Question: What advice do you have for an interim CEO?

Our past CEO has had to leave abruptly. The board is looking for a good replacement. I, as CFO, have been chosen as acting CEO to provide stability.

What recommendations do you have for me to be most effective in the coming weeks, or maybe months?

I have read Michael Watkins' "The First 90 Days". Are there any other resources you would recommend?

6 Expert Insights

Regardless of whether or not you desire to have the CEO position permanently, you have it now and, I gather, for how long you don't know.  To be effective for whatever period of time I believe you need to 'BE' the CEO rather than the CFO.  As has been pointed out both others who have responded, the requirements of being effective in these two positions are quite different.  Making the transition is a true call for "Break It Thinking".

My sincere suggestion is that you consider engaging a leadership coach who will assist you in making the transition and all that that means in relatively short order.  Reading, of course, will be of value.  The real challenge I find, is in implementing the changes that are really required and valuable to helping YOU be successful.  I believe you will be well advised to see yourself as a long-term substitute rather than one called into the 'classroom' for a brief few-day stint.  Who knows ... you may find you like it, you're good at it and you'd like to be the permanent CEO.  Good luck to you.

I agree with David. Being able to ask questions and not assume to know the answers is the right way to do things.

One suggestion, which is out of the box, but can reap quick results is uncover your Zone of Genius. My definition of the Zone of Genius is your innate talent plus your greatest passion. Knowing these two data points can transform your relationship with your career and your understanding of how to make a meaningful impact at your new role. It's all about uncovering what you do best and leveraging that immediately in your new position. Bringing to the table your top talent and passion inspires others to do the same and allows you to lead more authentically, by being yourself. In my work I have found that it can transform ones ability to make a positive impact on an organization. I also agree with the suggestions above in that asking the right questions and listening is a powerful tool for connecting with your team and understanding their challenges. I see epic leadership as having two equal parts. The first is knowing yourself and being strategic in how you can use your talent to deliver breakthrough results and the second part is being able to create the environment and the arena for your team and your employees to feel safe to communicate and thrive.

A great book to read is my friend David Kidders's: The start-up playbook - he interviews 40+ successful CEO's about what  allowed them to build successful companies and shares his insights

Another is Top Dog: The science of winning and losing - Insightful book about the neurology behind thriving and tons of valuable insight  about competition. Loving it.

Excited for you, what a great opportunity!


My advice would depend on whether you are a candidate for the “permanent” CEO position & whether your goal is to increase your odds of getting that position or to return to your CFO position. The First Ninety Day's is an excellent book, but you may want to avoid spending time on long term strategy unless you are the likely choice for the CEO position. The interim title does not permit making as dramatic a change as you might if you were the CEO. Also, you are now the interim boss to colleagues who may become your peers again so you don’t want to destroy any bridges.

If the Board is looking outside, it probably means they are uncertain about your ability to demonstrate some of the skills or behaviors required of a CEO that are not required of a CFO. I would recommend building even stronger relationships with the Board, learning the key skills or experiences they are looking for in a CEO and then demonstrate or acquire them.

It all depends whether you are in a caretaker role or are being looked at as a potential CEO.

Another resource - an article in the Harvard Business Review titled - How Not to Lose the Top Job - by my friend & business partner Marshall Goldsmith.

1. What's your mission and purpose for this interim position
2. Why did they pick you? CFO generally look internally. CEO generally look outwardly. Big change in focus.

For my clients who've taken interim executive positions a little outside their area of expertise, quickly whether they want it or not becomes apparent.  But typically regardless of the answer, they want to do a good, if not great,  job.

CEO's have different groups of stakeholders - many of them external to the company, e.g. shareholders, investors, analysts, market makers - and they are great at spotting exceptions (pos or neg).  I had a client dive into those groups and find they really enjoyed it and others that ran running back to operations, marketing, or finance asap.

Suggest you approach it like social anthropologist - dive into the role for a while, build your coalition of support & informants(!), try to get some quick top or bottom-line wins - perhaps based on your previous expertise - and try to find something new, outside your comfort zone (perhaps the entire experience is, so it'll be easy!) to partner on where you can develop a track record in strategy or with the analysts or market watchers.  

That way you'll have developed something and gained some track record whether you decide to remain or to move on.  Then you can truly say, it was a most valuable experience.