7 points to know about interim higher ed executives during COVID

The continued uncertainty of the pandemic and other factors have strengthened the need for interim campus leaders this year.

Departments in every corner of campus these days may be more likely to have an interim leader at the helm as the pandemic’s impact on higher education plays out. Here’s what to know about these short-term colleagues and why administrators with permanent roles may want to pursue interim work.

1. Interim leaders can be lifesavers at an institution that has flattened org charts.

When someone leaves a role in an office that has been impacted by layoffs and restructurings, there are now fewer people who can step up to fill the void, says Brian Krehbiel, senior partner and practice leader of the Interim Leadership Practice at WittKieffer, the executive search firm. “Colleges used to be able to promote people internally more readily. They only had to take one step up the staircase. Now the jumps between management levels are greater.”

Brian Krehbiel, WittKieffer
Brian Krehbiel, WittKieffer

2. These professionals can serve as coaches.

In a campus department where no one has enough experience to step into a top leadership role, an interim leader can be brought in to work with a more junior person as a coach, says Krehbiel. After six months or so, that junior administrator may be ready for a big promotion.

3. A short-term executive can get the tough work done before a permanent placement is hired.

“Interims can build a good foundation for the next person to come on board,” such as by managing a reorganization or structural change for a department, says Krehbiel. “They can do unpleasant things and the new person can focus more on carrying initiatives forward without being bogged down by internal politics.”

4. Interim leaders can often be put into place quickly—unlike a permanent hire.

Even during COVID, when it’s easier to find an interim leader who is within driving distance to a campus, Krehbiel says institutions can generally expect to have someone show up within two weeks. Recruitment of permanent hires right now is more challenging. “Not a lot of people get excited about moving,” he says, which may require selling a house during a pandemic, he adds. In addition, putting off a permanent hire for a bit can allow an institution’s officials to figure out what it’s org chart needs to look like in six months or a year. “Hiring an interim buys them some time,” he explains.

5. The total cost of employment for an institution is usually similar to a permanent hire.

“Typically you will spend more on an interim because of travel and expense, but when you go in and look at the benefit load at a lot of universities, the total cost of employment is usually pretty close,” says Krehbiel. While most businesses probably pay 30-35% beyond salary for benefits, in a university setting it could be 50-70%. Also, he adds, “if the role has been open for long, you’ve probably already built up a positive variance.”

6. Certain personalities are more suitable for such roles.

“By the time most people are at the age they’re going to be an interim leader, they’ve had a whole life to develop their skills and the ability to lead effectively,” says Krehbiel, adding that the issue is when someone has the talent but isn’t a great communicator. Interim executives must over-communicate, he says, so campus officials should “be looking for people who are affable, easy to like. If you have someone who’s easy to dislike, they can make enemies very quickly. The first impression is worth everything as an interim, especially if they’re going to be there to affect any kind of change.”

Also read: Hiring college leaders during the pandemic

7. Some administrators decide to leave permanent positions for life as an interim.

The pandemic has caused many professionals—including campus administrators who often have really good retirement plans—to evaluate whether they should step out and retire. “Just about everyone knows someone who has been impacted by COVID,” says Krehbiel. “Life is short and people are re-examining their priorities.” Only working about half of each year may be desirable, especially now. Interim executives tend to be financially secure and may find the prospect of living in another community temporarily intriguing. They are usually between 57 and 70 years old and only need a fraction of their income to pay fixed expenses, he says. And at institutions where officials hold these temporary leaders accountable, the role can be exciting and fulfilling. After all, he adds, “they’re not really there to just keep the chair warm and the lights on.”

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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