Interim Leaders: Proven Experts at a Time of Crisis

In the aftermath of the pandemic, health organizations and others continue to experience great stress and staffing challenges. A new report from Witt/Kieffer cites the benefits of bringing in temporary leaders, who offer experience and perspective that can help organizations find their way through tough times.

March 3, 2023 – In times of sudden change or instability, interim leaders can be the preferred solution for an organization, leveraging a range of skills and experiences to keep a company on course. A new report from Witt/Kieffer’s Brian Krehbiel explores the many benefits of interim leadership for organizations of all sizes in today’s challenging business environment.

Three years after the pandemic began, the widespread impacts that COVID has had on health systems continue to persist, according to the report. “Even today, the effects are still being felt at every level, with continuous pressure placed on staffing and finances for health systems of all sizes,” the study said. This has led to widespread burnout among healthcare professionals, with over half reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Surgeon General’s office. Similarly, and just as unfortunate, the pandemic has delivered financial stress to health systems, as safety protocols forced mass cancellations of elective procedures and numerous factors caused unsustainable increases in labor costs.

Witt/Kieffer also pointed to dire staffing situations across the board, particularly in nursing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “more than 275,000 additional nurses are needed from 2020 to 2030. Employment opportunities for nurses are projected to grow at a faster rate (nine percent) than all other occupations from 2016 through 2026.”

“To combat staffing shortages, some organizations have turned to promoting internally — and particularly in cases of leadership roles, perhaps even before some employees are fully prepared to advance,” the Witt/Kieffer report said. “There is an intrinsic quality to promoting internally, of course, and it can also be viewed as a convenient, cost-effective solution initially, since the individual is a known, trusted colleague. The internal candidate might also be a more affordable option for the institution as compared to sourcing an external candidate on the open market, but these situations can often lead to underperformance in the role and inevitably be a decision that is viewed as regretful in hindsight.”

With more than 25 years of experience, Brian Krehbiel is a recognized expert on talent strategy and interim leadership. In his role leading Witt/Kieffer’s interim leadership practice, Mr. Krehbiel provides clients with insight and guidance on utilizing interim executives to provide leadership continuity and position executive teams for the future. He identifies interim CEOs, COOs, CFOs and other key positions for hospitals, health systems and related organizations.

In the end, the organization is back to where it started, with an urgent vacancy and no long-term solution to fill the void.

Where Interim Leaders Provide an Advantage

Rather than sourcing an internal replacement who may not be ready for the role or taking a calculated risk to rush a hiring process to make a long-term appointment, the Witt/Kieffer report says that interim leaders can be your solution. “These seasoned veterans often come with decades of relevant experience and proven track records of success to step into difficult situations, filling immediate needs while providing boards and other executive leaders time to assess and strategize a long-term plan and source the perfect external candidate,” the firm said.

Boosted by decades of experience, interim leaders have honed their communication style, listening skills, and conflict resolution tactics, which are all essential in a healthcare setting, says Witt/Kieffer.

Related: The Pros and Cons of Hiring Interim Executives

“These individuals are often late-career or even recent retirees who have a strong urge to return to the workplace because of a commitment to helping patients,” the report said. “Coming into new environments, interim leaders can provide immediate benefits as a fresh set of eyes to an organization. These executives carry zero historical baggage that might be found in internal candidates while offering the emotional and strategic confidence to instill thoughtful change and guide organizations through difficult challenges. They can often bring a sense of rational calm to otherwise hectic situations supporting the best interests of the entire health system.”

Answering the Growing Call for Interim Executive Talent
Private equity’s influence and an uncertain economy are two key factors in the surge of companies looking for interim leaders, not to mention shifting demographics and the rising call by top professionals to work when, where, and how they prefer. Nat Schiffer, of The Christopher Group, discusses the shift toward fractional talent and how his firm is responding.

Since interim leaders serve in their roles short-term — eight months, on average —these individuals tend to be less concerned with internal politics, and thus, more confident in providing honest feedback and suggestions for improvements, says Witt/Kieffer. Oftentimes, their valuable inputs can lead to changes that continue to improve the organization long after the interim leader has departed.

Short-term Leaders to Solve Long-term Financial Problems

Recruiters say that interim leaders can be effective, efficient solutions across the board. “They bring stability and deliver high-quality work while mitigating the risks involved with a potentially poor internal hire,” the Witt/Kieffer report said. “This is experienced, and especially critical, in the case of a CFO vacancy. Interim candidates who are proven, experienced financial leaders can have a direct, often immediate positive impact on an organization’s finances and strategic outlook.”

Interim CFOs possess the skill-set necessary to keep an organization’s finances on course, avoiding a situation where a vacancy leads to a cumulative backlog of tasks and priorities while the organization searches for the right permanent replacement, according to the Witt/Kieffer report. And like other interim leaders, they bring new perspectives to the role, allowing a fresh analysis of the finances without the weight of past experience on his or her shoulders.

“When a CFO has been at the helm for years, if not decades, they can develop tunnel vision over time, neglecting new ideas or approaches and becoming complacent with the status quo,” Witt/Kieffer said. “But when an interim CFO comes into the fold, it can be much easier for them to spot inefficiencies within the organization that can save money while redirecting the system toward a path of greater financial success. Equipped with an expansive toolbelt from their range of experiences and an appreciation for the variety and challenges of interim work, these individuals can keep organizations on track even through turbulent times.” 

What’s Next

“As the aftermath of the pandemic continues to strain health systems’ staff and budgets, the value and importance of interim leadership is only going to continue to increase in the months to come,” said Mr. Krehbiel. “But in the bigger picture, it’s still too early to predict what lies ahead in 2023 and beyond. There are too many variables still at play to inform a prediction, which makes it all the more important that your organization features strong, competent and experienced leadership to guide you through the months ahead.”

“Additionally, the flexibility offered through interim leadership roles ensures the long-term stability of this area of search, providing value for all parties involved,” said Mr. Krehbiel.

Related: Hiring Top Talent in Unprecedented Times

Contributed by Scott A. Scanlon, Editor-in-Chief; Dale M. Zupsansky, Managing Editor; and Stephen Sawicki, Managing Editor – Hunt Scanlon Media


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