How to Survive as an “Interim” CEO

What would you do if the board unexpectedly offered you the job on a temporary basis? It’s not that unusual. Electronics giant RadioShack is currently led by former CFO Dorvin Lively while it looks for James Gooch’s replacement. James Meyer is holding down the fort at Sirius XM Radio until a search committee finds a successor for Mel Karmazin. As the new year began, Martha Stewart Living and Legg Mason, among many others,did not have permanent CEOs at the helm.

Before Anything Else: Confirm the Board’s Expectations

Interim chief executives can be CEOs in trainingor “seat warmers” appointed to calm stakeholders. Before accepting, make sure you are aligned with the board on the terms of the assignment. Retention can be problematic for those who step into someone else’s shoes for a short walk. George “Mike” Mikan led Best Buy as interim CEO from April until September, when Hubert Joly took over full time.Ross Levinsohn took over as interim CEO at Yahoo after the departure of Scott Thompson and was thought to have the top spot sewed up – until he was replaced by Marissa Mayer.

To protect yourself, come to a mutual understanding with the board of how your performance will be evaluated and what you need to do to drop the “interim” prefix. Other vital questions to ask yourself (and the board) include:

  • Are the directors pro-active and supportive? (An open door policy is not enough.)
  • Do you have clarity and alignment with the board on strategic issues?
  • Will you be allowed to assess the senior team and make adjustments early on?

Connect, Listen and Learn

Your first stumbling block may be the job itself. Even as you try to come to grips with the unfamiliar aspects of the role, you need to quickly discover how to deal with multiple, conflicting demands while avoiding the morass of day-to-day operations. In addition, analysts, the public and the press must be dealt with – which in itself can be quite daunting.

To accelerate your ability to drive the organization forward (even temporarily), the first thing you need to do is “get out there and listen” – literally. Leave your office, walk around, connect with employees and initiate relationships with your key constituencies. Emphasize that you want to get aligned on views and come to some agreement on how to work together.

Build a Personal Support Team

In a recent RHR International research study, only 57% of CEOs interviewed indicated that theircompanies provided integration support and an even smaller proportion (35%) conveyed that they had an involved and engaged board. Create your own support network of mentors, such as the lead director or a former CEO, and trusted advisors for rapid guidance. Take advantage of every opportunity to meet informally with the directors in addition to carefully preparing for formal board meetings. Solicit the board members’ feedback and make action plans for development.

Keep Your Perspective

For your personal well-being, it is essential to make time for family, friends and other outside activities. These are your main defenses against the inevitable stress you will feel as you take on theCEO’s duties, regardless of whether it is short lived or for the long run.

Dr. Thomas J. Saporito is chairman and CEO of RHR International, a firm of management psychologists and consultants who work closely with top management to accelerate individual, team and business performance. He has specialized over the past 20 years in consulting with CEOs, boards of directors and senior management on succession planning and top management leadership.