The author talks about his book on acting presidencies

When Elson S. Floyd died of colon cancer in 2015, he had been president of Washington State University for eight years. Daniel J. Bernardo stepped in as interim president and served for one year. He was provost at the time and had also started in that role as a temp. He has learned some lessons in his acting roles and is understandably interested in the role of presidents, provosts and others in temporary positions in higher education.

He has written a guide for those considering taking on an acting role: Interim: A Guide to Transitional Leadership in Higher Education (Washington State University Press). The book presents step-by-step analyzes of the issues facing an interim leader. Bernardo is in favor of acting like a permanent president in the interim role and not letting the problems drag on that the permanent president will eventually have to deal with.

He answered questions about the book by email.

Q: Who makes a good acting quorum leader? What kind of qualities should a college look for?

A: Successful interim leaders come from a variety of backgrounds and employ many different leadership styles. In general, the same qualities that make a good leader also apply to temps; however, some qualities that stood out as important for temps were:

  • Experienced: Experience lends credibility and enables leaders to quickly assess complex organizational situations.
  • Altruism: Interim leaders should be motivated to serve the organization, not themselves. Since a key role is paving the way for the next leader, they need to have the “It’s not about me, it’s about the organization” attitude.
  • Excellent Communicator and Collaborator: Communication is always important, but this is especially true for interim leaders, who need to listen well and build rapport quickly.
  • Good Administrative Instincts – Interim leaders need to be able to quickly assess situations, but they also need the confidence to process and respond to that information.

Q: Should an acting leader not to be a candidate for employment on a permanent basis?

A: I don’t think anyone should be screened out for an acting position because they might want to run for the permanent position. Some universities have policies preventing temps from applying for permanent jobs, but I don’t see the wisdom in these restrictions. Obviously, such policies reduce the pool of qualified candidates available to fill an acting position. Additionally, an acting role offers both the candidate and the organization the opportunity to assess their fit for each other. Sometimes people accept an acting role that they have no long-term interest in, only to find that they actually like the job. Therefore, it is useful to have this option available.

Q: Lately more and more colleges seem to be choosing an interim leader for two years, not just long enough to find a permanent leader. What do you think of this trend?

A: I like it. The main thesis of this book is that interim leaders should not be replacements, but should lead boldly and in a manner similar to a permanent appointee. To the extent that appointing an interim leader for a two-year term provides more credibility and a longer period to execute an action plan, these longer appointments can be positive for the organization.

Interestingly, my research for the book revealed that while most dates were meant to last a year, the average date is significantly longer. Universities are filled with “interim” leaders whose appointments have been extended several times beyond the originally agreed period. In fact, more than half of the interim leaders interviewed for the book were hired with the expectation of a one-year engagement, then serving for two or more years. So perhaps being more intentional in declaring a two-year appointment upfront is a more effective strategy.

Q: Should an interim be limited to budget and crisis areas? Or focus largely on the needs of the university?

A: Again, the central thesis of this book is that temps must lead with an imperative to action and keep pushing forward on all major unit initiatives. The simple fact is that given the prevalence of interim leaders and the longer tenure of these appointments, most universities typically have multiple interim leaders in place at any given time. “Staggering the water” for long periods of time will result in lost opportunities and have long term detrimental consequences for the unit.

Like any new director, there will be areas that require the attention of an interim. It is important that the Acting Dean gets clear direction of these areas from the Provost and that the Provost communicates these areas to internal and external stakeholders. The No. 1 advice from interim leaders interviewed for the book was to make sure their boss had their backs. People will challenge the authority and determination of the Acting Dean, so it is essential that the Provost provide unwavering support.

Q: When a temp takes over from a leader who was unpopular or controversial, what can the temp do to make things better on campus?

A: The frequency of interim leaders following unpopular or controversial directors seems to be increasing. Many temps inherit significant personnel, program, financial, and/or morale issues that require immediate attention. In the book, I call these acting positions “cleaning up the mess.” Skilled interim leadership can transform this period of turbulence and transition into an opportunity for the organization to redefine itself. It is imperative to lead decisively and with an imperative to act. Some strategies for acting deans in this position include taking the time to listen, gaining clear support for an action plan from the provost, communicating the action plan to all levels of the organization, to quickly identify “landmines” and avoid them. , and look for quick wins to build trust and credibility with your team. The book includes a 30-day action plan template for the first month of the appointment that allows temps to get started and be very intentional about addressing priorities.

Lola R. McClure