Amy Kristof-Brown is professor of management and entrepreneurship and dean of the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business.
Interim leadership is a curious thing.
You’re a leader, but that stewardship comes with a lot of strings attached that limit what you can do. You have authority, but only in certain circumstances. You provide leadership … sort of. You’ll get a raise to provide compensation commensurate for a leader … or you won’t.
In my 25 years at the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business, I’ve worked for my share of interim presidents, provosts and deans. I was an interim leader myself, when I led Tippie as interim dean for 10 months before becoming the permanent dean in December 2020.
There are plenty of books you can read about leadership, so many in fact that it’s an entire genre in the publishing industry. Whole conferences are scheduled with speaker after speaker talking about leadership, and the internet is filled with TED Talks and other videos about the topic. As a professor of management and entrepreneurship, I’ve read many scholarly analyses of leadership, taught MBA students on the topic and conducted research in this area myself.
But I know of nowhere yet where anyone has written about, spoken on or exhaustively studied interim leadership, so we know little about it. There is no handbook or tip sheet for interim leaders. Since my own time as an interim, I’ve taken more than a few calls from other academic deans in similar situations asking how they can navigate their own course, which suggests there is a need to know more about it.
No interim leadership circumstances are the same. Some become interim leaders under favorable conditions, others are placed into difficult circumstances that require a high-wire balancing act. My situation was on the challenging side. Just days after I became interim dean, COVID-19 closed the University of Iowa campus and we quickly had to pivot to online courses followed by a hybrid schedule in the fall, so the bulk of my interim tenure was spent doing some variation of crisis management.
At the same time, the university was searching for a new provost and president, so the situation came with a fair amount of instability. We managed to pull together, though, rising to the challenges and today, our business school has one of the highest enrollments it’s ever had.
With that in mind, here is some of the advice that I offer others on how they can be the most effective interim leader.
- Avoid drama. The primary role of an interim leader is to provide stability. If the situation is already dramatic, don’t add more. If the situation is fairly stable, keep it that way. Work closely with your budget manager and other collegiate administrators so there are no surprises at the end of the year. Talk with your provost and president and understand what their expectations are for your leadership. Become a meaningful voice on campus to keep your college relevant and protected. Know what you can do.
- Your authority is limited — but not entirely. Strategic planning is difficult and potentially a waste of time because the next dean may not share the interim’s goals. Major gift discussions are mostly put on hold because few donors want to give money to an institution when they don’t know who the next permanent leader will be.
Still, being an interim dean doesn’t mean going backward or even staying in place. If key faculty or staff positions are open and need to be filled, don’t be afraid to fill them. You have the ability to follow through on existing strategic plans, and if new plans are necessary, be sure to work with external and internal audiences. Be inclusive with all voices, and deeply listen to what they have to say. This is especially important if you’re thinking about applying for the job yourself, as it puts you in good graces with decision-makers.
- Get a clear understanding of your options. You can help shape the selection process by sharing opinions on what you think the college needs. Do you want to be a candidate for the position permanently? If so, present yourself as someone who can help fit the criteria of a leader to best meet those needs.
- Be enthusiastic and confident. It’s natural to feel uncertainty when stepping into interim roles. But expressing positivity and demonstrating competence in the institution’s capacity to meet goals, especially with the media and donors, is important to keep morale high during a period that even in the best of circumstances can be fraught with concern over the unknown of what comes next.
I am grateful for the colleagues who supported me when I reached out to them during my time as interim. I’m thankful for the opportunity to pay that forward now.