Interim leaders should lead differently from permanent leaders. And leaders in different interim situations should lead differently from one another. Some interim leaders may become the permanent leaders themselves. Others, like Valeant’s Mike Pearson, know they are just holding the fort until the cavalry arrives. Ideally people in these situations should manage in a way that sets their successors up for success.


Nature Of The Interim Role

The first question any interim leader should have goes to the nature of the job. Figure out if interim means “on probation with a good chance of becoming permanent,” or “doing the job as a developmental opportunity on the way to something else,” or “holding the fort until we find the right person, which absolutely will not be you,”

In any case, you’re likely better off engaging fully with the work itself while eschewing the perks of the job – basically, focusing your efforts on the least prestigious, highest impact tasks and leaving the glory to others.


On Probation

One interim leader whom we’ll call Patty to mask her identity had delivered in every job she’d had at the firm for 15 years. When her boss was moved to head a different division, senior management asked her step in as interim division president while they did a thorough internal and external search for the new president.

Patty kept doing exactly what she’d been doing. She finished the year’s strategic planning and got senior management excited about her plans. She kept managing operations – and delivering her numbers. She kept moving ahead with the organizational evolution she and her previous boss had put in place, inspiring and enabling all.

In the end, senior management would have looked silly picking anyone but her for the role.

If you’re on probation, do the job so well that it would be silly not to have you continue.


Developmental Opportunity

If you’re in an interim role as a developmental opportunity you should focus more on learning than on delivering. You may think the job is beneath you or not what you really want to be doing. You may be tempted to give the work something short of your best.

Don’t do that.

Treat developmental roles seriously. While there’s relatively little upside to over-delivering, there is a potentially devastating downside to under-delivery. You’re there because someone thinks you can do more. Reinforce the point.


Holding The Fort

When holding the fort for someone else, focus on operational and organizational processes over strategic processes. The basic idea is to keep things moving forward in line with existing plans, delivering with excellence and continuing to evolve the organization in line with the strategy. Leave any strategic re-think to the incoming permanent leader.

On the one hand, this seems to be how Pearson should spend his remaining time at Valeant. It’s a waste of time for him to rethink the strategy as that will be the purview of Ackerman, the board, and the new CEO. Theoretically, he should just keep operations humming and the organization moving forward.


Turn Around

Unfortunately, business as usual for Valeant will put them out of business before they can blink. We’ve been to this movie before with other organizations that lose the confidence of their financial backers. The issue is not so much the stock price as the credit rating. Credit is the oxygen of commerce. As it goes, so goes degrees of freedom and flexibility.

This is why Valeant really needs an interim turn around manager to make the tough choices to streamline the organization and operations and stop the bleeding to enable the organization to live within its means in the context of reduced credit.

If Pearson can do that, great. If not, Valeant’s board should drop in a different interim turn around manager who can. In any case, Valeant needs to have some contingency plans in place so they can be ready to change direction on a dime if the organization is to survive.