How to Step In as an Interim Manager

Your boss has left the organization and you’re named interim replacement. Congrats! Well, sort of. It’s not a given that you’ll become the permanent replacement. What’s the best way to maximize the chances that you’ll get the full-time job? How should you manage the team so they respect your authority and support your candidacy? And how do you handle the stress of feeling like you’re on a constant job interview?

What the Experts Say

Being an interim or acting manager is often seen as the fast track to getting the full-time job — but you don’t have it yet. “It’s a delicate dance,” says Michael Watkins, a cofounder of Genesis Advisers and a professor at IMD Business School. “You need to behave in a way that shows you are the boss, while simultaneously preparing for the likelihood that you don’t get the role.” Indeed, taking over a temporary role differs from assuming a permanent one. “It involves living with a certain amount of ambiguity,” says Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School and coauthor of Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Here are some things to consider as you prepare for this new role.

Reflect.

For starters, you need to think about what’s being asked of you — and what you want, says Watkins. Are you taking over as “a placeholder for someone else who will eventually get the permanent title?” Or are you a serious candidate for the role? Depending on how your boss positions the assignment, “the way you orient yourself is quite different,” he says. If you want to be considered for the job, you need to consider how you’ll distinguish yourself. If you don’t want the position, you “need to communicate that before you even accept,” he adds. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. “There are many good reasons why you might not want it — maybe you don’t feel like you’re the right person for the job,” he says. “In which case, you say: ‘I am happy to fill in until the search is complete.’”

Communicate.

Hill advises having a conversation with your new boss (presumably your old boss’s boss) about what’s expected of you. “Talk about how they see the role, the parameters of it, how long you’ll be in it, and what you need to accomplish.” Your goal, she says, is to “get clarity about how you’re supposed to be operating.” Depending on the situation, you might also request that senior management make a public statement on your behalf to boost your credibility among the ranks. Hill also recommends asking your boss to introduce you to other senior leaders — ostensibly your new peers. “These people might not know you, and so you need to work on establishing these key relationships,” she says. “You have to build a reputation and gain their confidence.” Watkins agrees. “You need to show that you’re ready and deserving of the role,” he says.

Make “modest-sized” decisions.

Next, says Watkins, you need to “take some time to formulate your vision and strategy” for the organization and then decide where to concentrate your attention and energy. A lot will depend on the situation you’re inheriting. “Are there operational issues that need tending to, or are you in sustain mode?” If the organization is in good shape, you need to “ensure there are no hiccups” during your tenure. If it’s not, you need to be prepared to make “modest-sized decisions” to help right the ship. Sweeping changes likely won’t go over well, he adds. “Don’t overplay your authority.” He recommends looking for things that are broken and fixing them. The goal is to get some early wins. Remember, says Hill, your objective is to “do what you think is best for the organization in both the short and long term.”

Build trust.

Managing relationships with your former peers — now your subordinates — might prove challenging. Hill suggests you have individual conversations with each of them where you ask: What are you working on? And what are you worried about? She recommends being transparent and honest about the potentially uncomfortable situation. “Say, ‘This is unexpected, and it may be a little awkward. But I hope to gain your trust.’” You want to “be collaborative rather than directive,” she says. Whatever you do, don’t get drawn into the office drama — and don’t do anything to jeopardize or compromise your relationships, says Watkins. “Stay neutral,” he adds. “Instead, focus relentlessly on what’s right for the business. Be hard on the business and soft on the people.” Importantly, “Don’t be ham-handed.”

Gear up.

Even though the title may be temporary, the role and responsibilities will likely take a lot out of you. “You might feel pressure because you’re being observed,” says Hill. “You might also feel that this is a test of your true capabilities — and that you need to prove you can lead and make a difference.” It’s a big transition, adds Watkins. “You need to treat this as if you are de facto starting a new job.” It will require you to step up in terms of both time and energy, he adds. Also, be prepared for the job to have an effect on your family relationships, and think about how you’ll manage the emotional rollercoaster that inevitably comes with learning the ropes of a new job.

Think about what you learned.

If you wanted the full-time role and didn’t get it, it can be a little tricky to settle back into your old job. Oftentimes, the experience provides professional clarity — and a realization that you aspire to more. “You got a taste of what it means to be in a leadership role,” says Hill. “You might be bored in your old job because you realize you want more of a challenge.” If that’s the case, “it’s perfectly legitimate to say, ‘I wanted that role, I am ready for that role, so I need to go and look for a job like it,’” says Watkins. On the other hand, you may feel relieved that you’re no longer in charge. If you’re happy to go back to your old job, you ought to communicate that to your new boss, he says. Otherwise, they might see you as a disappointed competitor. “It will require a modicum of maturity.”

Principles to Remember

Do

  • Be honest. If you don’t want the full-time job, communicate that at the outset.
  • Make a plan for how you’ll distinguish yourself when you’re in the interim job.
  • Be collaborative, rather than directive. This will engender trust with your team.

Don’t

  • Assume the transition will be easy. The job will require more time and energy.
  • Overplay your authority with your former peers.
  • Wallow in disappointment if you don’t get offered the job. If the experience showed you that you’re ready for more responsibility, start looking elsewhere.

Advice in Practice

Case Study #1: Determine and strategy and win the trust and respect of your team.

Victor Garcia,* who works at a South American financial services company, knows very well what it’s like to be an interim boss.

About 10 months ago, Victor was asked to become acting manager in charge of digital marketing at the company. “It was truly a surprise,” he recalls. “The person who had the job before went to work for a competitor with barely any prior notice, so I was asked to cover.”

He was eager to maximize his chances of becoming the permanent manager. First, he reflected on what he could do to distinguish himself. He focused on fixing problems. “The past marketing strategy — content marketing — was problematic because the algorithms used by search engines like Google continue to change, and it was difficult for our company to predict them,” he says.

To remedy this, Victor shifted the strategy toward affiliate marketing. “My priority was to have the greatest impact in the shortest amount of time.”

Next, he worked on winning the esteem of his former peers. Luckily, he already had good relationships with many of his team members. As acting manager, he met weekly with each of them one-on-one to discuss their projects and goals. “My objective was to generate a culture of trust,” he says. “I wanted to help them solve any problems they were having so that they, too, could focus on results.”

Victor also became better at delegating responsibilities, something that the previous manager struggled with. “He was a person who liked to have control and micromanage everything,” he says. “My style was the opposite.”

Victor’s strategy paid off. His team members respected him, and his business results were impressive. During his time as interim head, the division increased its online conversions by more than 20%.

“In the end I was lucky to be offered the position,” he says.

* Not his real name.

Case Study #2: Be prepared to put in long days and encourage your team members.

Brittany Larsen was one month into her job as press secretary for a congressman on Capitol Hill when her boss abruptly left for another position. Brittany was asked to take over as acting communications director while the chief of staff searched for a full-time replacement.

In the beginning, the job was overwhelming. “I didn’t try to overdo it at first or start any new initiatives,” she says. “I wanted to prove more than anything that I was capable of doing the daily tasks required, while still doing the job I was hired for.”

Luckily, she had already established a rapport with her coworkers. Still, she says, earning their respect as a leader — without having the official title — was by far her biggest challenge of interim management. “I made it very clear that I was there to help and that we’d get through the transition together as a team,” she says. “But just saying that you’re there to help isn’t enough because you actually have to prove it. I stayed late, was constantly available, asked questions, and from the very start I encouraged everyone on the team.”

Over time, she demonstrated that she was not only capable of doing the job, but also that she’d be very good at it. About a month into the interim role, she asked for time with her new boss to outline her ideas for the department and discuss problems that needed to be solved.

“Throughout the conversation, I made it clear that I knew it wasn’t guaranteed that I’d be in the role,” she says. “I focused instead on the organizational structure and personnel needs that I thought would really help our office as a whole, which planted a seed.”

After four months, Brittany was asked to take on the role officially. She became the youngest director of communications on Capitol Hill.

Today she is the director of client services at a political marketing and communications firm in Salt Lake City, Utah. “My biggest piece of advice to interim managers is to stay patient,” she says. “In these circumstances, there aren’t always clear-cut deadlines or communications about what’s next. If you keep your cool during this period, you drastically increase the likelihood of getting the job.”

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