How to Turn an Interim Role into a Permanent Job

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By: Ben Dattner

You may think that the interim role is putting you in a Catch-22-like situation: You have to prove that you can be successful in order to get the actual job, but uncertainty undermines your status and challenges your ability to succeed. Here are some suggestions for increasing the likelihood of your success in an interim role:

Ask “Why?” Knowing why you have been chosen for an interim role will help you formulate a strategy for keeping the job long term. It may be that your predecessor is ambivalent about succession or has not set a clear timetable for retirement. Or there may be systemic bias in your organization — your age, experience, gender, or race may cause the “old boys’ club” in senior management to believe that you need training wheels before you can take on a senior-level job. Perhaps, for whatever reason, you do not have a broad enough internal network or deep enough support for your candidacy. Or maybe you have an innovative, disruptive vision that others are simply not ready for or are resistant to.

To gain a better understanding of how organizational factors and your personal attributes may influence your current situation, ask trusted colleagues, coaches, mentors, or sponsors for their views on why you specifically have been offered the interim role.

Have patience. While you don’t want to signal that you will be comfortable serving in an interim capacity indefinitely, it’s important not to push too hard or too fast for closure. At a certain point you may be tempted to force the organization’s hand, either by threatening to quit or by letting your boss, senior management, or HR know that you plan to begin searching for a different role inside the company or elsewhere. However, doing so can damage important relationships.

When you convey to others in the organization that you will quit if you don’t get the job soon, you are both lowering their assessment of the probability of future interaction with you and diminishing their perceived incentive to collaborate with you, both of which are key predictors of people being “prosocial” and collaborative. Although you may hope that your path to promotion will be a sprint, it may feel more like a marathon.

Focus on learning. Approach the interim role as a joint problem-solving exercise, one involving you, your boss, and others in the organization. If the organization offers you a leadership development program, a management course, or an opportunity to have a mentor or to work with an executive coach, think of it as a chance to enhance your skills, rather than a remedial exercise, and accept the invitation.

By taking a learning approach, being open to feedback, and demonstrating commitment to professional development and continuous improvement as a leader and manager, you can empower your supporters in the organization to more effectively advocate for your candidacy.

Align your authority and accountability. The inherent ambiguity in an interim role makes it likely that there will be gaps between your actual and perceived positional power and what you are expecting to accomplish or achieve. To overcome this lack of clarity, you can ask your boss or others in senior management or HR about their views of your accountability. Try to create clear alignment between your authority and that accountability. For example, if you are supervising others in the interim role and are accountable for their performance, it is essential that you have the authority to evaluate their performance. If your predecessor remains in their job while you are in the interim role, it is important to clearly delineate your respective accountabilities and levels of involvement, for example which meetings they will attend, which meetings you will attend, and which meetings you will attend together. Balance is important — you want to convey respect for your predecessor and include them when appropriate but not be so deferential that you are perceived as being unready to step up to the next level.

Managing the emotions and politics of an interim role while also doing the job can be difficult. Understanding your situational challenges and opportunities, remaining flexible and positive, and aligning your accountability with your authority can increase the odds that your interim role will take you where you want to go.

Source: Harvard Business Review

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