How to Build Trust In an Interim Role
I have been in the interim financial management business for over four years, and have filled many roles – from interim CFO to senior accountant. No matter what my level of responsibility has been within the client’s organizations, the same three aspects have been important in building trust between myself and the clients staff:
1. Be honest – interim staff are brought onto a client assignment becuase of some change within the organization. It could be to supplement staffing as a result of a project, but it could also be due to turnover (voluntary or forced). In any of these situations, the existing employees want to know:
(a) why are you there;
(b) what will the impact on their role/position be as a part of your work; and/or
(c) what other organizational changes may occur as a result of your assignment
In most of my engagements, my work has been to support/transition a retiring financial leader while a FT replacement is being recruited, provide interim project support, or to assess the competencies and structure of the department and make recommendations for improvement. All of these have involved ongoing and frequent communication, and no matter what level in the organization you are speaking too – honest and candid feedback is necessary. Even if the answer is ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I haven’t yet determined the impact,’ those few words will provide some time of relief instead of radio silence.
One of my more difficult assignments was working with a finance group where there was no clear value of team, and the outgoing CFO didn’t provide any clarification on roles as her transition was occurring. The senior accountant kept coming to me asking what my recommendations were going to be for the team going forward. I had some preliminary thoughts but hadn’t yet presented them to the Executive Director, so my quick answer was ‘I don’t know yet, but I know things can’t continue as they currently are.’ I did not expect that generic answer to suffice for long, but it provided enough relief at the time for the Senior Accountant, and confidence that changes would be forthcoming soon.
2. Always do what is in the best interest of the client organization – it is very easy to go along with what client management recommends as a solution, but in most cases, those ideas have already been tried and have not proved to have a significant impact to ‘stick.’ I was on a long term assignment as a hospital Finance Director, reporting directly to the CFO, with a Corporate Controller and eight person accounting team reporting to me. A workforce reduction was put into place and multiple members of senior management strongly advised me to choose the Corporate Controller as the position to eliminate. Admittedly, there were personality conflicts between this individual and some members of senior management, there was another position within the team that wasn’t having a significant positive impact to the department, or more importantly, the organization. Although senior management was initially disappointed in my selection, months later they indicated I had made the best choice for the institution.
3. Take advantage of the temporary nature of the role – this gives you a unique perspective of the business, staff and customers. Being that there is a foreseeable end date to the work, you can take an unbiased and neutral assessment of the past, while setting up both short term and long term goals. This also provides you the opportunity to develop open and honest dialog with employees, who may not otherwise share for fear of retribution. Both new employees and long term employees bring different views to the table and the interim leader can meld the best of both worlds when developing strategies for the future, while avoiding pitfalls that the organization may have succumb to in the past. Lastly, the interim leader’s greatest impact is in establishing the organizations’ goals and priorities, particularly if current strategies are no longer working and need realignment.
When an organization experiences turnover in a key management position, those tasked with filling that role need to perform an honest assessment of the level of effort and timing needed to fill the role with a qualified replacement. When filling the role is anticipated to take more than a couple months, an interim replacement should be considered. In order for that individual to be successful in their position, establishing trust as soon as possible is key and will help determine how quickly change can be instituted.