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What to Do When a Local Government Leader Leaves

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People move around a lot in the field of city and county management; I have an Outlook database that can prove it. And when the city manager or another leader leaves, it’s tempting for a government to try to have other staffers cover that work until someone new is hired. I think it’s almost always better to hire an interim manager from outside the organization to do the job until a permanent replacement is found. Here’s why:

  • An interim from the outside eliminates conflicts that can arise when internal candidates are applying for the position. When more than one current employee is vying for the job, and one is named interim, the process becomes more difficult for everyone, and conflicts can linger past the naming of a new leader. Even when there’s just one internal candidate acting as interim, the line between his or her interim duties and applicant status can be hard to navigate.
  • The process of finding the right candidate can last weeks or even months, and it’s impossible to tell at the outset exactly how long it will take. The responsibilities of running a city or county ought to be more than a current staffer can simply add onto existing duties, especially when the new responsibilities will be new and unfamiliar.
  • Hiring an outside interim also prevents officials from rushing the search process just to get someone in place.
  • An outside interim brings a fresh set of eyes to the way the organization does business. The interim won’t be making any big changes, obviously, but there are opportunities for improvement even in the daily tasks of most operations.
  • An outside interim can make the transition period for the new leader go more smoothly, since he or she will have a good overview of the organization gleaned in the interim period.

I also recommend that an outside interim’s service be coupled with a professional review of the management of the organization. This review is more thorough than just one person’s observations;  rather, it would be the systematic application of best-practice knowledge to all of the work activity of the organization with the goal to prepare an agenda for improvement that the new leader can implement.  An interim manager doesn’t have time to research all that (often including a benchmarking comparison with other organizations and a structured gathering of ideas from stakeholders, with a survey and focus groups), and necessarily, the interim manager’s review is more informal. And a new permanent leader is usually too busy to oversee a review and will likely find the review’s results to be an invaluable part of the onboarding process.

Taken together, the services of an outside interim and a professional review can do more than just keep the place running while the search for a new leader is underway. They can provide a thorough assessment of the organization that will prepare it for new leadership and help the incoming manager succeed from the start.

Jerry Newfarmer is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Profile Photo Olivia Jefferson

Great post Jerry! It seems like it would be tempting to just get a few people from the organization to handle the workload until someone is hired, but you give really sound reasons for people to resist that temptation. I never thought about the internal conflicts that might come up as the people put on the job vie for the permanent position.

Profile Photo Shannon Kennedy

Interim managers are so important! But I imagine it could be hard for other workers to adjust to several different personalities and leadership styles coming into a position in a short amount of time. Do you have any ideas for dealing with that?