizational leader who can give it expert care. In addition, organizations who might struggle to pay for needed expertise find money is freed up on a 2 for 1 basis: the executive salary purchases both executive leadership and consultative assistance. Further, the organization is in better shape for the next leader to move forward instead of having to work backwards to deal with previously unresolved issues.
We find that transitional leadership takes place on any of these four levels of care:
1. Leaving the position open. In such a case, key tasks are divided among board and key staff. This choice is most useful when money is extremely tight and strong leadership is present to invest over and above normal involvement. Leaving the position open is not useful when the board is lethargic and staff members are not well equipped.
2. Slot-filling. Usually drawing on someone nearby, often an in-house temporary leader who returns to their position, or someone semi-retired with some experience, this choice is often expected NOT to make major changes, and truthfully, a person who fills a slot typically does not want that sort of inconvenience. This choice is best made by healthy organizations that want to hold the line and cover details until the next leader is named, especially when the transition is expected to be short. This level of transitional leadership is likely the least effective at addressing major or complex organizational issues.
3. Intentional. The intentional level invites an experienced professional who specializes in managing transitions to take the helm until a new leader is named. There is usually a wish list the intentional transitional leader is expected to address in preparation for the next leader, and within a specifically negotiated timeframe. Because transitions like these usually require six to eighteen months of time, intentional transitional leaders are least effective if the time frame is expected to be short.
4. Strategic. This level goes beyond the intentional to manage an intervention or foster a turnaround. This type of transitional leadership is prepared to deal with pathology in the organizational system so that more intentional work can be done and the organization can return to its mission. If the organization is healthy, this approach is overkill and can actually cause the pathology it is intended to correct.
All four levels are be important and useful in specific situations. Our observation is that no situation is entirely static, however. An unanticipated event can move an organization from level one to four and back again over the length of executive leadership transition. It is important, then, for transitional leaders to have capacity to manage the unanticipated change in addition to the expected actions--scaling up and down through these levels as necessary. Design Group International keeps building this capacity, not just in the person serving as the transitional leader, but within a bench of experienced colleagues the transitional leader can draw from when needed.
The differences between these levels are important to keep in mind when you are in a position to determine who will help your organization through an executive leadership transition.