Design leadership, in the interim

Last year I wrapped up my first interim leadership role. This is what I learned about the unique skillset this type of management demands.
Design’s business value is being realised. Seats are being pulled up at tables. Waterlines for design maturity edge higher. The career expectations of design professionals grow — Progression. Satisfaction. Purpose.

As our field professionalises, we’re examining the shape of leadership it needs. There are conferences dedicated to design leadership. Communities have emerged offering peer support to an expanding cohort of design leaders.

Leadership talent has never been more in demand, and career options for seasoned managers are becoming more attractive and numerous.

A specialised management role could experience growth as a side-effect of this demand; the interim design leader.

From agency-side to interim

My first experience of interim leadership started in late 2017. I’d just made the leap into self-employment, and was exploring freelance opportunities when the Head of Design for a digital insurance brand got in touch.

He was leaving the organisation for another design leadership role. With the company yet to recruit a permanent replacement, the option of an interim leader was being explored.

It was an appealing opportunity. I’d managed design teams for some time, but never in-house. Taking over leadership of an existing team would be new as well.

I was keen to learn whether my previous leadership experience would be transferable, so signed up for a three month contract which would extend to nine.

Reflections and lessons

This contract wrapped up in Summer 2018. I’ve since had time to reflect on the experience, comparing it to my time as a permanent manager.

The role stretched me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. It highlighted the specialist nature of interim assignments, and ultimately left me better equipped to lead in this way again.

I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned as a first-time interim manager, and thoughts on the strategies I’ve picked up through research into the discipline. Hopefully this can help others prepare for interim opportunities of their own.

This article is the first in a short series which explores:

  • The opportunity for interim design leaders, and ways to approach the role.
  • Specific lessons I learned from my first interim leadership experience.
  • The differences between my permanent and interim leadership experiences.

In this first article I’ll cover:

  • What interim design leadership means.
  • The value interim leaders can offer design teams in transition.
  • The modes of interim leadership you might consider adopting, and when.

What is interim leadership?

Long-established in other industries, interim leaders provide temporary management during a period of change. The duration of these roles can vary greatly, from just a few weeks to several years depending on the circumstances.

The attributes of interims

Interims are typically senior practitioners with previous leadership experience, and can call on a breadth of skills and experience to hit the ground running.

Connecting with teams needing clear guidance mean interim leaders lean on strong interpersonal skills to quickly build trust. Demonstrating credibility through strong, clear decision-making will also encourage confidence in their ability to be effective in a short space of time.

Sometimes interim leaders come from within the organisation facing a spell without formal management. This may be a test-run for taking the role permanently, or a leader from another department seconded into the role. Interims for hire are typically self-employed contractors, working interim engagements as FTC (fixed term contracts) or through a day rate model.

Whether in-house or contracting, adaptability is the name of the game. The ability to flex for the circumstances you’re parachuted into can make or break your ability to manage effectively (more on this later). So what are the circumstances when an interim design leader might be valuable?

Minding the gap

When replacing designers, It’s a rare luxury for incoming and outgoing talent to overlap.

Three month notice terms are increasingly common for senior design roles. Time required to advertise, interview, and finalise offers can make it tricky to avoid potentially disruptive gaps.

Notice terms of six months aren’t unheard of for design leadership positions. Without a suitable successor in-house, gaps in a team’s leadership could be on the cards.

Gaps in leadership introduce risk. It can be tempting to rush through a new hire to mitigate this, but hasty recruitment heightens the risk of a poorly fitting successor. When there’s time to make the right moves, interim guidance could lead to a better long-term fit while providing team continuity.

Teams in transition

Design teams experience important transitions as they mature and grow. These transition points are rarely smooth steps, and teams can experience growing pains which impact motivation and performance.

Processes and responsibilities may need formalising. Progression frameworks established. Measures of design quality agreed and groundwork put in place for future team health.

Interim leaders are usually armed with broad experience of these pain points, and can help a team make sense of how to break through these frustrating periods. They can also advise on the leadership talent needed to deliver the longer-term vision.

Fresh perspective

Even mature, performant design teams can benefit from an opportunity for reflection. When a leader moves on, interim periods offer time to take stock and assess what‘s needed to ensure longer term health.

Rather than making an immediate permanent hire, engaging an interim leader can help organisations see their design team’s current capabilities, limitations, and aspirations through a more independent lens. They can provide impartial assessment of:

  • How effectively design is delivering value against business goals.
  • The maturity of design practice, and the team’s potential for talent progression.
  • The successful strategies of outgoing leadership, which may be desirable to look for in a replacement.
  • How the organisation can appeal to the design talent it needs longer term, particularly in finding the right permanent leader.

These are just some of the ways an interim leader can provide valuable consultancy in the appropriate context. But what are the different contexts for interim leadership?

Caretaker or Change Maker

As an interim design leader your time will be limited. The first 90 days of any leadership role are famously important, but what if your entire tenure only lasts this long? How should your time be assessed, and which long term outcomes should you be considering part of your remit?

Understanding the circumstances you’re stepping into are crucial to establish your remit and approach as an interim. George Brandt, author of The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan, sees gaining this clarity as a secret to interim success.

Do you need to be a change maker, or just hold the fort? If it’s the former, you could be working through what Brandt calls a strategic inflection point. This requires a different approach from taking the reins until a permanent replacement arrives.

Even if you identify necessary change while holding the fort, your remit might not extend beyond maintaining the status quo until a permanent leader arrives.

Brandt’s BRAVE interim management framework could help to quickly assess situations like this. The framework examines the environment, values, attitude, relationships, and behaviours necessary for success within the context of the specific engagement.

Steady going

Design interims in caretaker mode may find their value is in maintaining design quality and team motivation over their tenure. Their priorities may include:

  • Maintaining design quality and overseeing projects already in flight.
  • Tooling or workspace improvements which would likely be on the checklist for a permanent leader.
  • Understanding the current design maturity, culture and team vision. Developing a leadership role specification which is appropriate to support these areas longer term.
  • Rolling out a recruitment plan and on-boarding process for a permanent design leader.

An interim in caretaker mode may be able to start recruitment sooner, and undertake a shorter engagement.

Rougher waters

The focus can shift in more unsettled times. A team may be lacking motivation, performing below expectation, or undergoing a restructure. The previous leader may have left because of difficult circumstances. Priorities for an interim may shift towards:

  • Understanding the root cause of any team motivation, quality, or performance issues.
  • Identifying broader business or cultural issues which are hampering the design team’s ability to deliver business value.
  • Begin implementation of quick wins which can correct the course of the team and improve motivation until a long-term leader arrives.
  • Recommend strategies to improve team health, attract talent, and hire the right leader to oversee these changes.

More challenging conditions require robust interim management skills, and call on broader experience. Establishing credibility and trust will be crucial for success, and the interim will likely need longer to complete their work.

Finding a permanent candidate with the qualities to lead a team moving through such an inflection point may take longer too.

Mode switching

My first interim role involved an early change of leadership mode. A digital department restructure announced within the first week of my tenure would require a shift in mindset. A business critical transformation project would land shortly after this, adding further pressure to the design team.

I needed to quickly find ways to deal with this unforeseen inflection point. I’d have to shift from caretaker of a well-functioning team, to supporting a group going through an uncertain and potentially stressful period.

In reality, your situation could involve a mix of change-making and fort holding. Defining clear boundaries for your remit will help ensure you don’t overreach and deliver the value expected of you.

Interim as intervention

As design practitioners we are often encouraged to look at the thing being designed in its greater context. Designers have a natural tendency to problem-solve, particularly if we recognise issues from past experience and can apply our expertise.

Our focus can be drawn from the tactical to the strategic. The bigger picture a more appealing challenge than the brief at hand.

Identifying larger issues without the time or clout to change them can be paralysing and frustrating as a designer, and the same goes for interim leadership.

According to Third Sector Company (an interim management specialist for US non-profits), well-trained interim leaders should be approaching their contracts as assignments, with well defined deliverables.

“An untrained interim is likely to look at the situation as a job rather than as an intervention. Being trained to deliver effective leadership interventions is an acquired skill and a body of management knowledge.”

Permanent leaders have the breadth to accommodate wider ambitions. The challenges for interim leaders will likely be more immediate. Some of your value as an interim manager may come through professional opinion rather than implementation.

Focus energy on finding the candidate who can own these areas for improvement long term, and be candid with your findings during interviews with permanent candidates. Your detective work will uncover opportunities great leaders thrive on, and improve the appeal of the permanent role to those who fit the mould.

Next time

In my next article I’ll share some of the lessons I learned in my first interim role. I’ll explore the context of the role, the ups and downs, and how I’d approach some challenges next time around.

Following that I’ll take a closer look at a key facet of interim leadership — laying the groundwork for your successor.

P.S. A big thank you to Dominic Warren for his help editing this article.

Photo by Suad Kamardeen on Unsplash