Project Management Institute

Temporary Influence

Create an Impact as an Interim Manager by Treating Your Role as a Project

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By Philipp Masefield, PMP

Earlier this year, I took a four-month temporary role on a leadership team to cover for an extended sick leave. I had to start the job without a handover, as the executive who had held the position for more than a decade already had been off for a while.

Often when starting a new role, managers spend the first 100 days getting their take on the situation and coming up with a plan. That won't work for a temporary management assignment. Rather than attempting to take the same approach and just compressing it to the time available, I suggest anyone in this situation focus on five key behaviors to guide them through this new role.

1. APPROACH THE ROLE LIKE A PROJECT

My project management background was excellent preparation for an interim manager role, since I was accustomed to accomplishing defined objectives within defined time frames. Within the first few weeks of the job, I realized that some parts of the organization had expected more of a caretaker—someone who would just maintain the status quo before handing the job back to the owner—than a project manager. However, I believe that my project manager approach led to lasting, positive changes for the organization in ways that a caretaker could not have achieved.

2. LEARN AND UNDERSTAND

To manage the project that is your new role, you need to begin with a good assessment of the relevant context, stakeholders and situation. In many cases this might seem overwhelming at first because there's so much information—some of it contradictory—coming at you at once.

For example, on my first day I had hundreds of emails and meeting invites. Before tackling them, I developed a hypothesis of what my major areas of responsibility and key objectives were. Then I spent the first week meeting people, asking questions and listening. I also talked with a broad range of people from other teams.

3. CLARIFY EXPECTATIONS

Your new boss, direct reports and other key stakeholders will have expectations of what you should do and achieve. Clarifying those expectations early on in a new role is always a good practice, but in a temporary role, it is even more critical, since there might not be time for any course corrections.

So in my second week on the job, based on the continually improving accuracy of the hypothesis of my role, I drafted a kind of job description consisting of my areas of responsibility and objectives to achieve. Then I sought my boss's reaction to my draft. His adjustments clarified expectations and served as a solid basis to discuss with my direct reports. This allowed me to receive more nuanced inputs on their expectations, and for me to provide transparency into what they could expect me to do and focus on.

4. COMMUNICATE WELL

Any new leader wants to set the correct tone right away, but when starting an interim management role, there is a sensitive balance to strike: On the one hand you need to show humility, especially when stepping in for a well-respected and experienced manager. On the other hand, if you intend to drive change, you will need to start preparing people for it.

I tried to achieve this balance with a welcome email that acknowledged I had big shoes to fill and wishing the incumbent a quick recovery. I emphasized that it would be a tough learning journey for me and that I would need everyone's support. I also mentioned that there would be changes, some of which would be unintended due to my lack of knowledge and experience, and some of which would be intended. In either case, I explained, I hoped people would ask about and challenge me on any changes that surprised them.

In weeks three and four, I laid out specific ideas for my intended changes with stakeholders in order to gain their input and to confirm that the changes would be achievable in the time available.

Now quite confident of my hypothesis, I started engaging the key players needed to achieve the intended impact. Here again, my project management experience was a benefit. Stakeholders also included the people most affected by the decisions, so I started to talk to each of the potential winners and losers to outline the intentions, show them their options and seek their inputs.

5. ALIGN YOUR ACTIONS WITH YOUR COMMUNICATIONS

No matter how important and well-crafted the communications are, actions will need to follow them. And as an interim manager, the time to make an impact is clearly limited.

So I spent weeks five and six making the changes we had agreed on. I used the following few weeks to observe and lightly coach people on key roles in the new setup, while vigilantly watching for signals that the change was in danger of not lasting.

These five behaviors can be useful in many situations, but they are particularly well-suited for a temporary management role. Successfully demonstrating these behaviors allowed me to thrive in a role that I would not necessarily have seen as a next step in my career—but which it now has become. PM

img Philipp Masefield, PMP, is head of IT for life and savings at AXA, Zurich, Switzerland.

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