Welcome to the club, Dr. Anne Klibanski.
She’s the interim chief executive of Partners HealthCare, and a new member of what can feel like a ubiquitous motley crew of temporary leaders bouncing around Boston. There’s Laura Perille, interim superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, Kathy Newman, interim chancellor at University of Massachusetts Boston, and John Pranckevicius, who is holding down the fort as acting chief executive of the Massachusetts Port Authority. And before them, there was Steve Poftak who served as interim general manager of the MBTA, and Marisa Kelly, who was the acting president of Suffolk University. Poftak and Kelly ended up getting the jobs permanently.
Interim leadership is a topic near and dear to me: That’s what I did for the past nine months, putting my business column on hiatus to fill in as editorial page editor. (I returned to the newsroom full time last week.)
During my time on the Opinion side, I learned a thing or two about being an interim that might be useful to Dr. Klibanski. For good measure, I reached out to current and former members of the “club” to impart some advice to her. After all, she could be in the job for up to a year — that’s how long Partners expects a search for a permanent chief executive could take.
One key rule applies to being in charge of anything on an interim basis: Don’t be a caretaker. Get things done. It doesn’t matter if you’re there for two days or two years. Seat warming this is not.
At Suffolk, Kelly was the provost before being tapped as acting president in 2016 after the ouster of Margaret McKenna. Kelly wasn’t sure how long she was going to be in her new role. How could she? Kelly was Suffolk’s sixth leader since 2010, including two interims. The school might as well have installed a revolving door in the president’s office.
But the uncertainty didn’t stop Kelly from immediately forging ahead on a two-year extension of the school’s strategic plan.
“Standing still and just putting me in place because you needed a figurehead was not going to be the road to success,” she told me.
About a year in, Kelly realized she wanted to stay. She was named the permanent president in March 2018 after 20 months in the acting role.
“I got to the point where I had a hard time imagining being president anywhere else,” she said.
Even if she had not become president, Kelly said, she relished the experience.
“Being interim is about saying yes to an unexpected opportunity,” she said. “More good comes from that more often than not.”
At Partners, Dr. Klibanski must bring peace and stability to an organization at a crossroads. She had been the company’s chief academic officer before becoming the interim chief executive at the end of April after the sudden retirement of Dr. David Torchiana. Under Torchiana and his predecessor Gary Gottlieb, the state’s biggest hospital system kept trying to get even bigger through ambitious acquisitions and mergers. It got rebuffed, repeatedly. Partners continued its retreat last week when it called off a two-year quest to acquire Rhode Island’s Care New England Health System.
It’s still unclear if Dr. Klibanski will put her hat in the ring for the permanent job. Regardless, said Partners board chairman Scott Sperling, she’s got her marching orders.
“The Partners board has sent a clear message that Partners needs to work more closely together as a truly integrated system,” Sperling said in a statement. “Dr. Klibanski is very focused on the task of implementing that vision and has spent much of the past few months working to achieve it.”
Interims often are greeted with lengthy to-do lists, usually because someone has left the job without completing — or even starting — important projects. Sometimes they have to make tough decisions that their predecessor might have put off.
But because they’re short-timers, interim leaders can feel empowered to make difficult choices without worrying about political blowback. At BPS, for instance, Perille has had to deal with closing school buildings that are no longer needed. Shutting the doors of a school is not exactly the way to win a popularity contest. But since Perille declared early on in her tenure that she would not be a candidate for the permanent job, she has been able to act in the best interest of the school system — without worrying about the personal repercussions, or pressure from special interest groups. (The School Committee recently selected Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, who will take over as superintendent on July 1.)
A growing number of companies and organizations are opting for interim executives — so much so that search firms have practices dedicated to finding temporary leaders. In fact, that’s all some of them do.
Robert Jordan has been running such a business with a roster of executives ready to parachute in. The average stint is about a year. The secret to an interim’s success? “It’s not your resume. You are not being hired,” said Jordan, the chief executive of InterimExecs, a Chicago company that is a matchmaker for interim executives. The biggest qualification, he added, is this: “Can you solve somebody’s problem?”
Closer to home, Bryan Carlson is the president of The Registry, a Peabody firm that specializes in placing interim executives in higher education. He has a database of 900 executives, including 279 former college presidents. “In our case, I would say nine out of 10 placements are what you would call strategic placements,” said Carlson. “We need some challenging things to be accomplished beyond the job description itself.”
No matter how long your interim status lasts, one thing’s for sure: It will be an experience that offers lessons that will carry you throughout your career.