What makes an interim CEO stick?

Interim leadership is typically temporary. When an executive position is suddenly left vacant, an external —  or internal — professional might stand in during the search for a permanent replacement. 

But some health systems are looking at interim work from a different perspective. Handing the reins to an interim leader can serve as a trial run for a candidate the board is almost certain can handle the role. It also gives potentially permanent executives the opportunity to scope out a system's culture and circumstances before officially signing a contract. At Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Broward Health, this method recently helped secure a new hospital CEO. 

A trial run takes off at Broward Health North

Matthew Garner was interviewing for the COO role at Broward Health Medical Center when the CEO role opened up at Broward Health North in Lighthouse Point, Fla. 

People in the community knew and recognized Mr. Garner, Shane Strum, president and CEO of Broward Health, told Becker's. He had a powerful resume and a tremendous energy that aligned with the health system's culture. There were a handful of other candidates in the talent pool, but Mr. Garner stood out as someone who could effectively helm Broward Health North. 

Mr. Strum decided to meet with Mr. Garner one more time to see if he would be willing to take the CEO post — "temporarily" — instead of the COO role he initially interviewed for. 

"We thought it would be better to tap him as the interim and see," Mr. Strum said. "We were very open and transparent about the process with him. We sat with him and said, 'We think you have the skillset and the ability, but this is a much larger hospital — it's a level 2 trauma. We think you are the right person in this candidate pool to take over as CEO, but instead of designating you as CEO, we would make you the interim CEO.'"

That interim title was a sort of trial run for Mr. Garner, Mr. Strum said. The health system was confident in his abilities and considered the position "his to lose." 

"I always had the intention of taking on this role full-time," Mr. Garner told Becker's. "I thought that taking this on from the interim standpoint did give me the opportunity to kind of get in the weeds here, get an understanding of what was happening at the facility, and really prove to our corporate leadership that I was the right guy for the job." 

Easing in with the interim title also gave Mr. Garner a chance to build trust with his new team. He made sure to get in front of front-line staff — rounding consistently, working closely with physicians and drafting long-term strategies to address pain points. 

"I think they got a sense that I wasn't just going to be a fleeting leadership presence after my first month here, because I really never treated it like a passing gig. I always treated it as if it was going to be a permanent opportunity," Mr. Garner said. 

In November, Mr. Garner was named permanent CEO, nearly three months after he became the interim. His story demonstrates the benefits of an interim-to-permanent pipeline — and it could be a game-changer for the health system, Mr. Strum said. Mr. Garner's appointment was unconventional, but it allowed them to gauge his fit in person rather than on paper. 

"It's unique doing it this way, but I think this helped open our eyes," Mr. Strum said. "You can give people a trial run for not just CEO, but CFO, CMO, any position. When you identify a strong talent like Matt, you should give him all the opportunity and freedom to do his thing — and you probably don't need to look any further." 

An interim CEO 'runs it like she owns it': Until she does

"I really had no intentions of pursuing leadership, quite honestly," Tory Shepherd told Becker's

But the respiratory therapist had a knack for taking charge and quickly found herself moving through the ranks: from supervisor, to director, to assistant administrator, to COO. She found it challenging and rewarding to provide services at a higher level and delve into the inner workings of different departments. 

The time came to pursue other opportunities outside of Sovah Health — the LifePoint-owned system with hospitals in Danville and Martinsville, Va. — and there happened to be an interim CEO role available at Rutherford Regional Health System in Rutherfordton, N.C., also owned by LifePoint. 

This role was the logical next step in Ms. Shepherd's career, and she felt she could stay in the North Carolina location permanently. She reached out to her director about making a move, and three weeks later, she was helming the system as its interim CEO. 

"We did consider this a 'trial run' to have Ms. Shepherd as interim," Jackie Godlock, chair of the health system's board of trustees, told Becker's. "It was important for us as an organization and community to ensure that Ms. Shepherd was the right fit for the environment." 

Although her tenure at Rutherford Regional was not set in stone, Ms. Shepherd entered with a long-term mindset — a philosophy that paid off for the health system in the months to come. 

"The term interim sometimes implies that this is a short-term position," Ms. Shepherd said. "However, anytime you take any position in healthcare, it should never be considered short-term. You have to approach things as if you are here for the long run, and you want to add as much value as humanly possible while you're here." 

The board took note of her commitment, according to Kerry Giles, its vice chair. Her attention to the health system was demonstrated through participation in community events and meetings, and she integrated into the staff community with ease. Ms. Shepherd applied for the permanent position and was named to the role in November. 

"We interviewed two other candidates for this position," Ms. Giles said. "We chose Ms. Shepherd because we had witnessed her seamless interaction with staff, her ability to listen and be engaged simultaneously with staff, the Board, physicians and the community."

If she were to give interim CEOs a piece of advice, Ms. Shepherd said it would be to enter the facility with a listening ear and a sense of stake in the community, not with a temp-mindset. 

"You have to run it like you own it. Period," Ms. Shepherd said. "The title does not give you respect. That has to be earned."

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