Reflections on Interim Executive Director Work with First-time Interim, Steve Rosenthal

Ten years ago, Steve chanced upon a white paper that discussed the work of interim executive directors. At the time, he was running Cross-Cultural Solutions, a nonprofit that he had also founded, which focused on work in the international development space. With the paper on his mind, he signed up for Support Center’s Interim ED Training in 2019, where he encountered, once again, the same paper. When asked what drew him most to interim work, he said, “it felt lighter than being a full-time executive director, where you have the full weight of the organization on your shoulders. It was a welcome change, and the idea of short engagements at all different types of organizations seemed attractive.”

Now two years later, Steve has his first interim ED engagement under his belt, after serving at an environmental nonprofit, Sustainable Westchester, for 20 months. He was first drawn to the organization due to his personal passion for the environment and found himself repeatedly impressed with the people he met along the interview process. Moreover, Steve found it extremely helpful that during his initial days, he was given a roadmap of the organization highlighting what was running smoothly, and more importantly, what the problems were. From there on, Steve was able to continuously remind himself of the primary goals of stabilizing the organization and building robust systems and processes that would drive the mission and vision of Sustainable Westchester forward. Through weekly meetings with the board co-chairs and regular reporting strategies, Steve was able to help the board achieve their goals. As he recently reflected, “establishing a strong foundation for the incoming ED remained my North Star throughout the engagement. Tactical things came and went, but my goals remained consistent”

A leadership transition is a daunting time for every organization, and especially so for staff who may feel adrift with the uncertainty of the future. Being cognizant of this, Steve made an effort to hold an extensive, individual debrief with each staff member in order to fully understand their concerns and provide assurance that he would address them. He says, “my job was to solve the issues in the organization, and help ease the transition, and that made the staff happy.” For instance, he recalls that among different groups within the organization, there was a desire to have a clearer picture of the organization’s overall financial position, as well as about the performance of the organization’s numerous programs. To address this, he built a financial process that resulted in monthly closing statements for program staff and quarterly financial reports for the board, which were not only beneficial to the staff, but also very helpful for Steve himself.

Looking more broadly at interim executive directorships, one can think of several challenges that may arise at different points of an engagement. Coming off such a significant and lengthy first interim engagement, Steve struggled to identify the biggest challenged he faced. He did, however, describe how interim EDs are often in the unique position of having almost exhaustive knowledge of organizational areas such as human resources and finance, but typically very little mission-specific expertise. Although this is not always the case, it is probable in most engagements that interim EDs will not have a background in the service area of the organizations they are serving. Steve, who has a long and successful career in international development and found himself at an organization working in environmental sustainability, commented, “while I was a great problem solver for program managers, I could never have been as great of an executive director. My personal passion for the environment helped a lot in this engagement, but who knows about the next?”

What makes Steve’s first engagement all the more idiosyncratic is that it continued for over a year and a half. There was substantial work to be done, and the pandemic certainly complicated and prolonged the overall timeline and the executive search process. The board persevered and devoted itself to conducting a thoughtful and thorough search for the incoming, long-term ED. Adopting a philosophy similar to that of delayed gratification, Steve remarked that he welcomed the extension of his engagement, because he knew that “it was better to have a slow but fruitful outcome, rather than a rushed and unsuccessful one.” In other words, he realized and embraced the fact that if he committed to staying on until the right ED was hired, the end result for the organization would only be that much better.

Reflecting on his engagement, Steve shared that the organization and people within it are absolutely paramount, and that he owes his success and enjoyable experience to the board and staff members with whom he worked. Like others in Support Center’s highly talented pool of interim leaders, Steve finds himself drawn to the unpredictability and transience that characterize the work of interim EDs. He left us with a final piece of valuable advice: “As an interim ED, you’re not just the ED for a short amount of time; you’re doing a completely different job. The title is so similar, but the job is so different.”